Color, 2018, 98 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by Mark Savage
Starring Gary Cairns, Luke Albright, Trista Robinson, Sylvia Grace Crim, Manon Pages, Douglas Cunningham
Unearthed Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The Catholic Church and horror have gone hand in hand for a long time thanks to directors like Pete Walker, William Friedkin, and Ken Russell, and now here comes Purgatory Road, a new wrinkle set in the Deep South. Writer-director Mark Savage's follow-up film to the darkly comic Stressed to Kill is a far more grim look at modern frustration and delusion in America.
When he's threatened at knifepoint and fails to stop a woman from burgling the family home, young Vincent blames himself for the financial ruin of his porn novelist father. Three weeks later, he and brother Michael witness their dad firing a bullet into his mouth, sending Vincent on a lifelong spiral into religious mania. Ejected from the church years later after becoming a man of the cloth, Vincent (Cairns) has set up a confessional on wheels that he takes around the South with Michael (Albright) helping him recruit parishioners for donations. Unfortunately Vincent also gets triggered by anyone who confesses to theft and believes he can save their souls by murdering them. Things get more complicated with the arrival of Mary-Francis (Robinson), a peppy serial killer who decides to join their mission and soon locks horns with Michael -- who decides he wants to get a life of his own after falling for local Ruby (Crim). The stage is set for bloodshed and tragedy, but there are still more dark secrets left to be revealed that will test the brothers' bond more than ever.
The central idea of a mobile confessional that doubles as a murder trap is a terrific one that feels like a cross between Sweeney Todd and The Confessional, and thankfully this film follows the possibilities through to their logically grim conclusion with a climax that pulls out all the stops including a genuinely shocking throat-slashing effect. The film doesn't skimp on the blood elsewhere either, but there's a lot more going on here than simple violence and religious mania. The relationship between the brothers is an interesting one that's handled in a few ways you might not expect, and the two leads do a solid job of keeping a firm grasp on their characters. However, it's Robinson who may be the film's secret MVP as a psychotic, smiling manipulator whose motives dovetail perversely with Vincent's, and the atmospheric Mississippi locations also give the film a welcome Southern Gothic vibe that would make Flannery O'Connor proud. Some of the supporting actors aren't quite up to snuff with their line deliveries (especially in the opening sequence), but that's easily overlooked considering how much the film gets right.
After a handful of theatrical screenings, Unearthed Films brought the film to Blu-ray and DVD in early 2019 with a presentation as sleek and crisp as you'd expect for a film of this recent vintage. The occasional effective splashes of stylized colorful lighting look especially impressive, and the frequent darker scenes register strongly throughout. Contrary to the Dolby Digital spec on the packaging, audio is actually LPCM 2.0 stereo and sounds great. (It's worth noting that the score by Glen Gabriel is excellent and available separately as a CD release.) An audio commentary with Savage and co-writer/actor Tom Parnell moves along at a speedy clip as they alternate between analysis of the characters and plot (including some major elements added or changed along the way as well as the recasting of one central role after a days' shooting) and production anecdotes like a local actually wanting to do confession for real in the van. "The Grisly Art of Marcus Koch and Cat Bernier Sowell" (5m21s) takes a squishy look at the film's practical gore effects with a gallery of very bloody photos, while "The Actors Speak" (29m15s) compiles interview footage with Cairns, Albright, and Robinson about their prior work with each other, the approach to their roles, Cairns' personal traumatized state at the time that helped his portrayal, and the influence of the Mississippi locales. "Tom Parnell: Beyond the Day Job" (8m31s) takes a different angle from his commentary as he explains how his artistic side flourished outside of his regular gig as a lawyer, with both writing and acting coming naturally through his collaborations with Savage over the years. Finally a screening Q&A (20m19s) with Savage and Cairns chatting about the casting process (all local outside of the leads) and the approach to making horror films, with many of the other participants joining them up on the stage halfway through. Trailers are also included for this film, Brutal, Darkside of the Moon, and The Song of Solomon.
Reviewed on March 9, 2019.