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.
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.
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:
A) Daddy issues. All the daddy issues.
B) Vanessa Ives is nigh unflappable; only the most powerful of entities can flap her.
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.
D) Stop trying to make Dorian Gray happen.
Now, seriously, find a way and the time to watch “Séance.”
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.
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.
Not the beginning. Dracula wasn’t the first horror movie made by Universal, nor the first vampire movie based on Bram Stoker’s novel. It was adapted from a play, which was based on the book, which was the crystallization of folk tales and lurid history.
And yet it is still a beginning. The first of the Universal horror movies with spoken dialogue, and the first made under the leadership of Carl Laemmle, Jr., rather than that of his father. The first authorized adaptation of Dracula for film. The first of the iconic monster performances that would define an archetype.
Renfield, an Englishman with little regard for the warnings of the townsfolk in Ye Olde Eastern European Village, travels to Castle Dracula to help Count Dracula finish taking ownership of and moving to Carfax Abbey in Britain. In return for his help, he is transformed into a manic slave who will spend the rest of the movie hungering for bugs and rats, staring wild-eyed at everyone he meets, and occasionally trying to resist Dracula’s commands for brief episodes before ultimately succumbing to his master’s will.
In London, Dracula takes in dinner and a show. Dinner comes in the form of a young woman selling flowers, and the show is a symphony performance that puts Dracula into conversation with his new neighbor. Dr. Seward runs a sanitarium (where Renfield has conveniently been confined) next to Carfax Abbey. Also in Seward’s box at the symphony are his daughter, Mina, her fiancee John Harker, and their friend Lucy Weston, who is quite taken with the exotic count.
Dracula preys on Lucy, who dies of symptoms that perplex the British medical establishment while the Count moves on to Mina. Thankfully, the more open-minded Van Helsing shows up and accurately diagnoses the problem as caused by vampires. When he and Harker note that Dracula doesn’t have a reflection in mirrors, Van Helsing confirms that the count is the vampire in question. Attempts to keep Mina safe fail, and she ends up falling victim to Dracula.
When Van Helsing and Harker head to Carfax Abbey just before dawn in a final effort to save Mina, they are quickly discovered. Dracula kills Renfield before fleeing deeper into the abbey with Mina. He is just able to make it to his box of native soil to sleep before the sun rises, which leaves him vulnerable to Van Helsing’s stake. Once Dracula is dead, Mina appears released from his thrall, and she and Harker walk up the long stairs leading out of the abbey.
Predation and Vulnerability
Watching Dracula in our current climate, I found myself drawing comparisons to the ongoing series of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse across contemporary U.S. society.
Dracula himself appears incapable of having a one-on-one conversation with another person without trying to control their mind, feed on them, or both. Even when it’s not necessary – for example, his hypnosis of a ticket-taker at the symphony to tell Seward he has a call just to give Dracula a pretext for introducing himself – he winds up wielding his power over others.
Along the way, Dracula ends up making many others complicit in his predation. Renfield is the most prominent of these, but many other bit and supporting characters are turned into tools of Dracula’s larger designs.
And yet, Dracula is in many ways a pathetic and insecure creature. When Renfield arrives at Castle Dracula, there is no sign of any staff. Dracula is the one driving the coach to pick up Renfield, and is most likely the one to take Renfield’s luggage to his room and prepare Renfield’s meal. (These last two may have been accomplished by Dracula’s “wives,” but in any case, there’s no evidence of any servants.)
Wolfbane, crosses, and mirrors are among Dracula’s weaknesses, and he tends to recoil from them with a pronounced lack of chill. His suave affect is easily disrupted, although he’s also quick to put his composed front back up. Ultimately, he’s not clever or powerful enough to save himself. Van Helsing knows how to take advantage of this predator’s weaknesses, and does so after besting Dracula in a one-on-one contest of wills.
The use and abuse of power, in part to cover for insecurity, all while putting up a socially acceptable – at times, even enticing – front…the parallels to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world strike me as pretty clear.
One of the features of storytelling in genres like horror, fantasy, or science fiction, of course, is the versatility of the metaphors. Dracula is not just a parallel to sexual predators; he’s a parallel to predators of all types. For example, an audience member in 1931 and the years that followed might easily have drawn parallels to a different sort of predator on the world stage. Hitler, after all, was a man who used his power and the charisma he cultivated to prey on others, and was also a man of deep insecurities.
The Monster as Villain
While many of the coming months’ monsters will balance destructive acts with sympathy-inspiring vulnerabilities, Dracula is the unambiguous villain of his own movie. He preys on others literally and figuratively, violates consent left and right, and appears motivated by nothing more than a desire for more power. What led him to decide it was time to abandon Transylvania for Britain is left unsaid. When he arrives, however, he appears to have an elaborate plan already laid out. If he had managed to overcome Van Helsing, who knows how far his evil could have spread? (Those interested in this question who haven’t already done so might be interested in reading Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which explores this scenario.)
I don’t know if this will play out, but something I’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming films is the degree to which a monster’s unambiguous villainy is connected with their status in society. Dracula, while a foreigner in Britain, is still an aristocrat. His social status is quite high, and his monstrousness is never tempered with anything that would leave us sympathetic to him. We’ll see how social status and sympathetic elements of character development relate in future films.
It’s fascinating watching movies made shortly after sound became an option. The performances are very different from those in silent films, and it’s interesting to see the influences of live theater interact with the cinematic techniques established during the silent era.
This movie also comes before the Hays Code was an aggressively-deployed tool of censorship in cinematic storytelling and technique. I’ll be interested in seeing what, if anything, is different about the movies from later in the Code’s existence.
Trying to watch Bela Lugosi’s performance with fresh eyes, discarding the decades of copycats, parodies, and counter-performances, is challenging, but makes for an enhanced viewing experience.
Just a quick reminder that the time between the source material and the movie is shorter than I, at least, first realized. The book came out in 1897 and the movie in 1931, which is about the same length of time as if there was a movie of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman coming out this February.
This was a great movie to use as a beginning. I may post other thoughts as they come along between now and next Wednesday; goodness knows there’s plenty more to say.