It can be hard to tell where the real horror lies these days. In the old days it was obvious; horror lay in ghosts and vampires, monsters and demonic possessions, killer clowns and men in masks with big, stabby knives. But now, so much of the horror coming into our lives through the screens in our homes is being let in not by the occult and the Devil, but rather through the news that we watch day in, day out.
Horror writers and directors have always had one eye on social trends in the real world to find their inspiration, from Frankenstein to Carrie to Videodrome, but more recently we have seen a measured shift towards the use of showing modern culture to explore where the demons of society are rearing their ugly heads. Most notably, Jordan Peele has used the theme of the racial divide to fuel his horror in Get Out and Us, whilst others have used a variety of modern menaces such as sexual promiscuity and rape culture in It Follows and Teeth, to the ubiquitous phenomenon of cameras in every home in Cam and the newly released Host, to the emergence of existential peer pressure to constantly measure our likeability in Spree and Black Mirror. In The Purgamentum, that focus has shifted to highlight the horrors of pollution and how we are treating our seas and inland waterways.
Amy (Bruns) is a marine biologist who is having trouble with her underwater microphone. It’s started producing a really eerie sound, almost like whispering voices, and she needs a diver to go in and check it out. Cue Stan (Major), the plucky, personable, man for the job who doesn’t see danger lurking in any corner and who will face any situation, even diving into cold, dark water, with a glib attitude and a cheeky smile. Of course Stan doesn’t know it, but he’s pure horror fodder.
The interaction between the two leads in natural and engaging. There’s enough teasing in the script to nod towards ghosts that Amy is carrying around with her, and her defensive, hesitant nature is brilliantly offset by Stan’s calm, seen-it-all-before way of being. The soundscaping of the microphone noise and other background effects manages to create a seriously unsettling atmosphere and along with the lighting and camerawork all serve to put us right on the edge of our seats. And this is all before we even get into the water.
Despite its short running time, The Purgamentum manages to pack in tension right the way through. From false alarms to scary noises and pant-filling visuals to the horrifying denouement, the directors have pulled out all the stops to keep you hiding behind the cushions. The unique theme offers an interesting twist on the genre and keeps you guessing as to where the scares are coming from. What’s lurking within the depths of this murky, moody mystery is a solid horror film with a strong social conscience.