Monday, October 13, 2014

Penny Dreadful season 1, whose score cues can now be heard on AFOS, makes Universal's plan to Avengers-ize its classic monsters seem plenty dreadful

Dorian Gray looks like Chris Gaines if he had less shitty tastes in music.
Universal's recently announced strategy to launch a Marvel Cinematic Universe-style reboot of its classic monster movie franchises--with the new Dracula Untold as the first blockbuster in the studio's potential monster movie universe--seems pointless, especially when you look back on the sophisticated and mostly inventive approach Skyfall screenwriter John Logan took to intertwining the paths of famous literary horror characters during the first season of his Showtime supernatural drama Penny Dreadful. There's no way Universal's proposed mad monster party will compare to what Logan, directors like The Orphanage's J.A. Bayona and an exemplary, nearly all-British cast (with Timothy Dalton, Harry Treadaway and in smaller comic-relief parts, Simon Russell Beale and Alun Armstrong, as acting standouts from the British side) accomplished on cable, in eight episodes that were all written by Logan and are all making their debut on Blu-ray tomorrow.

Penny Dreadful, which Showtime has renewed for a second season, revolves around Victorian London psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), her estranged father figure (and perhaps biological father), African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton), and the ragtag, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-esque team they form to track down Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn), Sir Malcolm's missing daughter and a familiar figure from the various permutations of Dracula. Joining Vanessa and Sir Malcolm on their dangerous quest are introverted forensic specialist Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Treadaway) and American expatriate and gunfighter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Each of the principals--except for Sir Malcolm's laconic valet and bodyguard Sembene (Danny Sapani), whose claim that "I have no story" better receive some sort of payoff next season or I'll be one frustrated viewer of color--is wrestling with demons, both figurative and literal.

Traumatized by his mother's death when he was a boy, Dr. Frankenstein has figured out how to resurrect the dead, but the price he has to pay for playing God is living in constant fear from the vengeful creature he created and rejected (Rory Kinnear, whose take on the Frankenstein creature is closer to the Mary Shelley novel's original conception of him as articulate than Boris Karloff's version of the creature as a childlike giant of few words). Ethan is hiding from both his powerful and unseen father (ooh, ooh, is Powers Boothe or Sam Elliott not busy?), who's sent Pinkerton detectives on his trail, and a mysterious dark side he's trying to suppress. Sir Malcolm is plagued by guilt over his past misdeeds as an explorer, a husband and a parent and feels responsible for the terrible fates of his two grown-up children. Finally, there's Vanessa, whose psychic abilities are both a gift and a curse. They're a symptom of satanic possession, which is responsible for many of the show's most crazy and GIF-worthy visuals, whether it's swarms of spiders crawling out from under Vanessa's tarot cards or a naked Eva Green doing her best impression of the graveyard ghost sex scene from MacGruber.

'At Supercuts, we make it easy to get the rocking cuts you deserve!'
The show interestingly shapes Vanessa's ordeals with possession as both a metaphor for the struggles of living with mental illness and an addiction narrative. Remove all the supernatural moments from "Possession," the standout episode where Satan's hold over Vanessa is at its worst (Green gives a tour de force performance) and her exhausted colleagues take turns watching over her, and it could easily be a non-horror drama episode about family members or work friends struggling to help a junkie relative or friend through withdrawal. But there's little of the heavy-handedness that marred Buffy's "Willow gets strung out on magic" storyline. Logan complicates the wicked stew of Vanessa's ordeals with both moral ambiguity and the possibility that a normal existence is more repressive to Vanessa than the pain she endures while possessed ("It's such a repressed time, the Victorian times. And so she's very hungry for life," said Green about her character). "Possession" and an even better earlier episode, the Bayona-directed "Séance," best exemplify why Penny Dreadful's first season is so compelling despite occasional storytelling missteps (I wish there was a better way for Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray to be integrated into the first season's central mystery, other than "obligatory cable drama character who bangs everybody"): the first season is a story about, as series composer Abel Korzeniowski puts it, "identity, trying to find oneself in the world," intriguingly dressed up as a Gothic horror drama.

Korzeniowski plays a huge role in making Penny Dreadful's Gothic setting such an attractive place to be--the show's Game of Thrones-caliber production values would have made the Hammer horror studio, a huge influence on the show, gangrene green with envy. The effectiveness and richness of the Polish composer's string-heavy score cues are why several of those cues are now in rotation on "AFOS Prime" on AFOS and will be added to "Buckets of Score," the AFOS horror/thriller score block that takes place only on Halloween night. Korzeniowski's main title theme, "Demimonde," is reminiscent of the Gothic sweep of Danny Elfman's score from the 1999 Sleepy Hollow. "Street. Horse. Smell. Candle.," another Penny Dreadful score cue that's in rotation on "AFOS Prime," is integral to why a sequence where Dr. Frankenstein introduces his creature Proteus (Alex Price) to the sights and sounds of a busy London street is oddly affecting: Korzeniowski effectively relied on simple piano chords to compare Proteus' rediscovery of objects and animals from his previous life as a whaler to the experience of a child's reactions of wonder from first encountering objects and animals from words he's just learned.

Good thing Dorian Gray doesn't collect creepy-ass Margaret Keane paintings.

Another element that makes Penny Dreadful's first season worth marathoning on Blu-ray is its literary references. Vanessa's first few scenes with Ethan in the Bayona-directed first episode are, like so many other supernatural dramas on TV, loaded with cinematic references, particularly to Strangers on a Train from Hitchcock, one of Bayona's favorite filmmakers, and to one of Green's greatest acting moments before her standout work on Penny Dreadful, her train scene with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (between her, Dalton, Kinnear and Helen McCrory, who had a bit part in Skyfall, as Madame Kali, this show is a post-Roger Moore 007 movie fan's casting dream). But then the show interestingly takes more of a turn for literary references rather than cinematic ones. You won't find another new show this year where the characters are so frequently seen reading books and are so fond of discussing literature or quoting poetry, in much the same way that the characters in the Scream movies frequently talked about slasher flicks or the Sopranos characters were so worshipful of mob movies. Instead of coming off as distracting and pretentious, the literary references are deployed by Logan to capture how books and even penny-dreadful fiction were as dominant a media in the Victorian era as TV or the Internet is today, whether it's Vanessa and Shakespeare aficionado Dr. Frankenstein bonding over Wordsworth or the Frankenstein creature's Bard-inspired name of Caliban and his fondness for John Milton's Paradise Lost, which is a direct lift from Shelley's novel.

The literacy of the Penny Dreadful characters sheds light on my biggest complaint about the J.J. Abrams/Roberto Orci Star Trek movies: nobody reads like they used to on Star Trek anymore. They can't even make time for the "Famous Jewish Sports Legends" leaflet from Airplane! In Star Trek's previous incarnations, characters used to often demonstrate their literacy by either quoting both fictional authors (the mutated helmsman's dialogue about wooing women with poetry in the 1965 "Where No Man Has Gone Before" pilot) and real ones (Dickens and Melville in Star Trek II, Shakespeare and J.M. Barrie in Star Trek VI and, of course, the Bard again on The Next Generation) or becoming actual authors themselves (Jake Sisko on Deep Space Nine). Pre-2009 Star Trek's depiction of centuries-old literature surviving and enduring despite the transition from print to PADD tablets used to make me feel hopeful for the future. Apparently the changes in the timeline that were triggered by Nero's attack on the Kelvin wiped out Kirk and the other characters' book smarts as well. The elimination of the characters' literary sides from Star Trek makes the possession of Vanessa look pleasant.

And then Madame Kali recited the ancient incantation of 'Put all your hands where my eyes can see/Straight buckwildin' in the place to be.'

Speaking of curses, if Penny Dreadful manages to break the curse of Showtime originals that collapse creatively after the first couple of seasons and is able to continue its hot streak past its enjoyable first season, the show could send Universal fumbling for the Tom Stoppards and Scott Franks of the world to punch up its monster movie reboot screenplays and "Penny Dreadful them up" or better yet, make Universal reconsider its bound-to-underwhelm shared universe plan and pay closer attention to why failed modern-day monster movie franchise starters like I, Frankenstein and Universal's own Van Helsing were unable to captivate audiences and critics. In this era of Hollywood tiresomely trying to Avengers-ize tentpole franchises that don't exactly deserve to be Avengers-ized, what can stop the determined heart and resolved will of Universal? Maybe a little show from Showtime can.

Selections from Penny Dreadful's first-season score album can currently be heard during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS and will be featured during "Buckets of Score" at 5pm Pacific on October 31.

1 comment:

  1. Check out Kim Newman's ANNO DRACULA series (ANNO DRACULA, THE BLOODY RED BARON, DRACULA CHA CHA CHA, JOHNNY ALUCARD), which is also a literary/historical mashup that PENNY DREADFUL is completely indebted to.