An inventive and fast-paced ride that entertains, despite an unconvincing love story at the centre
“You ever see that movie Thelma and Louise?” Frank asks Penelope the night they meet.
“There’s a road they drive down at the end. I’d like to drive down that road.”
“Is that road pretty?” asks Penelope.
If you too saw the nineties classic, you’ll know- it’s not. And neither is the road they drive down in Frank & Penelope, the action-horror exploitation and road trip romance mashup from director Sean Patrick Flanery.
Flanery’s debut feature, Frank and Penelope, stars Entourage’s Kevin Dillon alongside a cast of mostly fresh faces including Billy Budinich (Frank), Caylee Cowan (Penelope) and Sydney Scotia (Molly). The story kicks off with Frank, freshly heartbroken and at a loose end after catching his wife cheating, stumbling into a skeezy sex club where Penelope is performing. The beautiful young stripper immediately steals Frank’s heart- and his credit cards- before the sting goes off course and she finds herself riding shotgun on the run with the handsome stranger.
With a seventies-grindhouse aesthetic and plot points borrowed from old school slashers, Frank and Penelope is an eclectic mix of influences and genres. Above all, it pays homage to classic road movies. But with hokey dialogue and a series of inexplicably bad decisions (why stay the night in the creepy ghost town the County Sherriff just warned them about?) the duo are more Dumb and Dumber than Bonnie and Clyde.
After speeding past the city limits and onto the wide-open highway surrounded by Texan desert, Frank and Penelope begin to relax and get to talking; the way you do on a long car ride with hours to kill. The conversation is not exactly sparkling (for two conventionally attractive people without many clothes, Frank and Penelope have a serious lack of chemistry) which makes Penelope’s sudden attraction to Frank over the next few scenes hard to swallow. It’s not helped by particular poor writing that sees Penelope declaring supposedly genuine feelings toward Frank in the same, overwrought terms she had just used to seduce and rob him.
Neither particularly likeable characters on their own, the combination of Frank’s meat- headed romantic with “stripper with a heart of gold” Penelope is so cloying that the introduction of murderous cannibals comes as a relief.
Think The Hills Have Eyes with a bible thumping twist, the residents of dust swept highway county “Quicksilver” share an interesting history with that of Terlingua; a real Texan town and the film’s actual location. Like the fictional Quicksilver, Terlingua was one a booming industrial hub home to America’s biggest mercury mine. But following the industry’s steep downturn over the nineteen-thirties and forties, the mine went bankrupt and the town was all but abandoned, today considered an official ghost town.
It’s a terrific setting for the film’s much improved second act, and Flanery makes the most of it with wide angle shots that instantly capturing the strange, unsettling, beauty of the desert’s fading sunset, burning low before the town’s few dilapidated buildings melt ominously into the growing dark. “Get in and get outta there,” before “them crazy Appalachians” show up, County Sherriff Caulfield (Kevin Dillion) bluntly tells Frank and Penelope as they approach the forty-mile stretch of land with no cell reception. Instead, the duo immediately stop and check in for a nights’ stay at the spooky guesthouse smack bang in the middle and which is owned by the “crazy Appalachians.” What could go wrong?
What happens next is a rapid acceleration into schlocky, blood-soaked, pedal to the floor carnage that’s completely tasteless, doesn’t always make sense, and is far and away the best part of the movie.
As they take centre stage, Johnathon Schaech and Donna D’Errico are equally great as Chisos and Mabel i.e., the murderous clan’s unofficial patriarch and matriarch, both embodying the villainous roles with enough intelligence to be truly threatening. (In a particularly memorable scene which sees Frank and Penelope naively join the pair for a guesthouse family dinner, Chisos details his sin-eating practice with such quiet charm it sounds horrifyingly reasonable.) And while his screen time is brief, Keven Dillon is another of the film’s highlights, his hilariously convincing Deep South Daddy bravado amplifying the impact of Caulfield’s shock character arc.
All in all, there’s a lot to like about this inventive action-horror. The problem is, Frank and Penelope’s cracks begin to show whenever the action stops. Flanery’s attempts at slow-burn suspense are not always effective, while the longer the film takes to progress, the more time viewers have to think. This is not necessarily a good thing for a film that deep down is no smarter than a b-grade blockbuster.
For instance, I’m still struggling to make sense of the film’s somewhat icky sexual politics, which are far too obvious and on the nose to ignore. As well as some fairly graphic depictions of violence toward women in the film, much of Frank and Penelope’s tension is wrung from an ever-present threat of rape. While not exactly new territory for the horror genre, Frank and Penelope’s hammy, almost playful approach to the subject may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some viewers. And what, in this context, are we supposed to make of Penelope flirtatiously telling a handsy Frank “Don’t ask first,” or her mantra that “If a man don’t fly into a rage he isn’t in love.”
I believe (at least I hope) these were attempts at irony or had some alternate, subversive meaning. But it seems clear there was not enough thought put in, and the film fails to follow through.
Frank and Penelope is the type of movie viewers will either love or hate. In fact, it’s such a cocktail of genres and tones that it’s possible to switch between the two on a scene-by-scene basis. But despite its stylish aesthetics, game cast, and wild ride of a plot, the film is ultimately let down by poor writing that will grate on even its biggest fans.
Verdict - 6.5/10