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Purgatory House
cast: Celeste Marie Davis, Jim Hanks, Devin Witt, Johnny Pacar, and Howard Lockie

director: Cindy Baer

96 minutes (R) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Image NTSC DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
It is unnecessary to come down hard on this film. I will confess an initial aversion to Purgatory House on the basis of a suspicion that I had been misled into watching and reviewing a film funded by silent partner evangelists, spreading a message of get in with the theological programme or scream for an eternity as your skin is whittled from your body and the flesh scattered with salt, or sit and watch as your intestines are emptied into a bowl and noshed on by rats.

Scour the supplementary material as one might and the clues to this aren't there, though it is true the film sprang out of a goodwill organisation that means to make life more pertinent for kids whose lot might not be what it should be in an America that is turning a blind eye to an imploding teenage population. Youngsters are the same the world over though, and Celeste Marie Davis' disenfranchisement and rebellion is hardly unusual. She is a sulky kid contemplating an early release from life, and getting in the sex, drugs and moaning while she can. She does have a good handle on transcribing her thoughts and the current idiom into script form and this release makes much of the fact that the star of the film is also the scriptwriter and wrote it at the age of 14.

The 'big brothers, big sisters' programme introduces young adult mentors to problem kids and Cindy Baer became older sister to Celeste when she was 11. The creative kid had a screaming diary of her own and was invited to get more of it out of her system for a film project, initially to have been a short subject. The script returned was 52 pages long and Cindy, rather than reduce and lose any of it, suggested they build it up into a feature film. The headier problems of producing a full-length would have to be addressed as they came.

In Purgatory House the hassles of pubescence are woven into a religious fantasy, the halfway house for teenage suicides overseen by an omniscient St James (one of several roles in the film taken by Jim Hanks, brother of Tom). Silver Strand (Celeste Marie Davis) is one of the suicide teens, condemned to a forever of the personal hell she had intended on leaving behind. Her wardrobe is identical to that she died in, the lipstick when worn down to be replaced with one of the identical colour, gruel on the menu and the school tutor programme she was so vehemently set against and avoided becomes the only daily activity here. She is also forced to watch those left behind on Earth TV as they cope with the aftermath of her demise or simply get on with their lives. The film flashes back to the run-up to the suicide, two months and counting. Celeste is not an actress and, though her insouciance is winning and her delivery good she fails to convey the frame of mind that would lead to her filling her belly with tablets. It is not necessarily in keeping with the confused American teenager, more likely to believe in the existence of heaven than life after high school. Silver finally pegs out on her boyfriends shoulder to a terrible cover version of Kids In America (which would otherwise have been a nice touch) and is rejected in a rigged game show outside the Pearly Gates by God, Hanks again, this time in flowery drag.

There has been enormous effort made by the first time director, Cindy Baer to complete the film, who had originally planned to farm the chieftain duties out to someone more experienced. Cindy brings together essential crew and it has paid off to some extent. The 14-year-old has imagined up some great details and the dialogue is fresh and real, but the overall concept is horrible and the budget betrays the production, purgatory house a screamingly cheap construct. Post-production called on the services of a number of minor special effects houses, the most effective of which is the work completed by Crew Of Two. The soundtrack is flavoursome and big favour heavy with tunes from Natalie Merchant and the Violent Femmes. Tracks are cleverly applied by theme, with good use of tracks like (Don't Fear) The Reaper and Magic Carpet Ride (again, the latter, a cover). I can't possibly leave the soundtrack without mentioning one band on the grounds of its name alone... Wood Shampoo! Say no more. The film was shot on a Canon XL15 and edited on a Mackintosh using Final Cut Pro 3. Much is made of the DV camera quality but it does not transfer very well to the finished production as every shot is run through an effects process that de-clarifies the image or soups it up. Either way if removes or picks up something it shouldn't.

Genuine footage from news broadcasts from high school shootings is dropped in unpalatably. Jim Hanks is personable, not prone to his brother's Himalayan peaks of affectedness. I'd like to see more of Jim, preferably in all the films his brother has already made, replacing the glossy-eyed gonk himself. Celeste has one of those voices that sounds like a mouse on amphetamines (like that irritating girl detective in CSI: Miami who rattles off complex information without any apparent consideration, tripping technical gobbledygook out of her sliver of an aperture of a noise hole, soulless monstrosity that she is... forgive me my minor digression, brrrr! that I had to think of her).

DVD extras include a 17-minute film about the L.A. premiere, a Larisa Stow promo video of a song specially recorded for the film, two deleted scenes, a handwritten message from Silver, trailers and two 'making-of' shorts running 31 minutes (production) and 18 minutes (post-production) respectively. Directed by Ted Oaks, the two making-of featurettes were likely conceived as one and the credits for other supplementary material are banged onto the end of the latter of them. They are interesting additions, with two points of particular note. In the spirit of Ed Wood (brought to mind because of the plane cockpit in Plan 9 From Outer Space) the production ran out of time and a location for a bathroom scene and a crew member came up with a scrimp of an answer: film her in close-up looking into the camera with a shower curtain taking up the entirety of the background while she rinses her face from a bucket of water out of shot underneath the frame. The second. The shooting schedule began 18 August and ran until 9 September 2001. The documentary makes no mention of what occurred two days later, though one of the actors Johnny Pacar (who played Silver's junkie boyfriend, Sam) would later appear in Flight 29 Down. The apparent initial success of the film is soured by the fact that the film is only now getting a theatrical release in the United States.
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