Penny Dreadful S01 E08: Grand Guignol and S01 Closing Thoughts

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

And so this marvelous show’s first turn upon the stage comes to an end. The last episode of Season 1, “Grand Guignol,” brings many of our characters together for a final climactic night at the theater. Along the way, other characters end up isolated or dead (for now), and some pieces get moved into place for our next season.

Continue reading “Penny Dreadful S01 E08: Grand Guignol and S01 Closing Thoughts”

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Of Mummies, Other Monsters, and the Other

A poster for The Mummy (1932)
Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mummy_1932_film_poster.jpg

OK, it’s time to talk about sex and race.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

We’ll do the recap bit in a hurry. The Mummy of 1932 rehashes several of the plot points (and a couple of the actors) of Dracula with an extra dose of exoticism. An unsuspecting Brit revives Imhotep, who spends all of a minute of screen time in bandage-wrapped mummy form before converting into an exotic mind controller. Add a time jump, and Imhotep – in full Karloff-ian glory and using the pseudonym Ardeth Bay – is leading the next generation of British archaeologists to the tomb of his beloved. Repeat the mind-controlled love interest plot of Dracula, with even more useless turns from the characters played by David Manners (Harker in Dracula and Frank Whemple here) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula’s Van Helsing and The Mummy’s Doctor Muller), and end with the monster defeated at the last minute. The big difference at the end is that Manners and Van Sloan are totally incidental to the defeat of the monster; the heroine (Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann) takes down Imhotep with an assist from the goddess Isis.

What The Mummy gives us that we didn’t get in Dracula is backstory. Perhaps because there is no source for the story other than Western stereotypes about Near Eastern curses, the movie uses magically-aided flashbacks to explain why an ancient Egyptian burial practice has led to the movie’s plot. Midway through the movie, we see Imhotep in his original life falling in love with his pharaoh’s daughter, who oh-so-coincidentally is identical to the beautiful Miss Grosvenor (of the half-Egyptian heritage). The present-day storyline in 1932 is all about him using mind control on Helen to draw her to him so that he can engage in some vague rituals that will kill and resurrect her to join him in eternal life. It is only her resistance at the very end that drives her to appeal to Isis, who provides the final help necessary to end Imhotep.

Even in its most literal reading, the movie doesn’t exactly portray white dudes in the best light. It’s a brazen British imperialist-slash-plunderer who revives Imhotep, and the rest of the Euro-coded male characters prove completely ineffectual in stopping the mummy. In its way, the movie is a condemnation of white-knightdom, with the various “nice” men who condescendingly try to help a woman winding up totally ineffectual. Helen, even deluded into somewhat thinking she is the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, fights for life and appeals to Isis before Whemple and Muller even arrive on the scene.

Possibly unintentional feminism aside, the movie still has some pretty deep issues.

Continue reading “Of Mummies, Other Monsters, and the Other”

Penny Dreadful, S01 E06: What Death Has Joined Together and S01 E07: Possession

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Penny Dreadful is a prime example of shows that benefit from short seasons. For as much as I love the show, and for as much as I can savor pretty much every shot in it, from a plotting standpoint, its short seasons (running 8-10 episodes each) are around the right length for a reasonable arc.

If the first season has anything approaching filler episodes, they would probably be “Demimonde” and “What Death Has Joined Together.” Of the two, “Demimonde” at least does some work moving the characters around and placing them in interesting combinations. “What Death Has Joined Together,” on the other hand, has the unenviable task of trying to bring the audience back up to speed with the whole ensemble after the Vanessa Spotlight of “Closer than Sisters” while also laying the groundwork for the tour de force of “Possession.”

Continue reading “Penny Dreadful, S01 E06: What Death Has Joined Together and S01 E07: Possession”

That Transgressive Quiver

Rocky Horror Poster
Picture from http://rockyhorror.wikia.com/wiki/File:The_rocky_horror_picture_show_poster.jpg

Where does one even begin with The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

My first memory associated with Rocky Horror is of the cover on the case of the movie at Hollywood Video when I was growing up. I wouldn’t actually see the movie until years later, towards the end of high school, but that image of Tim Curry in corset and fishnets reclining on those lips sure stood out.

The first time I saw the movie was, if I remember correctly, on someone else’s computer one night when a group of us were at the state science fair in eleventh grade. Having little to no idea what to expect while watching with someone else who’s already been to live showings is, from what I understand, one of the more common ways of being introduced to the movie. As a still fairly sheltered teen who’d spent most of my life in Catholic school before being exposed to all these wild public school kids, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all.

And yet…

Something about the movie resonated. I wouldn’t have the experiences necessary to understand why until later, but there was definitely a quality to the thing that stuck with me.

Relatively early in college, I pulled together a few other acquaintances in my new dorm to go to my first live showing (and their first experience with the movie in any form). I wound up going a few more times in college, although I never became a devotee of the experience like some do.

To this day, The Rocky Horror Picture Show holds a certain attraction, even as many parts of it are intellectually problematic. In a way that is similar to the Universal monsters and the broader panoply of fringe-y “dark geekdom,” the movie continues to have an appeal that is part aesthetic and part something else. (Before I go any further, I strongly recommend reading this analysis by Vrai Kaiser, either before or after reading this post.)

So what’s up with Rocky Horror?

Continue reading “That Transgressive Quiver”

Penny Dreadful, S01 E04: Demimonde and S01 E05: Closer than Sisters

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Penny Dreadful episodes come in two major types, and these episodes illustrate each type. “Demimonde” is what we might call the Ensemble Hangout and “Closer than Sisters” is a Vanessa Spotlight.

Pretty much everything up to this point has been an Ensemble Hangout. Each of the characters gets some screen time, with one or two getting a little extra focus. For example, “Resurrection” gave Frankenstein’s creature, Caliban, the opportunity to catch us up on what he’d been doing between his creation and his bloody appearance at the end of “Séance.” In the case of “Demimonde,” it’s Dorian Gray who gets the extra attention. Along the way, we see each of the show’s main ideas and plotlines advance a bit, plus we get to watch these characters bounce off each other in interesting and sometimes unexpected combinations.

While each Ensemble Hangout tends to have a focal character or two, the Vanessa Spotlight episodes keep the attention on Vanessa Ives. A given season may have only a couple Vanessa Spotlights, and they often stand out from the rest in tone and structure.

“Demimonde” and the Core Elements of Penny Dreadful

By this part, we’re far enough in that we can pull out a few recurring elements of the show and see how they manifest in “Demimonde.” Continue reading “Penny Dreadful, S01 E04: Demimonde and S01 E05: Closer than Sisters”

Frankenstein and the Monstrous Questions

Frankenstein Face
From Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here.

I’ve always been tall and big, and when I was growing up, I tended to identify with the large characters in teams or ensembles. To this day, I often find myself being self-conscious about how much space I’m taking up and whose view I might be obstructing. I was also very much a math and science nerd growing up, and even though I no longer do much with those subjects, I’ll get excited at the possibility of having an idea that could change the world. The part of me that is still eight years old, in applying that emotional logic to the Universal monsters, leads me to identify with both Frankenstein and his monster.

Acts of Varying Immorality

Of course, I don’t have anyone’s deaths on my conscience. Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, kills three people over the course of Universal’s Frankenstein, and attacks a few others. The extent to which he is aware of the moral consequences of his actions is up for debate, though.

(Oh, I’m skipping plot recap for this one – you almost certainly know the key details of the Frankenstein story already.)

The connection between the “abnormal” nature of the monster’s brain and his actions is fuzzy. Does he show so little remorse about killing Fritz the assistant and Dr. Frankenstein’s old professor because his physical brain used to belong to a criminal, who potentially had a skewed or nonexistent moral compass himself? Or are his actions more those of an animal reacting in self-defense to Fritz’s torment and the professor’s impending dissection?

The amount of brutality the creature displays certainly varies. The three deaths he causes – those of Fritz, the professor, and Maria, the little girl – follow a decreasing arc of murderousness. The monster straight up hangs Fritz, presumably with the whip the assistant used to torture the monster. The professor’s murder seems more of an act of self-defense. Despite having plenty of potential weapons at hand, the monster settles for strangling the old man. Maria’s death is the least intentional; it appears to be a misunderstood extension of the let’s-throw-pretty-things-in-the-water game (and it’s honestly a little surprising that she died of being tossed a few feet into the water). There’s no apparent ill will motivating the monster when he kills her.

However unintentional the monster’s killing of Maria may have been, there’s no question that his assault of Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, is no fault of hers. She’s simply a tool of the monster’s quest for vengeance against Frankenstein. His later near-murder of Frankenstein comes in a moment of self-defense after his attempts to flee the angry villagers fail and is thus easier to defend. The attack on Elizabeth, though, makes the monster’s morality in the last act of the movie complicated. As sympathetic as he sometimes is, and no matter how much he may misjudge his own strength, he is not a blameless innocent.

Frankenstein Chase
Not from the actual movie. Image from Flickr user Pascal.

The Monstrous Questions

This leads us to a pair of enduring questions in many monster stories, questions that Dracula didn’t raise. The simpler of the questions is, “Who is the real monster of this story?” The second is, “What makes someone (or something) a monster?”

Continue reading “Frankenstein and the Monstrous Questions”

Penny Dreadful, S01 E02: Seance and S01 E03: Resurrection

Penny Dreadful Banner
From Flickr user vague on the how. https://www.flickr.com/photos/vagueonthehow/14857275230/

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

We’ll jump straight to the point with episode 2: Eva Green makes this show. Plenty of the other actors turn in great performances to be sure, but Penny Dreadful owes at least 85% of its total existence to Eva Green and her ability to say anything with just her face.

The writing emphasizes her character, Vanessa Ives, early on, and as the series moves on, it’s clear that the writers understand that hers is one of the central stories that weaves together the different strands of the series. She begins in the Dracula strand of the story, recruits Ethan Chandler, winds up being a confidante of both Frankenstein and his monster, and draws Dorian Gray out of his self-obsessed torpor. Writing alone, however, rarely makes a character memorable.

What makes Vanessa Ives truly essential to the show is Green’s performance. The first episode gave us a sense of her ability to convey poise, amusement, discernment, and intrigue, among other moods. The second episode goes further and cements her as the critical member of the ensemble.

First, though, the rest of the story. Around the scenes of Vanessa and Sir Malcolm pursuing their lead from the first episode, we are introduced to new characters. Billie Piper’s Brona Croft is a sex worker holed up at the same seaside inn of questionable character where Ethan Chandler has decided to hang his hat. In addition to meeting our charming American gunslinger, she also calls on Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray to serve as a model for increasingly extreme photographs that wind up mixing sex and blood in the way you can really only get away with in a show that includes the occasional vampire (even if no vampires were involved in that particular scene). Meanwhile, Victor Frankenstein reintroduces his creation from last episode to the realm of the living, first through literature and then through actual experience.

The true heart of the episode, of course, comes in its eponymous scene. Back in the first episode, Mr. Lyle of the British Museum refused to complete his translation of the hieroglyphics inside a vampire’s skin until Vanessa and Sir Malcolm attended a party at his house. At the party, Vanessa trades unnecessary banter with the unnecessary Dorian Gray before the main event: a séance conducted by “Madame Kali” (who will eventually be revealed to be far less exotic than her name suggests).

The séance draws skeptical looks from both Vanessa and, especially, Sir Malcolm. Who can blame them? Having already trucked in the realm of the supernatural, the pair can hardly be begrudged a certain jaded affect when confronted with the theatrical charlatanism they believe to be the stock in trade of “Madame Kali.”

And then the spirit of Sir Malcolm’s dead son manifests through Vanessa.

Eva Green
From Flickr user Sagittarius – 9Plus. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sagittarius/3914081890/

In an epic speech that involves contorting limbs, speaking in tongues, and channeling the spirit of a dead boy, Eva Green commands the screen while building both her character and Sir Malcolm’s. She provides backstory, deepens the emotional tone of the show, and shows off a truly impressive formative range. I do not have the words to fully capture the effect she has, either in this scene or in the show as a whole. The whole series is streaming on Netflix right now; if you have the ability to watch the first two episodes and haven’t yet done so, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch them.

If Vanessa is the backbone of the series and of “Séance,” Frankenstein’s first creation is the heart of “Resurrection.” While the end of the first episode and nearly all of the second gave us a resurrected man played by Alex Price, that poor man’s torso was ripped apart at the end of “Séance.” Sticking his head through the blood and viscera was Frankenstein’s “firstborn,” played by Rory Kinnear.

“Resurrection” devotes significant screen time to the creature’s backstory. He tells Frankenstein (and the audience) about his life after Frankenstein created and then abandoned him. Through misadventure, maltreatment, and the eventual kindness of a stranger, Frankenstein’s creature winds up a theatrical stage hand who’s distrustful of much of humanity and something of a creeper when it comes to women. Where the man we saw Frankenstein resurrect in the first episode wound up with the name “Proteus” from Twelfth Night, Frankenstein’s original creature receives the dubious, if ultimately rather appropriate, pseudonym of “Caliban” from The Tempest. (All of his monologuing about modernity and raging against romanticism aside, Caliban can’t escape the romantic and fanciful flourishes endemic to his creator’s narrative.)

We also get a Dracula-related plot that starts with a vision, leads to a small adventure in the London zoo (containing absolutely zero foreshadowing about Ethan Chandler’s secret nature), and ends with a man named Fenton chained up in Sir Malcolm’s basement. So that’s neat.

By the time we reach the end of “Resurrection,” we already have a strong foundation for some of Penny Dreadful’s recurring themes and ideas. To name a few, we have evidence for:

  1. A) Daddy issues. All the daddy issues.
  2. B) Vanessa Ives is nigh unflappable; only the most powerful of entities can flap her.
  3. C) A woman with agency is the most powerful and/or intimidating creature of all, and most men will fail to realize this until their plans fall apart.
  4. D) Stop trying to make Dorian Gray happen.

Now, seriously, find a way and the time to watch “Séance.”

Creeping Horrors

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)For quite some time now, vampires have been high on The List of Sexy Monsters. Before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, we had Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Before those we had Anne Rice’s sexy vamps, and so on all the way back to Bela Lugosi’s belief in Dracula’s sex appeal. And yet, nothing about blood-sucking monsters requires sexiness.

After all, we also have Guillermo Del Toro’s vampires in The Strain (and before that, his chin-splitting additions to Blade II), and a mishmash of vampire elders from Buffy or the Underworld series. If the Cullens of Twilight and the Salvatore brothers of The Vampire Diaries are the modern-day descendants of Lugosi’s Dracula, their more obviously creepy cousins can trace their lineage back to Nosferatu.

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film was originally intended as an adaptation of the novel Dracula, which had been published 25 years earlier. However, Murnau and his fellow German filmmakers could not secure the rights from Bram Stoker’s family. They went to the extraordinary length of changing all the characters’ names, but otherwise charged ahead with their production. Thus, instead of portraying Count Dracula, actor Max Schreck gave us Count Orlok. The Harkers became the Hutters, Van Helsing became Bulmer, and Renfield became Knock. Instead of London, the count moved to the made-up German town of Wisborg.

Shockingly, this renaming did not satisfy the Stoker estate, who ended up winning a court battle that led to nearly all prints of the fim being destroyed. A few managed to escape destruction, however, meaning we’re still able to enjoy this alternative vision of vampirism.

The basic outlines of the story are similar to Universal’s Dracula nine years later, with both movies’ plots deviating from Stoker’s novel to roughly similar degrees, but the differences in pacing and production stand out. (And, of course, Nosferatu is silent while Dracula was a relatively early talkie.)

Nosferatu manages to move both faster and slower than Universal’s Dracula. Where the Universal movie uses fairly lengthy takes in each scene, Nosferatu uses cuts more frequently, with the effect of making scenes feel like they’re moving faster than the scenes in Dracula. However, the pacing of the story itself is much slower in Nosferatu. It takes the movie longer to get to Orlok’s castle and to get back to the city, leaving the characters much less time between the count’s arrival in the city and the final confrontation. By contrast, Universal’s movie got to Lugosi announcing, “I am Dracula” by about six minutes into the movie, and most of its time is spent with the characters in London trying to figure out what’s going on.

The German film also spends more time building up parallels between Orlok and other threats from the natural world. We get meditations on Venus flytraps and microscopically vampiric organisms. Schreck’s makeup is also decidedly more animalistic than Lugosi’s. Orlok’s mouth is ratlike, his ears are pointed, and his fingernails are so long they evoke claws. He looks and acts far less human than Lugosi’s Dracula, who is at least able to put on a façade of charm and manners when it suits his purposes.

In other words, Orlok’s predatory nature is less social and more biological than Dracula’s. If both vampires were diseases, Dracula would be an STD and Orlok would be a plague carried by rats. Orlok falls into an uncanny valley where he is almost-but-not-quite human in his appearance and behavior. If he ever was human, he clearly isn’t anymore.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)In fact, Schreck’s appearance and performance were so uncanny, they spawned an urban legend that he actually was a vampire. That provided the inspiration for 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, which tells a fictionalized version of the production of Nosferatu where the star is in fact a vampire who has cut a deal with Murnau. The film stars John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck, with supporting work from Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, and Catherine McCormack.

The two main draws (to me) of Shadow of the Vampire are Dafoe’s truly creepy performance and the depictions of the movie-making process. Dafoe’s performance is better seen than described, but he does a fantastic job of recreating Schreck’s movements and general aura. On the process side, the movie recreates some of the iconic moments of Nosferatu and shows some of how they were done. Watching men crank cameras while Murnau delivers real-time instructions to the actors (with no concern about competing with sounds or dialogue since this is a silent movie), and hearing Cary Elwes as a replacement photographer describe how slow-motion effects can be created, reinforce some points from my earlier post on sound in the movies. At the time these people were creating this film, they were engaging in what was essentially an enormous experiment in storytelling using a new form of photography.

Ultimately, Nosferatu has had less impact on the way we think about vampires than Universal’s Dracula did, but it did quite a bit to advance the horror movie as a general concept. From unearthly special effects – including Orlok’s straight-backed pivot up from his casket and his eventual fade-away when exposed to sunlight – to the way locations, lighting, and shot composisition created a mood, Nosferatu showed us a monster in a way that hadn’t ever been possible before.

(Images from the Internet Movie Database.)

The Sound of Monsters

Seeing as how we’re between the Dracula post and the upcoming Nosferatu / Shadow of the Vampire post, let’s talk about talking.

Something I didn’t realize until I started preparing for these posts was how close we came to not having the silent film era. For as much as the silent era is disregarded in most current discussions of movies, I want to explore an alternate history with you.

(The extrapolations I’m making here have their root in the history of movie technology from the fourth edition of James Monaco’s How to Read a Film. That book provides the factual basis for where I’m about to go.)

Why didn’t we have talking movies in the first place? Sound recording was possible through phonographs and other techniques by the 1870’s. In fact, phonograph-based recording was so popularized by the 1890’s that Dr. Seward in the Dracula novel keeps his diary by phonograph. Motion picture cameras had also been developed by the 1890’s. However, among other issues, keeping a phonograph – with its playback based on a mechanism and disc unconnected from the film reel – synchronized with the picture proved very difficult.

The eventual solution depended on the shift away from mechanical recording devices like the phonograph to electrical audio recording that could be more easily synchronized with film and more easily amplified. Monaco suggests that, had electrical recording received the early attention that mechanical recording did, the “talkies” might have arrived much earlier, or perhaps simultaneously, in the history of commercial movie production.

This is not an outlandish possibility, either. After all, audio transmission by electrical means was spreading after the work of Alexander Graham Bell and others in the mid-1870’s. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that, had mechanical recording via phonographs and similar techniques not emerged at the same time, the energy that went into further developing mechanical techniques may have instead gone into electrical recording.

This is where the real extrapolation begins.

In our timeline, we get a generation of silent films, including significant work on the non-textual parts of movies. Movie production is essentially a new development in photography, and the people making movies put lots of energy into adapting existing photographic techniques and developing new ones. The influences of other arts, including the production elements of the stage, are brought in as well, but the art of performing on a silent screen is by necessity very different from the art of performing on stage.

Particularly notable for our purposes is the work of the German expressionists on films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, which drove huge advances in production design, effects work, and cinematography. Many of the people who worked on those films wound up in Hollywood in time for the early days of the talkies, and they brought the knowledge they’d gained from the silent era with them.

Now imagine a timeline where audio recording keeps pace with motion picture development. Rather than being an art form that requires the development of entirely new visual storytelling techniques, film now allows us to replicate the world’s best stage performances and bring them to any community with a movie theater. Movies allow for the democratization of the stage.

A parallel from our real timeline, also described by Monaco, becomes relevant here. Once still photography became practical, one of its dominant uses became portraiture. Where personal portraits had historically been almost entirely exclusive to the wealthy, who could afford to commission a painter to spend hours on the piece, now they became much more affordable. Experimentation with photography was possible, but much of its commercial use went into replicating and democratizing an existing art form.

Or think of the primary commercial uses of audio recording, which allowed anyone a modest income a chance to hear the world’s greatest music performed by the world’s best musicians.

The same logic could have led to a world where the primary focus of movies was to record stage performances and bring them to the masses. No longer would access to the best theater be limited to those with money living in a handful of large cities. Instead, the greatest plays, musicals, and operas of New York, London, Paris, Vienna, and Venice could come to a theater near you.

In that timeline, developments in cinematography, lighting, and makeup would be those that best served the recording of a stage play. Direction for the camera would still happen primarily in the context of the stage. Actors’ performances would remain calibrated for a live audience.

Sure, eventually someone would probably get around to staging productions without an actual audience, the better to allow for close-ups and more nuanced performances that often come across as faintly ridiculous when the actor is performing for the balcony rather than the camera. People might experiment with compositing performances, taking the best renditions of key moments or songs from multiple stagings (as is sometimes done with stand-up specials in our timeline).

Yes, in our actual timeline, some great stage performances are recorded and brought to movie theaters. However, movie production as an art form today differs greatly from theatrical production. I would argue that a key factor contributing to our reality is that movies had to spend a couple decades having to figure out how to tell stories in an entirely new way. Then, once sound became a real possibility, it was integrated into the existing framework built during the silent era.

Dracula illustrates this well. Bela Lugosi had been a stage performer, and had in fact performed the Dracula play from which the movie was adapted. A stage performer’s skill set was very valuable in the early days of the talkies, when most screen actors were not used to delivering their lines for a listening audience. Lugosi’s nonverbal performance remains very broad, reflecting years of performing for a stage audience, but there’s no question that his line delivery and embodiment of the character are distinctive, and indeed, definitive of the character in the popular imagination.

Beyond the actual performances, the movie takes nearly full advantage of the fact that it is in fact a film rather than a stage show. The cinematography, by Karl Freund, was clearly informed by his formative work in Germany, where he had done cinematography for Fritz Lang’s tour de force, Metropolis, among other films. For example, Dracula features several instances where the camera moves toward a character or around the set, an area where Freund had worked to develop not just techniques, but also the necessary physical tools.

(The previous paragraph uses “nearly full advantage,” as there are still some areas where the movie Dracula steers clear of the full potential of a talkie. Notably, it does not have a real score, using music only over the credits and as diegetic sound at a symphony performance. You can read more about music, movies, and studios’ concern that audiences would be distracted if music played “from nowhere” while actors spoke in this article.)

In our alternate timeline, one can still imagine a version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but there’s a good chance it would have been a recording of a stage performance rather than the more original work we have in our timeline.

Just some interesting thoughts to ponder before we dive into Nosferatu and Shadow of the Vampire in a couple days….

Penny Dreadful, S01 E01: Night Work

I decided to pair the monster movie watch with some monster television, starting with the relatively recently departed, and much mourned in my household, Penny Dreadful. The show got three seasons on Showtime, and included in its ensemble Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Reeve Carney Harry Treadaway, Rory Kinnear, and (for two seasons) Danny Sapani. If there could be said to be a single star of the show, however, it would have to be the incomparable Eva Green as Vanessa Ives.

The show’s pilot episode, “Night Work,” introduces us to a Victorian England populated with some familiar archetypes. We have the retired explorer and his manservant in the form of Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray and Sapani’s Sembene. We have the brash American gunslinger in Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler. We have the prostitute with the heart of gold in Piper’s Brona Croft. We have our straight-up characters from literature in Carney’s Dorian Gray and Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein. And we have our psychic connected to the uncanny in Green’s Ives.

In terms of the classic monster stories, this first episode starts us off with the same two that really kicked off Universal’s monster movies, Dracula and Frankenstein.

Dracula

Penny Dreadful brings an alternative take on how Dracula’s story turned out. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa begin the series with a clear bond, rooted in their shared love of Mina (a.ka. Mina Harker nee Murray in Stoker’s Dracula and Mina Seward in Universal’s). In this version, however, Mina appears to have succumbed to Dracula, with Sir Malcolm and Vanessa now trying to find her.

This is an intriguing approach that lets the show use new characters to explore its Dracula storyline while maintaining obvious roots in the original tale. Rather than be shackled to the familiar beats of Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc., the show carves out fresh space for itself and, by establishing a fate for Mina decidedly different from the novel’s, leaves us uncertain as to how this story might play out.

Frankenstein

At the outset, the primary updates to Frankenstein are placing Dr. Frankenstein in Victorian Britain and making him apparently English. These changes are largely matters of convenience for the story. As discussed in the Dracula post, the actual novels for Frankenstein and Dracula were separated by nearly eighty years. Moving Frankenstein’s story up to Victorian times allows him to be a contemporary of our other characters, and making him English facilitates his connection to the other characters.

That contemporaneousness allows Dr. Frankenstein to be roped into the Dracula plot when Sir Malcolm and Vanessa ask him to examine the body of a vampire they’ve killed. His enthusiasm puts him on their radar for further recruitment.

As will be seen in future episodes, there are some additional deviations from the original story, but those are for a future post….

Other Goings-On

The show opens with an attack in the night that leaves a mother and her daughter gruesomely dead. While the newspapers speculate about a return of Jack the Ripper, we’ve seen that the culprit was something of a more supernatural bent.

If the show can be said to give us a viewpoint character for this episode, that character would be Ethan Chandler. A performer in a cowboy-themed traveling show, Ethan is revealed to have a harder edge than that of a simple showman with a pistol. He is recruited by Vanessa to help her and Sir Malcolm as they investigate a lead, culminating in a fight in a vampire nest and leaving Ethan with the very reasonable question, “Who the fuck are you people?” Nevertheless, there’s something about the adventure – or perhaps just Vanessa – that keeps Ethan around. And so it is with us, the audience. We, like Ethan, are trying to figure out what exactly Sir Malcolm and Vanessa are up to, and while the better part of judgement might recommend fleeing, there’s something magnetic about Vanessa in particular to keep us coming back.

Preparing for the Road Ahead

This post was mostly character description and brief plot summary. There’s much more to be said about so many aspects of this show, from production design to recurring themes to some truly great performances. For now, though, best to leave with a sense of promise for what is to come, as the show itself does.