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10 Films Where the Protagonist Is Trapped in Purgatory
Purgatory is defined as a place where the souls of the dead or dying must exonerate their sins before passing on to the afterlife or as a place of prolonged suffering, expiation, or remorse. In any case, it may seem like an odd place to set a film. But the plots of the movies on this list, which range from spooky and spiritual to action-packed, all occur in the realm of limbo, even if their protagonists are not aware of it.
Before we begin, a quick warning that there are major spoilers ahead. Most films about purgatory don’t reveal the purgatory aspect upfront, so to talk about them, we are going to have to reveal some endings. You’ve been warned!
10 Haunter (2013)
Haunter is a film directed by Vincenzo Natali that tells the story of a girl named Lisa (Abigail Breslin) who is living the same day on repeat. Worse yet, it is the day before her birthday, and her family seems blissfully unaware of the groundhog-day-like problem. Oh, and the house she lives in appears to be haunted.
Eventually, Lisa becomes more aware of what’s going on. And she discovers that it’s not so much that something is haunting her family, as much as they’re doing the haunting, trapped eternally in the day they died. The only way to escape this time loop of purgatory is to contact the spirits of other murdered girls and Olivia, a girl currently living in the house during the present day.
Alongside the classic haunted house story with a twist, Haunter also touches upon many young adult themes. And while it did little to wow contemporary critics, the premise is novel enough to be worth checking out.
9 Cruel and Unusual (2014)
Cruel and Unusual is a surrealistic thriller directed by Merlin Dervisevic. It stars David Richmone-Peck as Edgar, a man convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to relive her death for eternity. That is, between endless group therapy sessions with other apparent murderers in some form of seemingly eternal institution. Bit by bit, Edgar begins to piece together what really happened between him and his wife, discovering that salvation might be possible yet.
Yes, Cruel and Unusual is another film that takes the basic premise of Groundhog Day, ramps up the nightmare fuel, and throws in some spiritual undertones. The result is more strange than horrifying and could have used some comic relief. Nonetheless, it certainly offers a fascinating premise.
8 Triangle (2009)
Another film where the main character gets stuck in a punishing time loop is Triangle. And this British-Australian film, directed by Christopher Smith, is an underrated gem. Initially, Triangle presents itself as your run-of-the-mill slasher about a boat trip that goes terribly wrong. But this bloody horror has a lot more twists in store for viewers.
At the center of the film is the story of Jess (Melissa George), a single mother struggling to care for her autistic son. What’s actually going on with her and the dead bodies turning up on the boat and why she ends up in a time loop is somewhat open to interpretation. But the most common prevailing theory is that something has trapped Jess in her own version of hell for her sins. And it has been noted that the film shares many parallels to the Greek myth of Sisyphus and some clear influences from the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In any case, Jess’s experience certainly looks like a form of purgatory, and the film is certainly worth a watch.
7 Gabriel (2007)
Prefer your eternal limbo to be a bit more action-packed? You might enjoy Gabriel, an Australian action horror directed by Shane Abbess. In this movie, purgatory is depicted as a dark, smoky, and shadowy realm that contains the souls of those trapped between heaven and hell and where fallen angels and archangels battle for rule.
Gabriel received mixed reviews on release, with some complaining about the stilted dialogue and lack of strong characters. But considering its shoestring budget, the filmmakers did a remarkable job with the visuals and sound. And if you are a fan of goth-friendly action films like Constantine and Underworld, you’ll probably get a kick out of Gabriel.
6 Silent Hill (2006)
Silent Hill is one of the most beloved horror video game franchises ever that saw players traversing and trying to survive nightmare realms. And in 2006, the series made its way onto the big screen for the first time, only to be met with largely negative reviews. But, in retrospect, it is still one of the better video game-to-movie adaptions out there.
The plot follows a woman named Rosa Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) and her search for her troubled daughter after she goes missing in the abandoned town of Silent Hill. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that Silent Hill is no ordinary town. Instead, it is a place where ash falls from the sky and regularly transmissions into a hell-dimension where abominations stalk the (apparently) living. Of course, neither Rosa nor her daughter is actually in the town, nor quite a hell dimension, but somewhere in-between.
5 Purgatory (1999)
Purgatory focuses on an outlaw gang fleeing a bank job gone wrong who end up in a town called Refuge. There, they find an unusually peaceful place where the residents are especially God-fearing, and all forms of sin are greatly frowned upon. There are no guns, violence, alcohol, or even swearing.
Unsurprisingly, the outlaws see the town as easy pickings. But one of their members, Leon “Sonny” Dillard (Brad Rowe), realizes something oddly peculiar about the town’s residents: They all resemble dead western legends. The sheriff looks like Wild Bill Hickock, the shopkeeper like Jesse James, and the doctor is Doc Holliday.
In case you did not guess from the title, the outlaws have wandered into purgatory. And everyone is acting overly angelic because they are trying to gain acceptance into heaven. But while the plot may be a bit on the nose, it is no less an intriguing flick that feels like a cross between a classic western and an episode of The Twilight Zone. Or, as adverts at the time put it, “not your ordinary damn western.”
4 Kontroll (2003)
Kontroll is a 2003 Hungarian dark comedy directed by Nimród Antal and set entirely on the underground Budapest Metro System. The story centers around Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a ticket inspector who spends his nights sleeping in the pitch-black dark of the station’s platforms. For reasons never fully explained, Bulcsú has an aversion to returning to the surface. And things get weirder when a hooded figure who dresses just like Bulcsú starts killing off passengers.
Kontroll is another one of those films where the plot is left open to interpretation. But the healthy dose of Christian imagery, dream sequences, and the film’s final scene, featuring a girl dressed as an angel, suggests that our main character is trapped in limbo. But whether or not our main character’s purgatory is spiritual or self-imposed, he certainly appears to be stuck and suffering. In any case, Kontroll is rather good and surprisingly creepy for something marketed as a comedy.
3 Lost Highway (1997)
Lost Highway is a film directed by David Lynch that stars Bill Pullman as Fred Madison, a jazz saxophonist who, we are led to believe, suspects his wife (Patricia Arquette) might be cheating on him. Following some run-ins with a strange, pale mystery man and several bizarre video tapes, Madison finds himself in a jail cell, convicted of his wife’s murder. In true Lynchian fashion, things take a wild and unexpected turn when Madison then transforms into a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), and begins an affair with a woman who looks just like his dead wife.
Like many of David Lynch’s films, Lost Highway defies most logical explanations. And there is an extensive rabbit hole of fan theories. What is often agreed upon, though, is that the film’s plot represents a kind of Möbius strip.
At the beginning of the film, Madison receives a strange message on the intercom, telling him that “Dick Laurent is dead.” Only toward the end do we learn that Madison is relaying this message himself. And this, combined with some other time-bending clues, suggests that Madison has trapped himself in a reality-bending loop, where he is no less doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Or, in other words, he’s trapped in a form of purgatory of his own design.
2 Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
Here’s a film that, if handled poorly, could have been deeply offensive and in poor taste. But, as it turns out, Wristcutters manages to be quite charming… in an absurd way. The film stars Patrick Fugit as Zia, who, after taking his own life, ends up in a state of limbo. In this new world, everything is close to the same as the old one, just everything is a bit worse—nobody smiles, things don’t work as they should, and everything’s just a bit of a downer.
After learning that his ex-girlfriend is also trapped in this limbo world, Zia heads off in his run-down car (which features a black hole and unfixable headlights) with his buddies to find her. A typical coming-of-age story follows, with new and quirky friends made along the way. Typical, that is, but for the fact that everyone is dead and depressed, and the theme of suicide hangs over everything.
If it all seems a bit bizarre, that’s because it is. But director Goran Dukic’s vision is better than it might sound. And the film inevitably received multiple award nominations. It also won a few, including best feature honors at the Gen Art Film Festival.
1 Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Jacob’s Ladder follows the story of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), an American who served in the Vietnam War and is now suffering from terrifying hallucinations. After meeting up with his former fellow serviceman, Singer begins to unravel a conspiracy of government experiments on his former platoon, which he believes is causing them to have their strange visions.
Only toward the film’s end do we discover that Singer and his platoon attacked each other in Vietnam after being given an experimental drug. And that Singer is still in Vietnam, dying in a triage tent.
Jacob’s Ladder is harrowing and relentless. As a result, it is not for the faint of heart. But as depressing as Jacob’s Ladder may be, this cult classic by Adrian Lyne is also a thoughtful and powerful piece of cinema. And few other films have explored the concept of purgatory quite so effectively.