2012 Film Challenge #40 - Purgatory

I've always been able to tell when a film may have been made for a more “limited” audience than that afforded by a cinematic release, but it's only recently that I've been able to pinpoint the various tropes to look out for when you suspect you might be watching a Made-For-TV-Movie.

You know you're watching a Made-For-TV-Movie (MFTVM) when:

1. The music consists of little other than washes of strings, synthesised or not.
2. A lot of screentime is given to showing how characters get from one place to another – be it extended driving shots or long takes of people taking it in turns to climb or descend a ladder.
3. Footsteps are always somehow more pronounced in MFTVMs than they are in more “polished” releases. Especially when characters are walking on wooden or stone surfaces, you'll follow their every step because you'll hear their every step.
4. Rudimentary direction:With only one or two cameras at their disposal, you'll see a lot of panning and static mid to long shots.
5. Smoke and mirrors – with a smaller SFX budget, theatrical fog will never, never die.

All of the above can be spotted in Purgatory. But when you're watching The Horror Channel on a quiet Sunday morning, what more do you expect?

In Purgatory, a group of bandits in the old west hole-up in a quiet little town called Refuge. These bandits are a bunch of complete bastards, but one of them – Sonny – is only there for the ride. He's the good egg of the bunch, and he spends a lot of the first half of the film apologising to the residents of Refuge for the rowdy behaviour of his cohorts.

A fan of dime novels, he soon starts to notice something strange: All of the residents of Refuge seem to resemble the heroes of the yarns he digs so much.

It turns out that Refuge is actually limbo, and the residents are indeed the heroes of the yarns he digs so much. You have Wild Bill Hickock as the meek, noble sheriff and Billy The Kid as his scowling deputy – who never seems to say anything more than “damn right”. Doc Holliday is the town's doctor, and Jesse James is running the general store.

Brilliantly, the first time we see Jesse James, he's taking to his stock with a feather duster. A nod, no doubt, to the fact that his life was ended when he was shot in the back of the head whilst dusting a picture.

They're in Refuge in order to prove that they're not all bad. So long as they can live there without sinning too much (for a ten year period, apparently), then they'll go to heaven in a blessed stagecoach. If not, they'll be escorted to hell by a mysterious Native American.

They're thus forced to live impossibly dull gentile lives with no swearing, no drinking, no gambling and no lovin'. The slightest slip up will, without question, result in instant damnation.

The problem is, anybody who acknowledges the name of the film they're about to watch will know what's going on from the start. Of course the mysterious town in a film called Purgatory is purgatory! Sonny's investigation is therefore not engaging in the slightest. Every step is a further “no SHIT, Sherlock!”

Honestly, why didn't they just call the film “Refuge” and allow the mystery to unravel organically? That's a whole layer of enjoyment mercilessly stripped away by a too-revealing title.

Another problem is the mixed-message the film carries. It ends with an admittedly awesome gunfight – Wild Bill, Doc Holliday, Billy The Kid and Jesse James all fighting shoulder to shoulder in the knowledge that should they so much as raise their guns, they'll go to hell. Should they get shot, though, they'll also go to hell. They're damned no matter what they do, but should they do nothing, innocent people will die at the hands of the bastard bandits.

A fascinating dilemma there!

But having won the fight pretty much unscathed, and having blandly followed the mysterious Native American to the gates of hell, all of a sudden the divine carriage pulls up.

The driver says they're pardoned. “The creator may be tough,” he says, “but he's not blind.”


Earlier in the film, a gentle gentile gardener - “Lefty” Slade – had been condemned to hell having killed a bandit in self-defence.

There's also the case of poor Betty McCullough with the noose scar round her neck. We're told that she's in purgatory because she took to her father with a cleaver. “But people seem to forget that he had his filthy hands all over me from the age of twelve,” she says.

The message of the film seems to be, then, that God is OK with you murderin', but only sometimes.

Only, apparently, when it makes for a climactic gunfight and a happy ending.

I wasn't really happy with that inconsistent mixed-message. In fact, were I of an impressionable Christian persuasion, I suspect that watching this might have triggered some kind of crisis of faith.

Poor form, Purgatory. Poor form.

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