Short Film Review: Turning Point.
Director Joe Penna’s short zombie apocalypse flick showcases much of the style found in his feature debut, Arctic.
When an unknown director startles me with his film, I always want to dig into their body of work. Whether its Alfonso Cuarón’s first film-school short, or Denis Villeneuve’s macabre short made just before his star really rose to prominence, it’s fascinating to see a director’s style develop. The same is true of Joe Penna, who got his start in video as MysteryGuitarMan on YouTube, making music videos and short films.
Turning Point is a Contagion/28 Days Later style film, situated firmly in the zombie outbreak genre. Much like his excellent first feature, Arctic, Turning Point doesn’t try to reinvent the genre, but instead to use it as a backdrop for exploring the psychological effect of extreme situations on average people. Also like Arctic, the film makes deft use of cinematography to explore the interior life of its focus, and has a high degree of polish when it comes to style.
Turning Point (2015).
Victoria awakens in an abandoned house, her hazmat suit in shambles. She quickly works to repair it and administer an antidote, but some of the cure escapes out a hole she missed. Frantically, she radios in to her home base, reporting her situation. Her handler, Paul, tries to reassure her that help is on the way, but as the effects of the contagion set in, her hopes of retrieval shrink.
The End of the World as We Know It.
Joe Penna minimalist story telling works perfectly in the genres he chooses. You don’t need much more backstory for your man-versus-nature film than to show a downed plane surrounded by snow. You don’t need much more backstory for your zombie/outbreak film than to show a person in a hazmat suit in a wrecked building. We’re thoroughly familiar with that setting, so much of the narrative groundwork has been done already.
The omission of certain details allows the film flexibility. We strongly surmise that this is a zombie outbreak style story…but certain other possibilities are teased. The initial signs of the infection share similarities with radiation poisoning, or with an Ebola-esque disease. It helps to flesh out the world with possibilities other than just waiting for a zeke to come groaning through the door.
Penna does some interesting things with his camera in Turning Point, some of which feel like a new director flexing his muscles and much of which show a deep understanding of cinematic convention. Early on we get some jump cuts that are a tad jarring, until Penna pays them off with repetition. As soon as the first one occurred, I thought that we’d better see at least three of these or it’s a goof. Sure enough, three of them jump right out of the magician’s hat. It lays the groundwork for later sequences where the jump cuts are so compressed we have multiple Victoria’s on screen at once, highlighting her fracturing psyché.
The zombie genre tends to pride itself on practical effects. George A. Romero has indelibly marked the genre through his low-budget wizardry and keen eye for practical effects. The make-up work in Turning Point is well done, making Victoria’s deterioration ghastly and beautiful. Like the story telling, less is more, and the professional use of effects and props helps to put the focus squarely where it belongs – on Victoria.
Jade Harlow has a bit of heavy lifting to do as Victoria, and at first I was hesitant. The first few scenes rush us through her emotional spectrum, with the result feeling like melodrama. As the truth of the situation settles in, Harlow really sinks into the character’s mindset, giving us some fantastic work. By the end of the film, we’re so located in Victoria’s experience that the line between what is real and what is her delirium is blurred.
Turning Point is another example of Joe Penna taking a well-worn genre and really digging into its guts. It may not set the genre on fire, but it is certainly a very solid addition to it. It takes much of the emotional heft largely glossed over in zombie outbreak films and stops to really explore it. It reminded me of the scene near the end of 28 Days Later where Cillian Murphy’s character is put to an impossible choice, expanded into 15 minutes. I look forward to delving deeper into Penna’s work, as he has several other intriguing sci-fi shorts on his resumé.