Director: Mark Savage
Writers: Tom Parnell, Mark Savage
Stars: Gary Cairns, Luke Albright, Trista Robinson
1 HOUR 38 MINUTES
REVIEW BY JEREMIAH ROSARIO
Mark Savage indeed. Purgatory Road is a jaded, scathing commentary on religious piety, one framed in unflinching violence, angst, and the cyclic nature of abuse. It also happens to have a heart, buried somewhere under the pile of severed limbs. Something of a road trip film too, given the literal vehicle for the film's darkest moments is a church on wheels, making it a unique kind of horror film:
Helpless to stop a thief from stealing his father’s modest nest egg, Travis grows up blaming himself for his parents’ suicide. Becoming a priest who operates a highway confessional with his ambivalent brother, Michael, he offers sage advice to chosen sinners while raining death on unrepentant thieves. Into the world of this antagonistic duo comes Mary Francis, a deranged young woman with psychopathic tendencies who kills a thief who threatens to expose the decidedly un-holy siblings. Filled with gratitude, Travis invites the woman into their sacred world which begins a chain of carnage-laced events that threaten to destroy the brothers’ bloody, decades-long partnership.
Savage, and writer Tom Parnell, deliver a story that's bonkers enough to buckle under the weight of its own ridiculous premise and yet—despite its problems—somehow manages to remain erect and mostly effective. This without a doubt, attributed to the film's conviction, something that becomes most evident in the performances. Which again, given the absurd nature of the material, is quite the accomplishment.
Not to say that I didn't have problems with some of the acting (wooden delivery here and there, odd character interactions), but for the most part, Gary Cairns, Luke Albright, and Trista Robinson play their roles with earnestness. And this is me taking the film at face value (which makes it an even harder sell), but I eventually bought into the tenuous relationships and motivations which made up the insanity that is Purgatory Road. The cast ultimately made a believer out of me; so kudos.
But perhaps there's an element of dark humor which escaped me initially. After all, despite the fact that the death-booth-on-wheels itself is dressed up to look as ominous as humanly possible (all that's missing among the scribbled crayon markings of Christian iconography and bumper sticker quotes is a literal sign that says "serial killers inside") business is a boomin'. Like lambs to the slaughter; you couldn't ask for better victims. I suppose then that this ties back to the commentary aspect of the film, working like a metaphor for religion itself (and more the Catholic Church than anything). Blind faith, the search for redemption, a self appointed obligation to absolve others and herd the sheep—and of course, the temptation to abuse it. Ultimately, Purgatory Road works better for me when taken more as an allegory
Speaking of abuse, I do have a gripe with how women are handled within the narrative here. Mainly serving as catalyst for male character growth, and usually through violent means. Though I get that often times, women are caught in the whirlwind of patriarchy and male insecurity with disastrous results, but...we've seen this cliche a million times at this point. Would have been cool to see them used as foils without being put through a gauntlet of torment; flip the script a bit. Maybe next time.
As it all stands, Purgatory Road is a competent horror, one that often times betrays its low budget (I'd be remiss to not mention how wonderfully shot it is). You can tell there was a real mission (heh) to deliver something that's both thought provoking and basely satisfying. And funny enough, for a film that likes to bark hard at religious fervor, it—ironically—ends up being the very thing which allows it all to work.
It's available now (on Blu-ray and DVD), from Unearthed Films.