Thursday, May 22, 2014
a cheap, sensational comic or storybook.
Showtime's new vehicle, Penny Dreadful, premiered on May 11 with the episode "Night Work" and I decided to watch it on a whim. I was tired of marking ninth grade English essays and I needed something to take the edge off the multitude of missed vocabulary usage opportunities. I had fun playing "spot the literary reference," as the cast is rounded out by a plethora of public domain Victorian Gothic characters. The pilot episode does not disappoint -- by the end of the first hour we have met our Allan Quartermain type (from King Solomon's Mines, a Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray who most Dracula afficionados know as Mina Harker), Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Vanessa Ives, a spiritualist. Our "in," so to speak, is Ethan Chandler -- our brooding protagonist with a murky back story.
Perusing the show's website already gives away more than is needed: "Some of literature's most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. PENNY DREADFUL is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama."
We have already seen these characters on the small and silver screen -- collectively, probably the most recent manifestation would be the deliciously cheesy The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. We have also already seen the plot before - duo needs a third to make their trio complete. Cue the search for missing girl. Cue more questions than answers. I found myself feeling like I had seen this show before.
What was pleasantly surprising was the fact that my expectations were played up -- if I thought I was in for a "penny dreadful" I was going to get the Penny Dreadful. There was gore, dialogue that screamed exposition, and enough camera cue tip offs that I was constantly looking over character's shoulders.
As far as performances go, Eva Green is mesmerizing (as always) as Vanessa Ives. Timothy Dalton turns in a performance that could go either way -- he does a fine job of walking the line between campy and compelling. Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein is riveting in a scene wherein his monster is revealed. I could not take my eyes off him and the tension between Frankenstein and the "monster" was palpable. Josh Hartnett was my only caveat as his performance as the audience insert seemed a bit off kilter. However, this may be a quirk of the character himself, as by the end of episode two "Seance," more back story is revealed.
"Seance" included just that -- a nod to the Victorian fin de siècle fascination with the supernatural and the occult with Ives and Murray getting more than they bargained for. Green uses her striking features to full advantage and I admit even I was unsettled watching the seance scene. We learn more about the mysterious origins of the creature that has brought Ives, Murray, Frankenstein, and Chandler together. Just when we are thinking there's almost too many characters, they toss more in. Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray (yes, he of the failed Spiderman musical) puts in an appearance at the seance, held at the Egyptologist's manor. Whovians will recognize Companion Billie Piper as Brona Croft, a New Woman with a -- get ready for it -- mysterious past and consumption. We also get to see the maturation of Frankenstein's monster and by the end of the episode I was agape. Completely flabbergasted. However, it was in the most positive way possible. Having some background knowledge of Gothic and Victorian fiction, I felt like there wasn't much more they could throw at me which would seem "new." By the end of "Seance," I had completely changed my opinion.
My Verdict: In an exchange of banter, Chandler asks Ives if she has issued him a warning -- Ives replies, "It's an invitation." I also issue you an invitation to give Penny Dreadful a try. I give it a solid B+ with enormous potential.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
- It would be a film I could not watch with my children, and
- It would be a film my wife would have absolutely no interest in ever seeing.
It might be ridiculous to suggest that movie audiences might trade the grit and gore of zombies for the absurdity of giant monsters, WWE in rubber-suits, since SF films depicting large scale, spectacular destruction are largely read as B-movie garbage, and in many cases, deservedly so. In 1965, Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” pronounced such films “inadequate responses” to the “most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation,” potentially normalizing the “psychologically unbearable” nightmares of natural disasters, nuclear holocaust, and we might add, carrying Sontag’s torch into the twenty-first century, pandemics, fuel shortages, and eco-disasters. Susan Napier built upon Sontag’s ideas in “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster,” declaring the somber ending of Gojira a moment of secure horror. Secure horror meaning that, despite hinting at the potential of another atomic monster rising from the ocean depths, the film ends on a positive note: the threat neutralized, the monster defeated, security restored. To better understand the difference between secure and insecure horror, consider Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introduction to Monster Theory, where he states that “Jurassic Park would have been a far superior piece of cinema if its computer-animated velociraptors had in fact ingested the kids they merely threaten,” suggesting that “these monsters arrive at a time when traditional nuclear families perhaps need to be troubled” (vii). That was in 1996, indicating that perhaps Sontag's message still held true.
Since then, giant monster movies such as Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys (1999), J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008), Gareth Edwards’ independent film Monsters (2010), and the aforementioned and critically acclaimed Trollhunter all featured ambiguous endings. Gamera 3’s credits roll with its climactic, but ultimately doomed, battle yet to occur, while Cloverfield, Monsters, and Trollhunter kill off their main characters, leaving the monster(s) still at large. In addition to unresolved endings, these films all share a greater sophistication of special effects with the goal of a greater sense of verisimilitude. Abrams’ Cloverfield in particularly demonstrates what the Japanese have known since the release of Gojira/Godzilla in 1954: if you conflate your impossible beast with real-world images of modern day atrocity, a giant monster movie can be at the very least, if not necessarily horror, unsettling commentary on real-world atrocity.
Edwards has denied that there was any conscious effort on the film crew’s part to generate this reading of the film. Arguably, such a reading might be incidental, the latent byproduct of filming in Central America. Nevertheless, I find Edwards’ protests dubious in light of a scene where Calder and Sam gaze from atop Mayan ruins at a massive concrete containment wall separating the Infected Zone—Mexico—from the United States. When Sam first discovers the ruins, Calder asks, “What’d you find, Cortez?” Postcolonial readings loom as large as the containment wall or the Creatures it is built to keep out, a Containment Wall Edwards had to insert digitally, looked at from ruins that exist nowhere near the real Mexican American border. Monsters’ map is certainly not the territory. This reading is made all the stronger by the moment when Sam and Calder cross over from the Infected Zone into the United States: no one stops them. After all, they are Americans. They are not Creatures, illegal “aliens.” They are true residents.
CONTEST! Want to win 2 advance passes to see GODZILLA, Wednesday, May 14 at the Scotiabank Theatre Chinook in CALGARY? Then just enter a comment below with the name of your favorite giant monster movie, why you love it, and I will announce the winner (drawn out of a hat!) on Sunday, May 11! Then you can email me for the passes at mikeperschon AT shaw DOT com.