FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Penny Dreadful Season 3

Penny Dreadful Season Three a Disappointing Finale

by Kristin Battestella

I loved me some Penny Dreadful. Previously, I watched the First Two seasons twice or more before writing my reviews a few months after I had simmered in the immersion of all things sophisticated Victorian macabre. I re-watched the entire series again when finishing this obviously late review, but Season Three’s still blindsiding finale and haphazard resolution of the series undermines the glorious potential that was yet to be found in Penny Dreadful.

Year Three hits the ground running with some delightful circumstances in “The Day Tennyson Died.” Our quirky little family of evil fighters – Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and His Monster (Rory Kinnear) – is scattered about the globe from London to the Old West and Africa to the frozen north. Their townhouse base is shabby with covered furniture and piled mail before the titular solemn and lovely poetic references reconnect old friends with tenderness and sympathy. After all they’ve been through, those in London are allowed to stew and cry – unlike the unforgiving railroad and lawless land of the New Mexico Territory. Though blindingly bright compared to the British bleak, there’s an underlying ominous to the witches and werewolves among the lawmen. Letters from Africa with burials made right also find Chiricahua Indians in the most unlikely Zanzibar alley while faraway frozen trawlers debate cannibalism and melodies remind monsters of when they were men. Famous names face racism at Bedlam as pale minions with anemia excuses lurk. Penny Dreadful has a lot to do but does it with superb conversations, new allies, and bloody vignettes. “Predators Far and Near” adds vintage photography, jurisdiction technicalities, a modified barber’s chair for experimenting on patients, and fear of the gramophone cylinders recording one’s sin. Therapy confessions recount prior indiscretions, but the prescription for godless loneliness is doing something innocent and happy no matter how small. Women debate on light and dark souls while men bond over their love of daughters and a son not birthed to them but bound with their suffering. Talbot family history, ritual chanting, and colorful vision quests counter the sophisticated Victorian science lectures and whimsical memories of adventures the likes of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Unfortunately, our dreadfuls are more familiar with lunatics and monsters rather than childhood heroes, with Jekyll and Hyde-esque transformations on crazed victims, deceptively charming courtships, a wise Apache woman reminiscent of the fortune teller in The Wolf Man, and a desert full moon to aide one’s bone cracking escape.

Unholy alliances between witches and the Wolf of God continue in “Good and Evil Braided Be.” Is it the beast or angel, good or evil that’s the real persona? Does the mind create phantoms and demons to explain the darkness and pain? Do you bury the animal inside or unleash it? Between the werewolf curse, divided locales, tug and pull father figures, and hints of Hyde, Penny Dreadful creates superb dual themes alongside several racial moments and of the time derogatory Native American comments. Sophisticated light and dark visuals and good and evil motifs are interwoven against crudeness, triumphing over those who define what’s black and white or right and wrong solely based upon skin tone rather than soul. The audience isn’t hit on the head with the social commentary, but one scene beautifully addresses the sadly still lingering attitudes upfront. New, risky hypnosis techniques further retrace past darkness and despair in Episode Four “A Blade of Grass.” Memories and present offices blur in a dreamy act with current doctors and familiar faces in unexpected places uncovering new revelations of a forgotten padded white room. In camera foregrounds and backgrounds accent the confined or expanded four walls as needed with overhead views, zooms, face to face close ups, and wide angle warped. Finite descriptions of precious few details, amplified sounds, and demon shadows match the kindness of an orderly or the evils that await. Precious blankets are taken away amid growling, crying, straight jackets, and water torture. Can God find you in a place like this or are you alone? Our patient fears the evil within and wants to die over the betrayals and sins committed, yet the tender bonding with her jailer turned poetic advocate provides an unlikely compassion. Whether you can face yourself in the mirror or not, these fugue state manifestations overcome evil with the truth at Christmas in one excellent parable. The least amount of effects, minimal characters, and few locales leave nothing but the emotion and anguish upon their faces. It’s divine, just everything television should be and perhaps the best episode of the entire series.

And then, somehow, Penny Dreadful went to shit.

Series writer and creator John Logan hands Penny Dreadful over to new writers mid season – a maneuver suggesting a viable transition rather than leaving unknowns to resolve your planned finale with rushed characters and compressed stories. Andrew Hinderaker (Pure Genius) pens “This World Is Our Hell” with The West as a barren purgatory full of symbolic multi-layered pursuits on who the righteous should save or whom the evil would kill. Water is scarce among the grave sins and shame worn as redemption; forgiveness versus temptation comes in revealing fireside chats recounting past ambushes and the difficulty of serving multiple masters – fathers, duty, Lucifer. Unfortunately, these lofty topics are undone by nonsensical mysticism. Witches can summon snakes to conveniently wipe out pursuers but cannot heal injured mounts or conjure water and dying people somehow have enough energy for awkward evil sex after days of thirst. The Victorian mad science and desert shootouts jar in an anchor-less back and forth when the confrontations between our converging father figures are more interesting. Lengthy exposition on past horrors feels odd in a series that often shows rather than tells. Why not have an entire Talbot past hour the way “Closer than Sisters” showed us how Penny Dreadful really began? Otherwise the audience is left confused over who’s really at fault for the faithful turning evil. It was Ethan’s dad’s fault for making it the army’s fault who made the Apaches to blame??? Penny Dreadful always had pacing issues and uneven characters, but this Old West excursion could have ditched the dead weight characters and been back to London in half the time. I don’t think it is necessarily Hinderaker and newcomer Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ fault, but “No Beast So Fierce” throws even more at the screen with too many threads regarding who’s evil or who’s the law amid busy shootouts, vampire minions, Bedlam serums, how to kill a man tutorials, Egyptian wonders unrealized, and new steampunk introductions. What’s supposed to be important – monsters being kind to sick children or sassy sword wielding new characters? If the key to defeating evil is holding fast to loved ones, why has our family been apart all season? Perhaps one writer should have been responsible for one set of characters the entire year, as Dracula’s apparently content to wait out the cowboy adventure while other isolated and aimless immortal plans go round and round and pull Penny Dreadful apart at the seams.

Penny Dreadful has an innate melancholy – cemeteries, grave digging, mourning shrouds – but the dark romance is used for unnecessary preachy in “Ebb Tide.” Separated characters finally meet, but one knock on the door and a brief scene reconciling the past and present is not enough. Friends that could fill this empty manor and fight the bloodshed are pushed away while our team in the West doesn’t heed ancestral warnings. Despite insisting London is home, characters remain obstinate just for the sake of creating drama, leading to contrived betrayals and more speeches begging for the fast forward button. Touching conversations on who will bury whom are interwoven with weaker plots, straying from the core and repeating exposition we already know. Visions unite players who have been apart but such mystic conversations and wisdom on rescuing one another from darkness should have happened much sooner – two episodes ago, nobody cared. Krysty Wilson-Cairns writes the quick at forty-three minutes “Perpetual Night,” and it’s the shortest episode of Penny Dreadful when the series desperately needed more time. The boys rush back to Londontown amid foggy cityscapes, morbid voiceovers, tasty frogs multiplying, and rats amok. Dead wolves and toothy minions everywhere require swift blade work and fireplace pokers to stave off vampire infections – but no one thought to call Dr. Frankenstein away from Bedlam’s dungeon when people are said to be dying by the thousands? Penny Dreadful bites off more than it can chew, takes too long to achieve what matters, and spits out the excess when there’s no time left. Ironically, the “The Blessed Dark” finale also delays, saving choice moments with its stars rather than going full tilt with the dream hazy, bodies on hooks, and bats as sad lullabies over the special credits recap the sad state of our separate characters. It’s very exciting to see the reunions and werewolves fighting vampires in true monster mash up fashion as it should be – Dr. Jekyll passes by as Dr. Seward hypnotizes Renfield! As a season finale, this hour provides closing moments on some toiling plots. However, as a series finale, it barely resolves anything. Brief mentions on her destiny, his destiny, and previous prophecies don’t make sense anymore, and Victor literally bumps into the gang at Bedlam. The team is together again by accident! Major moments with his monsters earn one scene each, and none of those super strong immortals join the End of the DaysTM battle. Instead, bad ass walking down the street filler and a few ridiculously outnumbered pistols struggle with conveniently confusing action choreography. Bitter ties to the First Season become unrealized tangents, and new characters are inexplicably more steadfast than our original crew. Four episodes ago, life was worth fighting for but now isolated characters give up because the script says they should in a one hundred and eighty degree turn that’s painful to see end this way.

Vanessa Ives begins alone, a recluse living in squalor before rising thanks to words and wits with her therapist. Eva Green’s heroine cleans up and humbly restores the manor. Despite losing her faith, Vanessa is inspired by Joan of Arc’s confidence and says she will remain resolute. Oddly, she doesn’t seem as psychic or intuitive anymore and fails to recognize evil tendencies she previously pegged so astutely. It’s sad to see Vanessa open herself, revisiting innocent things that make her happy or having a man’s company once again end in terror. She’s willingly hypnotized to face her repressed psychiatry treatment, addressing her past doubts, regrets, and battles with Lucifer. “A Blade of Grass” shows her at rock bottom before a ray of hope and renewed prayers – if you believe in evil, then you must believe God is there to defeat it. Unfortunately, Penny Dreadful squanders the Lucifer issues, fast tracks Dracula, and circumvents Vanessa’s body and soul versus the fallen brothers with a past event cheating viewers out of a current victory. Vanessa can sense and see Kaetenay when the plot says so, but her lack of psychosexual possession and failed insights inexplicably have her give up despite knowing overdue help is on the way. Green saves this sloppy writing and deserved more hardware for Penny Dreadful. I don’t blame her if she recognized the tone had changed and was ready to depart. The series could have continued in searching for an evil Vanessa as an absent lead a la Blake’s 7 rather than two scenes with bad girl red eye shadow trying to make up for rushing to resolve Vanessa’s story. Josh Hartnett’s Ethan “Lawrence Talbot” Chandler is also not only reluctant to see his real father, but he’s angry at being adopted as Kaetenay’s Apache son. Ethan knows there is blood on his teeth and his soul deserving of punishment and wears his guilt on his sleeve. Unfortunately, his history comes from three different sources – so for all this New Mexico excursion, we don’t get a clear picture. The Wolf of God also spends about fifteen minutes being evil, standing up for Hecate over Malcolm because he won’t repent and belongs in hell. Ethan speaks evil prayers at the dinner table, but isn’t this the guy who’s Latin single-handedly exorcised Vanessa? His reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in the finale feels hollow thanks to his satanic reversal just a few episodes earlier. Was Ethan’s western escapade and Vanessa’s evil each meant to be it’s own season storyline? They both have a scene or two of darkness, and one moment in the finale doesn’t make up for Ethan’s back and forth. Meanwhile, Sarah Greene as Hecate travels in white, an unassuming Gibson girl who loves horses and animals but loathes people. She wants to be evil beside Ethan, but her powers are both handy or nonsense as needed. Hecate kills unnecessary to teach him a lesson and lingers too long in this uneven capacity – crowding an already busy Penny Dreadful while not being a character in her own right. The English Sean Glider (Hornblower) may be an unusual choice as a U.S. Marshall, but his crusty ways balance the British tidiness of Douglas Hodge as Inspector Rusk as they pursue Our Mr. Talbot. Rusk may ask for tea in the bar car and insist Scotland Yard Inspectors do not carry firearms, but he doesn’t underestimate the ruthless West. He begins to believe the Occult upon his case and does take up more violence as the blood on their path increases – before a thankless end, of course.

The beard is back for Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm, and even if he doesn’t know all the details, he’s ready to respect Wes Studi’s (Geronimo: An American Legend) Chiricahua Kaetenay if it will help save Ethan. Like an oasis in white in the mostly unlikely place, it’s wonderful when Malcolm and Ethan finally meet up for some shootout action. However, Malcolm really doesn’t have a whole lot to do this season beyond listening to Kaetenay. Most of his dialogue is responsive filler, and even before the surprise series finale, I suspected Dalton would not be returning for Season Four. You don’t keep a talented name without giving him quality writing, and Malcolm ends up repeating the same plot. Chasing after lost lamb Ethan, fighting a vampire to rescue Vanessa – he’s again saving his family even as his travels keep him from his home and any relationship with Victor. Malcolm could have returned to London post-Africa, maybe to meet Catriona sooner or dislike Dr. Sweet, as it’s a disservice to reduce him to little more than Kaetenay’s sidekick. That said, yes please to more of Studi’s set in his ways Apache. He still scalps because old habits die hard, but he doesn’t drink and believes one can’t die until his purpose is served. Granted, Penny Dreadful is trading the mystical negro trope for the mystical Apache stereotype, but the moonlight visions and enigmatic destiny talk tie the blood, suffering, and wolves together. Kaetenay pushes on after Ethan no matter what – he and his people have endured much but he’s prepared to face this darkness over London. There should have been more time for his revelations, and Penny Dreadful only makes use of Kaetenay when needed. It takes seven episodes for Ethan to heed his warnings about what is to come, and he should have mystically connected with Vanessa from the start. As Ethan’s father, Brian Cox (Coriolanus) also has some great one on one’s with Malcolm. They are wonderfully alike, right down to the conquest map on Jared Talbot’s wall, the mountains named after him, and an empty home as the cost. However, a boat load of family history that Ethan already knows is repeatedly told rather than seen, leaving Talbot Senior unevenly written with sorrowful or crazed exposition amid one gunshot and stand off after another. Had we seen the first terrible shootout that has him so angry, then this second battle in his ranch chapel would have had much more meaning. Kaetenay provided connecting visions when necessary, so why not have some kind of mystic Talbot dream that showed the betrayals and horrors causing all this pain?

Fortunately, Rory Kinnear’s Creature aka Caliban aka John Clare has some superb redemption on Penny Dreadful. He won’t harm a dying cabin boy, recalls more about who he was, and realizes who he may yet be after touching moments in the Fourth and Fifth episodes showing his life before his death and resurrection. He is again at the window or in the eaves, on the outside peering in on those that think he is dead. The Creature risks rejection and reaches out despite the pain, blossoming from being an angry violent child to almost the man he used to be. His resurrection allows Caliban to find his family – only to loose it again thanks to innocence versus the unnatural. This season, Clare is almost totally separate from everyone else, alone on this sympathetic journey beyond too brief moments with Vanessa, erroneously on the fringe without even seeing Dr. Frankenstein. He may piece together his past, but not enough was done with the connection between Vanessa and the Creature. She recognizes him, but not him her, and Penny Dreadful cops out by resolving their past in a flashback. Again, just because we the audience saw it does not mean the characters themselves received any current resolution. Why didn’t Caliban ever knock on Malcolm’s door? He would have been welcome in this misfit family dang nabbit! Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray and Billie Piper’s Brona cum Lily Frankenstein, however, should have stayed home. By his very nature, Dorian is a supporting character that never changes. They aren’t missed when absent but Penny Dreadful uses him and Lily to shoehorn in some kind of modern feminism vengeance that goes nowhere fast with repetitive, ad nauseam speeches. Whether it is justified man hate or not, the appearance of Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World) as Justine perhaps a la the de Sade wastes time with back alley torture, nudity, and bloody threesomes. The warped justice is all over the place with even less to do Dorian getting stabbed for funsies before he gets bored from having seen such depravity already. Episodes grind to a halt with their round and round male behavior psychoanalysis, briefly tossing in suffragettes and violence that makes them just as bad as the abusers from who they claim to rescue women. Penny Dreadful has done better psychosexual themes, and compared to Caliban’s soul searching, Lily realizes her humanity too late in one great soliloquy that should happened the moment she was reborn, and Ethan never finds out Brona has been resurrected!!!!

Harry Treadaway’s junkie Victor Frankenstein becomes a mopey little piss ant bent on proving his superior science can conquer death, and he arrogantly thinks he can perfect on Jekyll’s methods. Maybe there’s a parallel between his wanting to create angels instead of monsters and Lily’s superior woman army, but their uneven storylines barely intersect beyond a few redundant stalker scenes and never factor into other plots. Victor goes about getting Lily back in the worst way possible, becoming like his originally angry Creature in a fitting poetic justice. He’s deluded in thinking Lily owes him anything, and it should be a great destructive character arc. However, rather than having him freaking call on Vanessa while they are both in London twiddling their thumbs, Penny Dreadful treats Frankenstein as an afterthought before one last lesson on how to be a human rather than the monster. One poetic voiceover from Victor such as, “Sir Malcolm, I hesitate to confess it now, but I must inform you I have a singular talent for defeating death as we know it…” could have ended Penny Dreadful in a uniquely twisted vein. Sadder still is that Shazad Latif (Mi-5) as Dr. Jekyll somehow turns into a handing Victor the scalpel lackey. He has history with Dr. F. – roommates and dare I say something more – and faces much “half breed” Victorian racism. Jekyll despises his white father but wants his acclaim and title to help prove his serum on anger and duality. Simply put, there is no way he was intended as a throwaway character and we deserved to know him more. Although scheduling conflicts necessitated the departure of Simon Russell Beale as Mr. Lyle, his being written off as going on assignment to Egypt just begs to be told! Did everyone forget all the prophecies on Amunet and Lucifer or the hieroglyphics carved onto the vampire bodies? Of all the friends still about London who never bother to visit, it’s Lyle who draws Vanessa out and into therapy because thanks to his closeted sexuality, he understands what it is like to be unique and alone. Of course, he might have mentioned Perdita Weeks’ (The Tudors) thanatologist Catriona Hartdegen when they were studying all that Fallen Angel and Mother of Evil stuff. She’s a woman of occult science fencing and wearing pants who doesn’t blink at the thought of Dracula being in London. Her one on one scenes with Vanessa are well done with possible replacement or lover vibes, “It’s ‘Cat’ for you, as in cat o’ nine tails.’” Wink! She calls Malcolm “Sir M” and I would have liked to see more of them together, but Catriona’s style provides a steampunk cum The Time Machine and albeit meaningless potential. Her cool fighting skills are ultimately convenient and inexplicable – if we weren’t going to learn more then all these superfluous characters should have never been introduced.

We are however given some divine new characters with Patti LuPone returning to Penny Dreadful as Dr. Florence Seward – an alienist said to have distant Clayton ancestry due to her resemblance to LuPone’s previous cut-wife role. Though rigid and progressive, Seward is there to heal the ill, who aren’t bad or unworthy, just ill. She calls out every politeness or mannerism, pegging Vanessa’s loss, isolation, and depression in delicious two-hander scenes with award worthy dialogue and delivery. A moving session recounting Vanessa’s tale, however, makes the doctor strike up a cigarette. She refuses to believe the paranormal causes or that vampires are after her patient, but she does understand pain and has some murderous history of her own. Samuel Barnett’s (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) seemingly innocent Renfield is Dr. Seward’s secretary, but his red light district cruising leads to bloody encounters and insect snacks. Where Penny Dreadful initially had to dance around the Stoker limitations, these superb character interpretations deserved more than this season’s rushed attention. Christian Camargo (Dexter) as zoologist and charming widower Alexander Sweet is a man smitten using rapid fire science references to woo Vanessa, but his reveal as Dracula is too darn early. This romance seemed so happy and Sweet is almost empathetic, but evil lurks in the House of Mirrors of all places! He doesn’t want Vanessa’s submission, just to be seduced by she, the Mother of Evil and serve her. Sadly, unraveling toppers instead go unresolved. After admitting he was directly responsible for Mina’s demise and all of Season One, Penny Dreadful lets Dracula exit stage right and we aren’t supposed to notice? What is worth noticing are the trains, dime western action, and steampunky flair alongside our usual penny blood, gore, buzzing flies, broken necks, and bat silhouettes. The cobwebbed and boarded manor opens the windows and clears the dust as the camera focuses on the period touches – vintage motion picture cameras, spectacles, brandy decanters, nibs, and ledgers contrast the hay, canteens, wagons, saw dust, and Native American motifs. The fashions are a little more modern, but the museums, taxidermy, skeletons, and specimens in jars invoke Victorian sciences amid the carriages, cobblestone, and tolling bells. Although some CGI backgrounds are apparent with a foreground actor and fakery behind, the desert vistas, mountains, and ranch compounds create bright lighting schemes to contrast the British grays, developing a unique style like nothing else on television.

Unfortunately, with NBC’s Dracula long gone, Crimson Peak’s less than stellar box office, and Penny lost too soon, the promise of more Victorian horror and a new dark romanticism appears short-lived. Whether the cast or Logan wanted to depart or Showtime disliked the production expenses, something behind the scenes was the final nail in Penny Dreadful‘s coffin. The two hour finale burned off the last episodes yet advertising promoting the event as a season finale later backtracked with the series’ fate. More merchandising opportunities never seemed capitalized upon, and there was little award campaigning. Having had Season One available on other streaming platforms might have helped the show find more audiences, however Penny Dreadful wasn’t available on Netflix until after its cancellation in a tidy Three Season binge package. The series’ props have been auctioned off, so it appears no one shopped Penny Dreadful to any other networks. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but in late 2015 while this Third Year was filming was also when Tom Cruise swept in to take over The Mummy and start Universal’s highly anticipated but ultimately D.O.A. Dark Universe monster revival. Did somebody squash the competition? Maybe it isn’t as simple as that, but I will always be skeptical of Logan and Showtime’s he said/she said claiming that this was always how Penny Dreadful was supposed to end. With new locales and more colorful literary characters among our beloved team, why couldn’t Penny Dreadful sustain itself? Previously, one could overlook any small inconsistencies because the sophisticated scares and morose design far outweighed any negatives. This season, however, becomes a chore to continue and is best left at Episode Four. After finishing Dexter and losing interest in Homeland and Ray Donovan, we’ve canceled our Showtime subscription since Penny is no more. There were other ways to do Penny Dreadful justice than this, well, what seems like internal sabotage, but gothic viewers shouldn’t let this rushed Season Three dampen what has otherwise been a stellar and macabre program.

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Recent Horror Ladies

Recent Lady Horrors

By Kristin Battestella

 

These contemporary pictures provide a little bit of everything for our would be ladies in peril – be it camp, scares, ghosts, or morose thrills.

 

The Love Witch – Artist, witch, and murderess Samantha Robinson’s (Doomsday Device) romantic spells go awry in this 2016 comedy written and directed by costumer/producer/Jill of all trades Anna Biller (Viva). Rear projection drives and teal eye shadow establish the tongue in cheek aesthetics while cigarette smoke, colorful lighting schemes, purple capes, and nude rituals accent flashbacks and sardonic narrations. Magic has cured our dame Elaine’s nervous breakdown after her husband’s death, and she’s starting fresh in a quirky tarot themed apartment inside a sweet California Victorian complete with a bemusing chemistry set for making potions with used tampons. Kaleidoscopes, rainbow liners inside dark retro clothing, blurred lenses, and spinning cameras reflect the “vodka and hallucinogenic herbs” as magic bottles, local apothecaries, and pentagram rugs set off the pink hat and tea room pastiche. Our ladies are so cordial when not plotting to steal the other’s husband! Her dad was cruel, her husband had an attitude, and her magic guru is in it for the sex, but she’s spent her life doing everything to please men in a quest for her own fairy tale love. When is Elaine going to get what she wants? She’s tired of letting the childlike men think they are in control, but she puts on the fantasy each man wants nonetheless, impressing a literary professor with her libertine references as the to the camera elocution and intentionally over the top Valley acting mirrors the courting facade. Psychedelic stripteases tantalize the boys onscreen, but the actresses are not exploited, winking at the customary for male titillation while instead providing the viewer with a sinister, if witty nature and classic horror visuals. Different female roles as defined by their patriarchal connections are addressed as ugly old eager dudes tell matching blonde twins that stripping or a rapacious sex ritual will be empowering – because a woman can’t be content in herself or embrace sexuality on her own terms unless there is a man to ogle her – while our man eater must break a guy down to the emotional baby he really is for her gain. It isn’t Elaine’s fault if men can’t handle her love! A man not in love can be objective while one wanting sex will excuse anything, and the shrew wife or female black subordinate are put out to pasture for an alluring white woman – layering the women in the workplace and racial commentaries as similar looking ladies must switch roles to keep their man. Tense evidence creates somber moments amid police inquiries, toxicology reports, and occult research – so long as the casework doesn’t interfere with their lunch order, that is. Is this woman really a witch or just a bewitching killer in both senses of the word? Is it batting her eyelashes lightheartedness or is she really an abused, delusional girl masking her trauma as a blessed be? The serious topics with deceptive undercurrents and feminist statements will be preachy and heavy handed for most male audiences with uneven pacing and confusing intercuts. However the fake blood in the bathtub, renaissance faire ruses, and melodramatic humor combine for a modern Buffy trippy satire dressed as a retro gothic That Girl homage that takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate.

 

My Cousin Rachel – Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), Holliday Grainger (The Borgias), Ian Glen (Game of Thrones), and Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown) begin this 2017 Daphne du Maurier mystery with happy strolls on the beach and fun bachelor times be it lovely greenery, carriages in the snow, or reading by the fire. The epistle narration gives a hear tell on the titular marriage via secret letters recounting illness and a wife forbidding correspondence before final, unfortunate news leaves the estates to heir Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) on his next birthday – not the unseen widow said to be so strong and passionate. She’s a suspicious enigma for the first twenty minutes before a cross cut conversation introduces the charismatic storyteller, where the audience isn’t sure who is more uncomfortable or telling the truth despite the captivation. Divine mourning gowns, black satin, and lace veils add to the half-Italian allure amid more period accessories, libraries, old fashioned farming, candles, and top hats. Between would be scandalous horseback rides, church whispers, and awkward tea times, our once vengeful youth is smitten by Rachel’s progressive charm. Interesting conversations on femininity break Victorian taboos, for childbirth is the only thing a man knows about a woman and if she has a foreign remedy she must be a witch. Is Rachel wrapping her wealthy cousin around her finger? Can she when he is forbidding her work giving Italian lessons? Rachel is dependent on his allowance, and at times they both seem to be recreating the late benefactor and husband between them – the awkward new master wearing the dead man’s clothes and she the woman he didn’t think he needed. Such romance and heirloom Christmas gifts could be healing for them both, but viewers except the other gothic shoe to drop amid holiday generosity, seasonal feasts, and group songs. Overdrafts at the bank, raised allowances, a history of previous lovers and duels – Rachel puts on her finest grieving widow pity with a child lost and an unsigned will that would leave her everything. Is she orchestrating a careful seduction or is he a foolishly infatuated puppy despite clauses about remarriage or who predeceases whom? The ominous nib etching on the parchment leads to cliffside shocks, birthday saucy, blundered engagements, drunken visions, and poisonous plants. The suspicions turn with new illnesses and financial dependence, as Rachel goes out on the town and says what she does is nobody’s business. After all, why can’t she have a life of her own if the estate is now hers? Why should her independence be defined by a man’s piece of paper? We relate to Rachel, but she can only cry wolf and fall back on her sob story so many times… While this isn’t as creepy as it could be – audiences expecting horror will find the pace slow – the drama and mood are well done amid the wrong conclusions and written revelations. Were the suspicions warranted? The finale may not be satisfactory to some, but the unanswered questions and ultimate doubt remain fitting. 

 

What say you, Addicts?

A Dark Song – Psalm warnings, beautiful skyscapes, and an old house with no heating paid for up front set this 2016 Irish tale amid the train station arrivals and others backing out on this specific plan with west facing rooms, twenty-two week diets, and purified participants having no alcohol or sex. More fasting, dusk to dawn timetables, serious interviews on why, and reluctant rules of the procedure build the cryptic atmosphere as the price for this dangerous ritual rises – speaking to a dead child isn’t some silly astral projection, angel psychobabble bollocks, basic Kabbalah, or easy Gnosticism you can find on the internet. The isolated manor with salt circles and invocations feels seventies cult horror throwback, however the metaphysical talk and extreme meditation bring modern realism as tense arguing, religious doubts, and questions on right or wrong match the bitterness toward the outside world. Hallucinations, sleep deprivation, and vomiting increase while physical cleansings and elemental phases require more candles and blood sacrifices. Some of the slow establishing and ritual minutia could have been trimmed in favor of more on the spooky half truths, suspect motives, need to be pure, and distorted state of mind. Black birds hitting the windows and missing mementos don’t seem to get the waiting for angels and forgiveness rituals very far for the amount of time that has passed, and heavy handed music warns us when something is going on even as more should be happening. A third character also seeking something he cannot find may have added another dynamic rather than two extremists getting nowhere, and short attention span audiences won’t wait for something to appear in those first uneven forty minutes. After all, with these symbols painted on the body and awkward sex rituals, wouldn’t one suspect this is just some kind of scam? Untold information, vengeance, backwards baptisms, near death extremes, and knife injuries meander on the consuming guilt and mystical visions before demons in disguise make for an obvious finale treading tires when the true angels, spirits, and goodness revelations were there all along. Maybe more seasoned hands were needed at the helm or a second eye to fix the pacing and genre flaws, for the quality pieces suffer amid the bleakness. This really shouldn’t be labeled as a horror movie, but it doesn’t capitalize on its potential as a psychological examination and surreal stages of grief metaphor either.

 

Skip It!

Shut In – Widowed Maine psychologist Naomi Watts (The Ring) is trapped in a storm while being haunted by little Jacob Tremblay (Room) in this 2016 international but already problematic PG-13 paint-by-numbers crammed with the isolated blonde, ghosts, kids horrors, weather perils, and one spooky basement. Accidents and home movies on the cell phone also laden the start before the lakeside locales, snowy blankets, and paraplegic burdens. The grief and inability to care for an invalid teen is understandable, and our step-mom considers sending him to a facility. However, the frazzled woman increasingly replacing her sick son with a younger therapy patient and the creepy temptations on holding the invalid under the bath water become hollow thanks to the obligatory it was just a dream jump cuts. Unnecessary technology and time wasting glances at watches and clocks are also intrusive – the camera focuses on dialing 911 with the finger poised over the send button and intercutting person to person like a traditional phone call flows much better than up close Skype screens. Weatherman warnings and news reports as the research montage lead to flashlights outside, icy footprints, and car alarms, but again the tension falls back on textbook raccoon scares with round and round scenes outside in the snow or inside on the phone doing little. Maybe one doesn’t think straight in the panic, but most of those frosty searches include shouting for a deaf mute boy who can’t hear you nor answer back. The psychology is also common fluff, i.e. teens have difficulty with divorce, you don’t say – Skyping Oliver Platt (Chicago Med) provides better therapy, so we know what’s going to happen to his character! Besides, all the shadows in the hallway, hidden wall panels, unexplained scratches, locked doors opening by themselves, and ghostly little hands in the bedroom yet the women still end up talking about a man. Fading in and out transitions mirror the sleeping pills and drinking, but such shifts break the world immersion before the storm even hits. When the doctor says her bloodwork indicates she’s being drugged, mom doesn’t even care – because the twist is for the audience not the main character. Lanterns, black out attacks, and video evidence right before the power failure could be good, but random people arrive despite blocked roads and the oedipal sociopath jealously provides a dumb chase finale as the stalker conveniently sing songs “Hush Little Baby” so we know where he is when he’s coming for you. Good thing that foreboding blizzard talked about the entire movie stops in time for the lakeside happy ending that apparently has no legal, medical, or parental consequences.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Brimstone

 

Brimstone a Disturbing yet Must See Parable

by Kristin Battestella

 

I want to write an entire opus on the 2017 European co-production Brimstone, starring Guy Pearce as a hellbent minister and Dakota Fanning as Liz, the mute midwife afraid of him. The layered statements from writer and director Martin Koolhoven (Schnitzel Paradise) are heavy handed and uncomfortable – many may find Brimstone at best over long at two and a half hours plus and at worst, the picture will be trigger inducing to sensitive audiences. However, with those caveats said, I don’t really want to summarize much else nor especially spoil this western thriller, as it is best to go into this must see genre bending parable cold.

The bleak narration and biblically steeped onscreen chapter titles hit home the seasoned frontier, rough childbirth, and rustic farms. The white church and cross atop the steeple stand out as a sense of order amid the natural wilds, and sermons warn of false prophets, wolves among the sheep, and hellish retributions worse than one can imagine for those who stray into lawlessness. Breach births mean choosing between the mother or the child, creating an ostracizing, easy to manipulate divide. Is such a delivery up to God or the midwife’s fault? Whispers of evil doing can quickly sway a community to fear and violence. Fiery calls for retribution and paying for one’s sins add to the fear and grief of an unbaptized stillborn not finding salvation. Reverse persecution is disguised as divine, and the wolf in sheep’s clothing is almost the devil himself indeed. Why be afraid of a reverend and not welcome him into your home? The foul afoot need not be said, and Brimstone doesn’t underestimate the audience, letting the drama play out with gruesome animal paybacks, abductions, and torturous injuries. The simmering suspiciousness allows the audience a sense of stillness, time to focus on the characters while the iconography builds suspense. The man in black before the burning building or dragging a girl in white through the mud and calling her unclean are allowed to speak for themselves. Brimstone uses a western setting of creepy brothels, servitude, and no justice for working women to tell a medieval morality play – an already damned purgatory epic a la Justine’s virtues made vice with shootouts, dead horses, and all the abuses we can infer. Brimstone’s pursuits may be taking place in an abstract limbo, beyond time and space with different girls who are one and the same, perpetually chased by the same terror with precious few other devil or angel on the shoulder characters. The out of order segments change the settings as they advance the tale, behaving more like acts themselves where the audience is at first unsure if this is what happened before or what comes next. Brimstone keeps viewers interested enough to see how the vignettes tie together; we trust the unique constructs are part of the juxtaposition highlighting how the code of the brothel and the rules of the fanatical minister aren’t very different and both inescapable can even be one and the same. Obey the nastiness of the patriarchal for body and soul or you are guilty and will be punished. Whatever the origin of her sinful behavior, a girl should be ashamed – it’s her fault that menstruation makes her Little Red Riding Hood fair game. Once there is blood there is no innocence, and the vicious cycle continues with twisted irony, fateful orchestrations, and sins that cannot be out run. We’d like to think this was just how it was ye olde back then, but not much has changed has it?

Many actors today simply would not take such a role, but Guy Pearce puts on an incredible presentation in Brimstone as this extremely unlikable manipulator. Our foreboding minister justifies his grooming righteousness with warped scripture, remaining nameless beyond his title or fatherly names – respected monikers advantageously misused along with creepy chapter and verse and touchy feely, uncomfortable familiarity. He knows when Liz is hiding near him and taunts her on how she as such a terrible murderess can sleep at night. This minister has come to punish her and will use her husband and daughter to do it. He immediately expresses a shuddering attachment to her little girl, and after initially claiming his actions are of God, this minister festers into an unstoppable, almost immortal embodiment of the sins made flesh carrying him. Hellbent and beyond salvation, this Big Bad Wolf howls and embraces his brutal scourge. I’m not often disappointed in Pearce’s work despite learning early on thanks to superior quality like The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential, and Memento (For shame on those who discovered Memento and Christopher Nolan so late, and why is Snowy River: The McGregor Saga still not properly available in the U.S.?) However, this may be his darkest, finest performance, and it’s surprising no awards followed. Likewise, Dakota Fanning (The Secret Life of Bees) looks the pioneer part. She’s kind in an unforgiving landscape, mute and disliking guns, but strong and we immediately root for her survival at every struggle, be it a neighbor’s cold shoulder or a freezing last stand. There’s never a doubt that she’s in the right, doing what she has to do – her lack of a heard voice lets her actions speak louder than words. Emilia Jones (Utopia) as the younger Joanna is also a spirited girl who learns of her own strengths the hard way. Despite all the abuse and persecution in Brimstone, these ladies are not victims. The Minister believes a woman can’t out run what a man has in mind for her and she will pay the price for her resistance, but Joanna flees to the frontier for her freedom. She continues to outrun evil in all its disguises whether it is a losing battle or not, and Liz repeatedly take matters into her own hands, refusing to surrender regardless of all that’s taken from her.

The ensemble behind the leads in Brimstone really is a supporting cast helping or hindering, well-intentioned or misused, stepping stones and catalysts. Carice van Houten’s sorrowful mother and helpless wife Anna is completely relatable. The audience wants to protect her from her husband or see her stand up and do something for Joanna, but her weakling mother who can’t do anything contrasts the strong woman alone daughter we see later. This minister’s wife won’t do her wifely duty, thus she needs to be gagged in an iron mask for not holding her tongue and whipped until she can gain the Lord’s favor. Hers is a pathetic existence, and this bittersweet role is the complete opposite of Van Houten’s Game of Thrones ruthless. Fellow Thrones star Kit Harrington is also featured in Brimstone for Chapter Three – perhaps mostly for the financing incentives and audience appeal after several casting changes – for his accent is terrible and he looks a little too pretty boy modern rather than a gritty cowboy. Although we don’t doubt his anti-hero outlaw’s earnest or sincerity toward Joanna, his masculine intrusion is the first of many would be hopeful sparks used against her. Fortunately, Carla Juri (Wetlands, but more importantly, the gal plays ice hockey!) is a fun and feisty prostitute when it comes to the disagreeable male clientele. She’s tender with Joanna, and they plan to leave together as mail order brides after one too many pimp abuses. Viewers hope for their escape from the cathouse – even if we know better. The leaning toward lez be friends because of male hatred innuendo and sacrificial BFF turns may be slightly cliché, but the ladies are likable and charming with turn about twists right up to the end.

 

Brimstone is visually aware of its bleak tale, contrasting the gunfire, outhouses, hangings, and blood on snow with birds chirping, hymns, and the sunshine. Fine cinematography accents the international locations with overhead angles and camera work that knows when to move but also how to be still and let the action happen. The sign language, costuming, horses, and wagons add authenticity, and the color schemes don’t feel digital or over saturated. The natural outdoor palette and interior patinas reflect the chapters being told – a rustic harvest autumn, the hot summer and barren saloons, the budding fertile spring of a New World congregation, and a frigid, snowy twilight with cleansing water bookends. Ironically, Brimstone was shot in relatively chronological order with Three first, then Two, and later chapters One and Four, and the impressive looking blu-ray release includes lengthy behind the scenes interviews and detailed sit downs with numerous cast and crew members. Brimstone is recognizable as a western yet when and where it takes place isn’t definitive. There are no cowboys in white hats or other familiar archetypes, only a desolate mood and lawless atmosphere that doesn’t shy away from the period brutality. While not horror per se, Brimstone has many horrific scenes to match its warped attitudes, telling its difficult to watch tale in its own time with no genre limit to stop it from going too far – a refreshing lack of cinema restraint which again, for many audiences, will cross the line. Brimstone is difficult to watch, yet there’s little vulgarity, no unnecessary visuals, and no major nudity. Corsets and pantaloons invoke enough saucy, leaving the story and characters to tell the numbing brutality instead of today’s desensitizing flash in the pan in your face style. However, I must say I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of… um… creative… use of intestines in a movie, ever.

So many Hollywood movies go through the motions, and Brimstone’s negative stateside reviews may be because American audiences aren’t accustomed to this kind of hardcore storytelling. Period piece horror dramas transcending genre like Brimstone such as Bone Tomahawk and The Witch are being made, however, their statement-making frights inexplicably remain elusive festival finds outside mainstream release. Spoilers aside, I didn’t cover all the details here simply because I didn’t take many review notes. I was too busy paying attention to the not for the faint of heart as Brimstone strips the viewer mentally and emotionally with its offensive no holds barred. Maybe rather than shying away from the viewing conversation, we should be embracing a quality motion picture that wouldn’t be any good if it didn’t push us to our limits as Brimstone does.

 

Kbatz: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again for April

 

The Oblong Box Along and Scream and Scream Again Dated, but All in Good Fun

By Kristin Battestella

 

The Vincent Price fest is never over, so along comes The Oblong Box and its double bill with Scream and Scream Again. Though not as special as some of Price’s previous Poe and Corman collaborations, this duet celebrates not one horror master, but two. Vincent Price, meet Christopher Lee.

Julian Markham (Price) has returned from his family’s African plantation with his cursed and deformed brother Edward (Alister Williamson) – who Julian keeps locked in an upstairs room. Despite the mysterious behaviors at his estate, Julian hopes to marry the young and beautiful Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer). The Markham lawyers Samuel Trench (Peter Arne, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Mark Norton (Carl Rigg, Marked Personal), however, plot Edward’s escape and cure along with African witchdoctor N’Galo (Harry Baird, The Italian Job). Unfortunately, Edward is accidentally buried alive in their scheme. Once rescued by Dr. Neuhart (Christopher Lee) and his grave robbers, the masked Edward romances the pretties and plots his revenge.

 

He may be top-billed, but there’s not as much of our beloved, over the top Vincent Price (The Tomb of Ligeia, House of Usher) in 1969’s The Oblong Box. Although he’s less than a decade removed from the early success of American International Pictures’ Poe series, Price looks a little old for his leading lady Elizabeth. Fortunately, outside of these quibbles, there’s still plenty to love. Julian looks the worn, conflicted English noble. Can he dare to hope while he’s also walking a deadly line of guilt and destruction? Price makes the most of his given scenes, both as a disturbed brother and a charming husband. Again Hilary Dwyer (Wuthering Heights, Hadleigh) seems a little young, but this works in her tender relationship and naivety with Julian. Likewise, Sally Gleeson (Bless This House) looks and acts the pretty -if a little naughty-maid.

Hammer Horror alum and Lord of the Rings veteran Christopher Lee also doesn’t have as creepy a role as I might have liked, but his mad doctor is a high brow mad doctor. He pays slick swindlers to steal the bodies of the recently deceased for his research, but Neuhart does his doctoring while wearing a silk tie and waistcoat. He gets down and dirty with cadavers in the name of science, but Neuhart objects to Edward’s blackmail and murderous revenge. There isn’t much time for this stylized ambiguity in The Oblong Box, but Lee’s presence and voice command your attention in all his scenes.

 

Price, yes, Lee, lovely- but The Oblong Box is Alister Williamson’s (The Abdominal Mr. Phibes) picture. Yes, the masked man who’s true face you never even see and who the voice was actually dubbed steals this picture. It would have been intriguing for Price to play both brothers-or even Lee take a turn under the crimson hood- but the voice and style of both men are too easily recognized. Williamson and his Edward are mysterious, unknown. What does he look like under that hood? We know he’s been wronged and wants to see Edward find justice, but how far will his revenge go? Which side of the law is he on -and why do the ladies find him so irresistible? This is England, 1865 as only 1969 could recreate. Williamson gives Edward charm and tenderness with some ladies, then rapacious violence with others. He’s naughty, nice, misunderstood, and vengeful-not bad for our unknown, unseen, and unheard actor, eh?

The cast keeps The Oblong Box charming, but this very loosely Poe inspired adaptation from Lawrence Huntington (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents) and Christopher Wicking (Murders in the Rue Morgue) isn’t as strong as it could be. Director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) spends too much time on the stereotypical mistreatment of colonial Africa and blaxploitation-like zooms and voodoo montages. If you want to talk about the unjusts of slavery, set the entire picture in Africa and let the actors go to their scary depths.

 

Thankfully, the visual mix of the sixties and Victorian styles ties The Oblong Box together. The color and costumes are great even though Americans might be a little confused by the English style. When we see 1865 on tombstones, we think hoop skirts and Civil War extravagance ala Gone with the Wind. Here, however, the ladies “be-bustled” in a more mid to late 1880s style. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of bawdy English taverns and cleavage bearing working girls. The outdoor locations are also a treat, and there are even a few daytime graveside scenes- a rarity in these old horror flicks.

The Oblong Box isn’t perfect, but there are a few filmmaking strides here, too. The early, up close, claustrophobic deaths are from the askew killer’s point of view. We want to look away, but can’t. Despite the story’s thin execution, the charm and classic stylings of the cast win out -along with the mystery at hand. We can’t help but watch just to see if our hooded killer is caught and unmasked. Freaky faces, scares, voodoo, and violence -we just can’t help ourselves, can we?

Thankfully, Hessler, Wicking, Price, and Lee reunited the following year for 1970’s Scream and Scream Again. Who could they possibly add to up the horror ante? Why, Peter Cushing, of course!

 

 

Superintendent Bellavur (Alfred Marks, Albert and Victoria) and fellow officer Sylvia (Judy Huxtable, The Touchables) investigate a string of vampire murders. Each victim has ties to local scientist Dr. Browning (Price) and his nurse Jane (Uta Levka). Before Bellavur and morgue assistant David (Christopher Matthews, Scars of Dracula) can solve the case, Intelligence commissioner Fredmont (Lee) must strike a deal with torturous foreign dictator Konratz (Marshall Jones, Crossroads), who wants the files detailing the vampire case. Konratz has overstepped Major Benedek (Cushing) and taken control of a very grim conspiracy that has its subjects screaming and screaming some more.

 

Vincent Price is another year older now, and his old style presence and charisma is a little out of place amid fast-paced Brit coppers. The juxtaposition of all these young go-go folks would make Price seem past his prime -even though we know he has another thirty years of solid work ahead of him. His scenes are few and far between, but his Dr. Browning is so slick. He proves his worth against the hip stylings with suave answers for our detectives and high Frankenstein ideals. He’s a mad scientist with the best of intentions and Price leads us to Scream and Scream Again’s big finish. If the body stealing doctor with the vat of acid isn’t our bad guy, that’s scary.

Well, our man Dracula, aka Christopher Lee, as a good guy police minister-surely this can’t be? Again, there’s not nearly enough of him in Scream and Scream Again, but it’s a treat to see Lee young, modern, besuited and fedora wearing! Fremont has all the lines and politicking needed, using Konratz and Browning to his advantage. Who will come out on top? Who’s really behind all our slim and shady? In the end, Lee’s dominating presence is delightful, as is the freaky style of Uta Levka, another alum from The Oblong Box. This nurse’s devoid eyes and lack of lines would make any patient shudder.

 

Fellow Hammer Horror veteran and Sherlock Holmes star Peter Cushing doesn’t appear for the first half hour, but it’s no surprise that he would be the Major in charge of a Nazi-esque dictatorship successfully taking over a small European country. Unfortunately, his suave class and control over such ugly business is all too brief for Scream and Scream Again. I don’t know who the rest of the people here are and I really don’t care -and it seems the marketing folks who put Price, Lee, and Cushing in bold print knew that. Don’t Wicking and Hessler realize we can handle Price, Lee, and Cushing at the same time-nay we want to see them, we have to see them, we need to see them in more than these briefities! Forget the teenyboppers and bell-bottoms already!

It’s annoying and misleading, yes, as it has little to do with the film; but you have to admit Scream and Scream Again is a crafty title. There’s a nice chase sequence ala Bond as well, but is this so titled flick hip action or horror? Scream and Scream Again has a very interesting concept of realistic, multiple storylines amid scares and fast pacing. Unfortunately, the non-linear and jumpy approach disjoints and unravels any strides made. Each story could have been its own film, and each isn’t given its full deserving depths here. The swanky 1970 music and British contemporary style are very dated now. Scream and Scream Again might have been served better as a traditional period piece, but that probably wouldn’t have worked with Peter Saxon’s source novel. Fans of the cast’s other horror work might feel a little alienated by these vague thoughts on science and conspiracy, and Scream and Scream Again spends too much of its time trying to be hip and avant-garde with its pop music and interweaving trio of storylines.

 

I’ve been critical of the dated styles and misdirection of Scream and Scream Again because it’s a lost opportunity to do something really spectacular with our trio of horror masters. Having said that, it is still a scary and freaky film-psychotic and experimental doctors, cops chasing pseudo-vampire killers, maniacal governments torturing its subjects. When you look at Scream and Scream Again like that, well, then any fan of old school horror should be all for it!

Although these double billed DVDs are an affordable, quick and easy bang for your buck; most of them are a little older, and often double sided. It’s kind of a pain to flip the disc, but it’s better to have these gems digitally restored than not at all. (Insert rant here about how half the films made before 1950 no longer exist and that all the classics that aren’t available on DVD should be restored before any more Disney Direct to Video drivel comes out, thank you.) There are subtitles here at least if no features beyond trailers. What’s really unfortunate for Prince and Lee fans? Their next collaboration with Peter Cushing-and John Carradine- 1983’s House of the Long Shadows, is not available on DVD. Thankfully, The Oblong Box is viewable online.

Though seriously flawed and imperfect by modern standards, both The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again make for a fun night of horror and camp. Both may be too bawdy or uninteresting for the kids, but horror enthusiasts and fans of the cast can have a fun, quick marathon for Halloween or any time of the year.

Kbatz: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

 

Latest Victor Frankenstein Unfortunately Disappointing

by Kristin Battestella

 

I had hoped Gothic dramatizations and Victorian horror were making a comeback. Unfortunately, with the cancellation of Penny Dreadful, the less than welcoming reception of Crimson Peak, and the disappointing result of the 2015 Victor Frankenstein, the potential for dark romanticism and steampunk gone macabre trends seems over before it could really start.

The hunchbacked Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) is rescued from the cruel circus and healed by the visionary but radical Doctor Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy). Dismissed from his medical college, Victor is reanimating small subjects and intends to create life with a new man-made cadaver. Unfortunately, Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) is following the gruesome trail back to Victor, and he objects to Frankenstein’s amoral and godless plans – which need Igor’s raw medical talents to be completed.

 

Victor Frankenstein is slow to start with more telling than showing when the waxing on man versus monster making could all be seen rather than told. These talkative delays underestimate the audience, compromising atmospheric immersion and period mood with “little did I know” narrative breaks. Where’s the Victorian carnival flair and underlying horror? Victor Frankenstein has a unique angle on this oft told tale, but the action is styled for the cool circus escape with unnecessary slow motion and leaping over a box being highlighted as more important than freakish servitude and characters in peril. Viewers can see Victor observing Igor reading medical texts – we can feel the characters if you let us instead of cutting corners with fast moving dialogue, hectic editing, and shaky camerawork. Victor Frankenstein isn’t really sure how it wants to present itself because the required flashy becomes more important the the man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself horror possibilities. Mischievous animal part thefts and science montages happen quick with little time to enjoy the mad science. Of course, Victor Frankenstein isn’t true horror, yet the soft romantic scenes and rags to riches drama feels at odds with the macabre. Debates on magic and superstition versus emerging science and technology make for better drama alongside failed science presentations and medical mistakes letting us know where each character stands. Although the hissing monkey prototype has some creepy moments and could be a sinister step to the monster making, these scenes come off as a laughable detour. Real science probables such as two hearts and four lungs and numerous design montages become too busy, hindering the grossly fantastic and the character drama. Is Victor Frankenstein about Victor’s mad descent or Igor’s misused intelligence? If this is about Victor’s coming to this ghastly point, the story should begin before his experiments and conclude with the onset of his creation. If Victor Frankenstein really is about Igor’s role in the monstrosity, then the science should be nearer completion. Instead, Victor Frankenstein meanders for over an hour before London on the lamb and double crossings throw more wrenches into the quick monster finish. Past reasons why come too late, and tacked on narrations do nothing to explain what Victor Frankenstein is about beyond an opening ending in hopes of a sequel.

With his slick ‘stache and Victorian finery, James McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse) looks the titular mad scientist with an ulterior reason for inspiring Igor. Arrogant Victor thinks he’s too intelligent, admitting he prefers his vanity to being called a criminal and will speak slowly when talking to lesser people. Victor gets too far ahead of himself in belittling believers, life, and theology. He’s too excited over his own experiments and uses a fast talking wit to confuse others into not questioning his brilliance. Unfortunately, this flippant, condescending double talk effect is exactly how the audience feels when watching Victor Frankenstein. It’s more interesting to see Victor educate and raise Igor almost like he would do the monster. He doesn’t care about charity just control – Victor needs Igor’s talent to finish his life and death projects while he takes the credit. He fixes Igor’s hump in a gross, back cracking pinning while sucking the fluids out through a tube in one erroneously forced and homophobic scene, and comedic dialogue perceiving them as friends jars against the feeling superior Victor using Igor for his own devious ends. We meet Victor Frankenstein after the doctor has already left any morality questions behind and made his leap to madness, leaving what could have been an intriguing science versus soul debate as stubbornly unlikable assery. Victor’s motivation is revealed too late and very little consequences follow his actions. McAvoy is left doing more shouting than anything creepy, and his Scottish accent bleeds through into a not necessarily British, just toned down affectation akin to the meh at hand.

Fortunately, Daniel Radcliffe’s (Harry Potter) Igor is developed as a real assistant rather than an idiot in Victor Frankenstein. Despite learning nothing but cruelty from people as a circus hunchback, Igor is also a self-educated amateur doctor who cleans up nice and tries to remain loyal thanks to Victor’s kindness toward him. Of course, this Victor Frankenstein can’t be told wholly from Igor’s perspective as promised when he is absent from several scenes and critical information is given without him. Igor’s narration also comes and goes – oddly returning for his moon eyes over a girl when the fantastic science is afoot. Igor is also able to run, swim, and scale a rock cliff just by putting on a back brace after having spent a lifetime as cripple…okay. Staying entirely in Igor’s point of view would have helped Victor Frankenstein tremendously as his voiceovers or journaling montages could explain the number of weeks or months passing while giving the audience his private observations on the increasing madness. Instead, Igor flip flops too much to be the viewer’s anchor and changes his tune on Victor’s plans – first he’s reluctant to proceed due to a financial deadline and wants to discuss the peril of creating man in his own image but then he feels obligated to Victor for giving him life thanks to metaphoric contrivances. Igor knows the jealous Victor has become an embarrassment, used him, and interfered with his romance. However, the two hearts and two brothers parallels between bad Victor and good Igor seem more important that Igor’s fresh perspective, and the idea of Victor being a positive benefactor raising up life through Igor ends up too muddle to save Victor Frankenstein. However, the hunchback does get the girl in a hammy but surprisingly not exploitive sex scene. How often can you say that?

The supporting players in Victor Frankenstein sadly also serve as little more than stereotypes, including Jessica Brown Finlay as the pretty acrobat turned beard Lorelei. Despite potential for a would be love triangle, Finlay only appears in a handful of scenes looking too modern, out of place, and too small in her swimming costumes – and it’s all so odd because she was so good on Downton Abbey. Lorelei is merely used as a brightly color standout when some symbolism is necessary before inexplicably disappearing for the finale. While Andrew Scott’s (Sherlock) Turpin is a shrewd inspector not falling for Victor’s spin, the intriguing idea of his pursuit of Frankenstein for religious beliefs rather than legal prosecution is dropped for a standard case of lawman with manpain. Scott also feels either out of his depth or too much for the material, for his scenes seem like they come from another movie. Turpin may also loose an eye or hand at some point – but he ends up still having them both later anyway. Whoopsie! Elder Frankenstein Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) does add an element of stern class in his sacrilegiously short screen time. One frigging scene! The Baron gives Victor a good talking to with a well-deserved chastising and slap, and Victor Frankenstein needed much more of these father and son aspects.

 

Victor Frankenstein has sweeping Victorian scene setters with colorful circus tents, exterior facades, and zooming in entries – and viewers can tell it is all unnecessary CGI. What’s happening under the circus tent and inside the laboratory are cool enough thanks to nighttime gaslight glows, crackling electricity, and large gears. Up close foggy streets, bleak hospital interiors, and horse drawn carriages accent more alongside period medical sketches, Victorian zoos, steam gizmos, disembodied eyes, and more creepy specimens in green tanks. Mirrors and reflections mimic the duality in Victor Frankenstein, and overlaying anatomy lines, diagrams, body labels, and human schematics do better than any trite slow motion. Unfortunately, the mad science blueprints are used onscreen early, then dropped for most of the picture until the final monster design montage – almost to cop out on not actually showing any of the monster work. Daylight scenes in Victor Frankenstein reveal the color, costumes, golden rooms, and would be splendors of the time like heat and running water, but the bare minimum period setting remains Victorian light rather than fantastic steampunk. Top hats, a crinoline, and a few big skirt twirls don’t hit home the costumes, and modern tattoos can be see when wearing those strapless gowns. Victor Frankenstein never even says the year, and despite its obviously expensive intentions, this feels low budget messy and unfinished. Stormy, gloomy Scottish atmosphere comes too late in the final act – where the raising of the monster is an orchestration in action set pieces followed by a spectacular destruction. All that fiery, confusing hurrying and Victor Frankenstein limps into over five minutes of credits with little to show for it.

This not a horror movie nor a character drama, but Victor Frankenstein isn’t really science fiction and has no fantastic to its creation either. The rush to be modern cool or more Hollywood than nineteenth century British sacrifices any Gothic feeling, and the condensed script or production changes on the fly lack period finesse. It’s tough to view Victor Frankenstein as what it is but rather what it could have been, and the cast, setting, and story deserved better. While serviceable for audiences who haven’t seen any other Frankenstein adaptation, Victor Frankenstein makes older audiences appreciate the panache of the Hammer Frankenstein films all the more. If you’re looking for the book you won’t find it – like a game of telephone, Victor Frankenstein starts with Mary, passes through Universal, and quotes Young Frankenstein before this disappointing result that never takes its original possibilities to the next level.

Kbatz: Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe

Frightening Flix

Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe Surprisingly Good

Several months ago, I saw an interview with Cassandra Peterson-aka Elvira-discussing Tomb of Ligeia, one of her favorites in the American Pictures International’s Poe series by director Roger Corman. Unfortunately, for the life of me I couldn’t recall having seen this final adaptation starring Vincent Price. When the 1969 film came on out on a double billed DVD with An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, I gave the set my full attention. Perhaps it’s not a total shocker since I like the rest of Corman’s Poe series, but Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe are surprisingly good.

Verden Fell (Price) vows that his late wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) will defy death. He becomes reclusive and keeps away from sunlight with his dark colored glasses-until the beautiful Rowena (also Shepherd) erroneously comes to his ruined abbey. The couple falls in love, despite Rowena’s previous attachment to Verden’s friend Christopher (John Westbrook). They marry, but Rowena is ill at ease in Ligeia’s former home. Ligeia’s Egyptian antiques are everywhere; her spirit seems to linger over Verden during the night, and there’s a nasty black cat about that makes her displeasure known.

Director Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) takes a few departures from his earlier Poe films by brightening up Tomb of Ligeia with natural locations and a little more romance than usual. Adapted by Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise) from Poe’s short story, the analysis of mind and will power over death itself weaves the film together with ancient Egyptian allusions and plenty of ambiguity towards black cats. Each plot resolves satisfactory, but Poe’s twists and Corman’s interpretations leave the viewing thinking longer than prior pure shock conclusions.

Even though this is the last of the Poe pictures, Vincent Price looks younger here. His Verden is a little more sympathetic than his earlier, often evil roles. Not only is Price not as over the top as we love, but he’s actually sad sometimes, even pathetic with his dependence on his little glasses. But of course, Tomb of Ligeia does have the bizarrity we’d expect, including some ambiguity about necrophilia. Ew! Thankfully, Price looks good with Elizabeth Shepherd (Bleak House, Side Effects, Damien: Omen II). Any age difference doesn’t seem to factor in; they match well, and have nice, genuine chemistry. The more romantic tone between Verden and Rowena isn’t so tough to believe amid the scares. Nice as it is to have the sweet emotion amid the creeps; Shepherd is freaky in the duel bits as Ligeia. It’s obvious it is she, of course, but the showdown with Ligeia and the dream sequence with the ladies are well done. John Westbrook’s (The First Churchills) Christopher is in the odd middleman position in this love triangle, but his outside, sane perspective helps the audience balance out some of the horrors.

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While not as stylized as its Poe predecessor The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia has some beautiful natural locals and production. There’s a hefty amount of daylight scenes here-and they all work in the spooky, gothic, Early Victorian setting. There are some great ruined abbeys, the English countryside, and even a romantic stroll through Stonehenge. You might think these pieces don’t go together, but the morbid set interiors match the abbey in gothic look and spooky tone. The Victorian costumes are also early in style, alluding to a bit of the Bronte Sisters, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. And of course, there’s a very disturbing classic Corman dream sequence that scares better than some of the stranger, more bizarre visual dream trickery previously done.

Side B of our set offers more Vincent Price in a one-man show called An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. Price showcases four tales from Poe in various stage settings, beginning with “The Tell Tale Heart.” I imagine you’re familiar with the tale, and Price is delightfully over the top here. His crazed style suits the story. The production here looks a little low and bare, but theatre fans can certainly enjoy this spirited Poe dramatization. “The Sphinx” is actually a Poe story that’s new to me. Price changes his looks and time period for each tale, strengthening his suave approach to the audience. He is clearly enjoying the punch line here, and this tale is better dressed than “The Tell Tale Heart.” Some might think a one-man production is stale and boring, but swift camera movement keeps things fresh. Not the crazy angles and dizzying modern zooms, but there’s just enough cuts and close ups to create the illusions needed.

So, that’s how “The Cask of Amontillado” is pronounced! I was never quite sure. The older Price is made up even older here for this unusual interpretation. You’d expect to see this one played out, not in effect told as perhaps “The Tell-Tale Heart” can only be. Price, however, does the voices of both men involved, playing on the amusement of the story and the unreliable status of the narrator. The camera again moves with him, cutting from several sides and using duel tricks almost like Gollum and Smeagol in The Two Towers. It’s a simple maneuver, but it works with the very handsomely dressed dining room stage.

It’s strange that director Kenneth Johnson (V, Alien Nation) would do “The Pit and the Pendulum” here in 1972 when Roger Corman did the feature length film ten years earlier. Nevertheless, Price looks the old and crazy part. Each tale has progressed his age, the time period, and the story’s deceit. This short here is more abstract and dream like than Corman’s back story filled movie. The fire and brimstone effects in this Pit go for more frights rather than a Twilight Zone twist ending. You would think Vincent Price effectively reading books line for line onscreen would be boring, but no. The stories dramatized in these readings are all told in the past tense with Poe’s great unreliable narrator telling his askew interpretation to the audience. Even though it may look old or too theatre to modern audiences, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is perfect for Vincent Price fans, film students, or literature teachers looking for a short and sweet visual accompaniment for the classroom.

The DVD set of Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is relatively simplistic, with only a commentary of Roger Corman and Elizabeth Shepherd. It’s a little slow in pacing, but fun and informative for the die-hard fan. The subtitles for Ligeia are great, too. Fans of the previous Poe pictures or sixties horror films can enjoy Tomb of Ligeia, but period piece and gothic fans should tune in, too. However, hardcore viewers looking for a blood fest and straight horror should skip these stylized tales. Likewise, I also don’t know about cat lovers enjoying Tomb of Ligeia. Feline folks will delight in the pesky cat scenarios, but cat enthusiasts won’t like some of the black cat bashing, either. Ah, it’s the beauty of Poe, something for everyone!

Kbatz: Penny Dreadful Season 2

Penny Dreadful Season 2 is Again a Macabre Good Time

by Kristin Battestella

penny 2Penny Dreadful’s sophomore year opens with a recap of the the Showtime series’ debut before picking up the Gothic sophistication right where we left off – this time with ten episodes of scorpions, witches, monsters, and devils.

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is attacked by a group of Nightcomer witches led by Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), but ex-gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) protects Vanessa along with Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – whom Madame Kali pursues romantically. Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) helps translate a mysterious demonic tale written on a monk’s relics alongside Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), but Frankenstein is distracted by his work on the late Brona Croft (Billie Piper) – now resurrected as Lily Frankenstein at the request of the Creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), himself going by the name John Clare for his new job at a waxworks museum. Unfortunately, Lily eventually sets her sights on the decadent Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) instead.

White snow, demonic language, and dangerous carriage attacks waste no time starting “Fresh Hell” alongside excellent tender moments and graves dug from last season. Where Year One was about meeting the team and facing a largely unseen evil, now Penny Dreadful puts a more human face on our company’s threats with evil women and meddling inspectors. It’s a delightful step to share the gruesome aftermath while we get to know this enemy – a little demon family to mirror our flawed fighters. Monstrosity is just everywhere in Londontown!These naked witch ladies should be alluring but they are not, and new biblical threads arise in “Verbis Diablo.” Even prayers are no longer sacred amid pity projects, cholera ills, and enchanting deceptions. New character interactions infuse Penny Dreadful, anchoring the stories of possessed holy men, titular puzzles, disturbing infant abductions, and unique voodoo uses. That’s one diabolic arts and crafts room! There’s sup
erb war room plotting in both our houses – and a mole between them – so it is perhaps unusual to have an all Vanessa flashback episode so soon in “The Nightcomers.” However, the Victorian meets Baba Yaga magic, symbols, and protection motifs are excellent thanks to critical past information that will be important later and sublime guest star Patti LuPone
(Life Goes On). This well paced character drama fills in history from the First Season and serves it with quaint do no harm and brutal persecution.

The demonic riddles and unique character confrontations continue in “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places.” Deception always wears such a pretty face yet Penny Dreadful makes time for our darkly clad band to enjoy some lighthearted social moments before a creepy chameleon siege upon Sir Malcolm’s house that has the viewer studying each frame for clues. While padding time and unnecessarily stretched out scenes are apparent in this longer season, the final moments here are an appropriately simmering, silent unease. “Above the Vaulted Sky” has some fine true horror as extensions of our family pay a terrible price, and recalled Apache atrocities parallel the montages of faith and battle preparations. Are steel doors, guns, prayers, and totems enough to face the devil? It’s pleasing to have time dedicated to the turmoil and lying in wait for harm to come as evil and the authorities close in on our company. Penny Dreadful has touching poetic moments before major ghosts encounters and hefty scares. However, the sex scene finale here is very poorly edited with intercut frightening erroneously mixed with what should be tender bedroom moments. The morning after in “Glorious Horrors” is non too peachy either as influences are asserted and bloody fatalities become as simple as replacing the carpet. Can one be oblivious to threats when everything is connected and nothing is happenstance? Funeral talk and awkward balls shape a deliciously off kilter splendor, and Penny Dreadful puts all its players together in a twisted little bloodbath with intriguing character asides, jealous pairs old and new, superb revelations, and gruesome showdowns.

 

Little Scorpion” is a shorter Penny Dreadful episode at only 49 minutes, but this Ethan and Vanessa-centric block has lovely one on one character moments questioning solitude and the growing distrust among our eponymous team. The tormented have some small, delightful comforts away from the inescapable monsters and demons at their backs, making for some dangerous tension and steaming dancing in the dark storms. Superior hours where not all the cast appears suggests Penny Dreadful creator John Logan may be juggling too many storylines or characters, but “Memento Mori” trades deadly toppers for swift interrogation filming. Askew up close shots, intercut tension, and lies contrast softer fireside conversations and waxing regrets. Can you look at yourself inthe mirror when you do what has to be done in the fight against evil? The ongoing demon incarnate puzzle solving ties together pieces from Season One as mirrors and dual camera tricks heighten the character heavies. Although the evil plans seem too wishy wasy at times with back and forth possessions and reversed enchantments, this episode allows its three plotlines to play out as uninterrupted acts, bucking the A, B, C standard television story structure to elevate its scary revelations.

Monster does catch monster, and even the authorities consider otherworldly and superstitious possibilities in “And Hell Itself My Only Foe.” Upticked violence and hauntings find our team, and the witty dialogue and intelligent scripting add to the surprises. The subtle Talbot name drop is worth all the wolf mishandling in the First Season, and more self-awareness comes in the ugly waxworks entertainment. Evil is beautiful and seductive with temptations from Lucifer to display one’s inner beast. That internal made manifest leads to some stunning confrontations, indeed. $%#%(*&! The excellent multi-layered horrors and battle of wills continue in the “And They Were Enemies” finale as Penny Dreadful’s not so merry band is tested in enemy territory. Devils on the shoulder present a most convincing case – be it death, our darkest desires, or the brightest dream too good to be true. Once you cross the line toward darkness, what must you do to come back to the light? Can you save yourself at all? Granted, moments with the effigy puppetry and lookalike demonic language arguing become hokey quickly, a jarringly laughable moment amid the utmost heavy. After a hefty but quality slow build and some unnecessary treading tires and stalling plots, the final evil confrontation also feels too rushed by comparison. There are some wild surprises and a character denouement with time for reflection is a welcome change from an action finale. However, maybe the pacing should have been tightened to have an all battle second to last hour and then an entire sigh of relief end instead of a finale that feels too half and half. Fortunately, Penny Dreadful concludes with plenty of creepy nonetheless. Are our players moving forward stronger after these paranormal events? Their ships may be sailing their separate ways, but Year Three of Penny Dreadful looks to promise plenty! %%$%#$@#*@!

 

Evil just won’t let go of Vanessa Ives so easily, will it? Her strength to fight against demons inside and out glues the team together as much as it puts them in peril, and Vanessa needs them as much as they need her. She talks about what must be done and what she is capable of doing, and even when some of that is just delayed exposition issues, we believe her wrath because we’ve see her pain. For all the good she does and her ongoing struggles to keep this delicate balance, her ties to Amunet leave nothing but badness in her wake. How do you cling to faith when there is so much wicked? Vanessa endeavors to embrace her power within – but does that mean you abandon your belief in a higher power? Having religion doesn’t necessarily make you good, and Vanessa admits she and God are on challenging terms. Can we just be who we are or is that too much responsibility for one soul? Vanessa’s therapy is in her support of the boys about her – she is a confessor for each of them in different ways. Will solace be found in like tormented persons? She can soothe others but not herself, and Vanessa has some deliciously intellectual conversations with John Clare, adding a new damned soul to her repertoire – which looks quite cloudy for next season.

Likewise, Ethan Chandler is beginning to suspect his wolfy connections as more dastardly carnage comes to light. He’s perpetually trying to leave town thanks to his fear of admitting what he is capable of doing, which is beautifully foreshadowed in “Verbis Diablo” before the tenth hour finale. Ethan’s charming banter with Lyle deflects his inner lupus with Latin research, and Hartnett very nearly steals the show in his witty battles with Douglas Hodge (Red Cap) as the persistently not stupid Inspector Rusk. Like Vanessa, Ethan pegs people for who they really are, and his coy comes in handy as his pursuers mount. Even if he can face his affliction and its monthly consequences, he tries to protect Vanessa from his wild in a wonderfully unconventional romance – if it can even be called that. We don’t see the wolf outs for flash in the pan cool, but rather as choice visuals to emphasize the tormented monstrosity now fully realized on Penny Dreadful as it should have been all along. Danny Sapani as manservant Sembene also has more to do now that he helps Ethan bind his lycanthrope tendencies, adding to the fine moments he has with Sir Malcolm. This stalwart and strong but humble workhorse character provides a shaman wisdom while doing the dishes, baking, and waxing on how Ethan should see his moonlit changes as a blessing not a curse. Sembene shares his own past sins and guards his household kin with unwavering duty and respect, but by golly, audiences will be understandably angry at the treatment of the character. He still deserves more, #$%D#&*%!

 

New bewitching temptations and continued family losses grip Sir Malcolm once again on Penny Dreadful, but the in control, noble gentleman on the outside can’t use his suave to hide his pain. Sir Malcolm must face the questions and consequences regarding his daughter Mina’s death from Last Season, and he’s ready to trade his life and accept his punishment to spare his newfound family further torment. His internal demons provide ghostly experiences both positive and wicked. Dalton is charming in his unknowingly deceptive courting with Mrs. Poole, but the shaving of his beard is a surprising character development. It’s just so odd seeing the ex-007 sans scruff again, but the change is a perfect reflection of the evil influences at work. Despite some strong advice from Sir Malcolm and an interesting science versus faith intellectual pairing with Lyle, young Victor Frankenstein is also blinded by his wrong doings, chiding John Clare’s pressure on Lily while Victor himself is slowly but surely shaping his perfect woman. Frankenstein’s muddled monster making motives become increasingly creepy science for fetish alongside his now not secret drug addictions. He’s a little nasty, too, but bonds with Vanessa, trusting her to help him with his awkward shopping experience. Slowly Victor becomes aware of his mistakes, even admitting his addiction is affecting his freaky science, but by time he wants to escape his creations, it’s too late. Ironically, Dr. F. doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but evil knows what he has spawned and uses his deeds against him in smashing fashion.

Those wonderfully macabre waxworks and layered Victorian deceptions elevate the Caliban aka John Clare plots this season, and his scenes with Vanessa are refreshingly honest and mature. Clare speaks his mind without malice instead of his usual mine mine mine childish wants. Why are these Frankenstein men so pressed and gushing over every woman they meet? Clare’s friendship with Vanessa is his first genuine and healthy relationship. Kinnear has room to shine in the poetic recitings and quiet moments with Green, but the well read doesn’t do Clare any good if he won’t learn from his to err is human. Once again, he misuses his chance to do right, can’t catch a break, and ultimately must flee. When Clare finally looks past Lily’s beauty and his desperate need for companionship, he sees a worse ruthlessness and rightfully realizes that Pandora’s Box contains a mirror. Was Lily’s creation worth it? Though the short blonde hair doesn’t fit the period and it is unusual that Vanessa doesn’t recognizer her, Billie Piper is much better this year as Lily Frankenstein compared to the dead end and bad accent that was Brona Croft. It’s perfectly acceptable on Penny Dreadful when the resurrection of a character can fix all that was dislikable, and Lily smartly questions why women wear corsets and are meant to be controlled and appealing to a man. She seems innocent, but soon proves the dastardly of her rebirth and wrongfully remodeled by Victor is not for anything angelic. Lily learns how to lie, finds her deadly instincts, and grows tempted by Dorian thanks to elegant white frocks, gruesome blood stains, and a man-made monster superiority complex. We should like Lily – we don’t blame her for remembering the abuses of her previous oldest prostitution profession and using her strength for revenge. However, her twisted and wrong doing companionship with Dorian is anything but empowering to anyone but herself.

 

Unfortunately, I did not miss the absent Dorian Gray in “Fresh Hell,” and his brothel shenanigans feel more like interfering annoyances during the first half of Penny Dreadful this season. I’m all for more penis on television, but compared to the more serious, self aware, and better developed star roles, the character seems like an excuse for depravity mixed with would be modern social commentary. Dorian doesn’t even interact with any other main character until “Glorious Horrors” – or anyone else but Jonny Beauchamp (Stonewall) as Angelique for that matter. These scenes become shoehorned in titillation or sensationalism, a cruel and cliché storyline serving no purpose in the overall season arc. Angelique’s gender struggles in Victorian society and finally finding a tender relationship should be touching, but by slicing their aforementioned consummation scene with evil seduction and paranormal death scenes, are you saying gay sex is as bad as casting demonic spells on a man and using voodoo to kill his wife?!?! #$%$^$@*&! We know this tryst is fun and games for Dorian, but this is no fling to Angelique, and those consequences also unfairly stereotype Angelique as a nosy, jealous beotch when Dorian moves on to his next fancy. The about dang time reveal of his eponymous portrait and his blasé attitude toward it proves how ugly his true self really is, but we already knew that from his toying with Angelique. This entire unnecessary and unjust plot further proves Dorian Gray is a tug and pull supporting player who should only be recurring as needed – and Angelique should have been the gosh darn regular joining our dreadful company instead!

Thankfully, Simon Russell Beale is deliciously good fun as our team’s flamboyant Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. Despite the sophistication and heavy work at hand, Beale provides a covert humor and positive gravitas with his flirtations:

“American! I am undone!”

“Well, I do have a gun belt.”

“Stop!…Will you bring your gun belt?”

“Both guns.”

Underneath this fluttery chemistry, Lyle is unsure where his allegiance lies, and by admitting his conflicting circumstances and burdens to bear, he fits right in with the Penny Dreadful gang. The homoerotic undertones match the main story instead of being uncomfortably apart from it, adding flair to a character largely saddled with fantastic exposition. In addition to the already established Catholic iconography, Lyle adds more conversations on faith, reflection, and recompense thanks to all he has witnessed from Helen McCrory as that sometime Madame Kali and always evil Mrs. Evelyn Poole. Her enemy house not only has a medieval ossuary bent, but Sarah Greene (Vikings) as the ruthless but cool Hecate is ready to step out of her mother’s much older than she looks shadow. Madame Kali is in a powerful tit for tat with her demonic master, and she intends to gain new praise by delivering Vanessa to him – with Sir Malcolm as a dark bonus for herself. Her ambitions, Hecate’s rival desires, and their evil foil, however, do get stretched thin at times. These are formidable ladies cutting out hearts and invoking killer puppetry with more provocative tricks – The Pooles shouldn’t have to hurry up and wait to harm our dreadfuls. Nonetheless, such evil planning talks make for some juicy scene chewing for McCrory and other returning guest stars. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t reappear as Madame Kali sees fit!

 

Iffy CGI cityscapes, animated scorpions, and more sweeping scene transitions don’t always look right on Penny Dreadful, but the up close London streets alive with horses, waxworks, and period mechanization look the ghastly Victorian needed. The below the British Museum dusty, piles, statues, and maze-like clutter for good or ill is simply begging for some Mummy plots! More Universal Horror nods including the one armed inspector and swan style gowns layer the lush alongside a haunting score. The witch designs look of the past, with evil sprites coming out of the walls or mirrors and matching a colorful scheme of orange for evil firesides and gruesome greens for the dead. Candlelit patinas contrast the all gray and white ghostly while coffins, shrouds, gargoyles, and dungeon traps keep the macabre personal rather than today’s hollow torture porn gore – often with 55 minutes plus for full morbid effect. Sharp language uses mix old staples, making for a twisted new tongue where eerie terms like lupus and Lucifer stand out and force the audience to pay attention upon first viewing Penny Dreadful. The fashions are again scrumptious, and it’s lame of Hot Topic to go with scorpion tee shirts when this kind of long skirt and button up lace is on the runaway and ripe for a comeback. Penny Dreadful has an excellent attention to detail, and I’m surprised this uber sophisticated design isn’t receiving more technical awards.

Watching Penny Dreadful can also be tough thanks to cumbersome Showtime Anytime and Xfinity interfaces, loading and log in troubles, and expiring episode rushes but there are Amazon streaming and DVD options in addition to Showtime reruns. Ironically, the show’s premium channel home allows it to be top tier scandalous yet also makes Penny Dreadful difficult for viewers to find. Nonetheless, the series remains must see for Gothic horror fans. The sensationally spooky material and often outlandishly wicked are treated intelligently, and we’ve been waiting for Penny Dreadful’s kind of sophisticated, top drawer horror for too long.