Penny Dreadful Season 1 Review

This review is spoiler free.

Vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s creature… it’s not original to suggest these monsters unite in some shape or form. There have already been several such crossovers, in games like Castlevania or in movies such as The Monster Squad. But John Logan and Showtime have decided instead to revisit these old themes in the era of adult television. And when the word is out about the quality of the show and the depths of the story telling, fans of classic movie monsters will come running to catch horror drama Penny Dreadful, currently in its second season.

Much like True Detective, Penny Dreadful pays homage to an entire genre of writing, even in the name “penny dreadful” which references cheap literature from the Victorian times. The show slithers and scuttles, prodding the psychological as well as biological and bodily in disgusts. There is no kind of horror it will not blend into its well crafted amalgamation.

Set in London, 1891, Penny Dreadful combines not just the aforementioned monsters but their stories and source material into one very large universe that overlaps, though not rushing to do so. The main plot revolves around Grand Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) who lost his son in Africa and returns to find his daughter Mina missing, presumably abducted by vampires.

With considerable income and influence at his disposal, Malcolm employs several enigmatic characters, including spiritual medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and the physician Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). But where as each of these characters have their own reasons and secrets for siding with Sir Murray, their personal histories force them to keep each other at arm’s length. Today’s allies could easily become tomorrow’s problems. Thus the first season maybe the beginning of their alliance, it is far from the start of the story.

Penny-Dreadful-VampireSeveral works are referenced, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Exorcist and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of these, Frankenstein’s plot thread is uniquely both the most faithful, and yet the most surprising in its twists, as it also borrows a trait or two from The Phantom of the Opera.

Despite this, there are very slight changes to the rules. For example, vampires come in two varieties; the infected slaves, with red eyes and white hair, and the masters who have rodent like features, and are utterly incapable of hiding in plain sight. Penny Dreadful isn’t afraid to put its own slight spin on the monsters fans hold so near and dear, but not so much as to push its audience away with alienating revisionism.

The show’s greatest blessing and curse is the reluctance to use computer generated effects for its characters. While this makes the monsters truly look incredible, I fear that there are certain elements which could be held in check… the full visual effect weakened. It remains to be seen in future seasons if this rule is broken or if John Logan can bring dazzling, classical movie magic to the small screen.

Another aspect that sets Penny Dreadful apart from so many other shows is its plentiful yet very mature approach to sexuality. The screenwriters seemed to know and fully understand that sex is not without consequences, which manifests in strong plot twists and revelations about the nature of the characters, even if it takes a few episodes for the effects to be felt. Hedonist Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) seems to be the central force in this, as his antics naively damage those about him despite his total amicability to the protagonists.

proteusThe first season was eight episodes long, each being an hour apiece, and the characters were very well developed and portrayed. But my only complaint about Penny Dreadful lies not in the quality of this but in the balance. The show tended to overload the audience with disproportionate personal development, and very little rotation. Victor Frankenstein gets almost two or three episodes of back story in a row, followed by Vanessa Ives.

The problems these character have are so extensive, they both require a third of the entire season just to stabilize. And while the show faithfully rewards its viewership for their patience, it can benefit from being more even.

But one weakness does not a bad show make, especially one as much fun as this. Catch Penny Dreadful on Showtime on Sundays, and check out the first season on Netflix DVD.

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Warhammer Movie Ideas

The old debate for a Warhammer movie felt put aside after the release of Ultramarines. The feeling I got was Games Workshop declaring, “We’re doing this only for the fans.”

It was not a gigantic attempt, like as a $50 million dollar summer blockbuster. A rumor over at DakkaDakka put the budget for it at around $14 million (£9 million). I gathered that it was not for those uninitiated into the 40k cult. But an idea had been boiling in my head to consider trying my hand at a fan made film someday.

But then I thought about Damnatus, the fan-made unofficial 40k movie that was… “unreleased” a few years back. Story goes that Damnatus was supposed to be a strictly fan made movie with respect to Games Workshop’s IP permissions. The problem came about when it was discovered that German IP laws would require that the movie and its content would belong to the creator of the movie. This loophole was cause enough for Games Workshop to deny permission for its release.

The ugly lesson learned is that time would have to be spent reviewing the differences between the IP laws of England and the United States before even attempting.

Putting aside the legal groundwork of such an endeavor, I began to think about a lot of the technical details to make a film possible. The first issue was choosing which of the two universes I would prefer, be it Warhammer 40,000 or Warhammer Fantasy.

Although there’s more excitement for 40k, I think that Fantasy would be easier to do overall. We can thank Tolkien for giving us a lot of the settings and concepts within WHF, although the Black Library has added its own ugly details, such as the politics and religions, various races both original and not. Still, I believe that the backstory would be easier to settle into over 40k.

Another reason for choosing WHF is the physical settings themselves. Both 40k and Fantasy call for urban settings and for backwater locations. Both Altdorf and any hive would be almost too much to reproduce on a limited budget, so an urban location is not preferable. And 40k often has the Imperial stamp over everything. Landing pads, the aquila, all the vehicles… it would be an awful lot to reproduce even if it takes place in a rural area.

I have recently started reading Brunner the Bounty Hunter, by C.L. Werner. As I ventured through the short stories, it quietly dawned on me that this would be good material to craft a movie from.

Not pictured: His marvelous singing voice.

Not pictured: His marvelous singing voice.

First, many of the stories started with some scholarly character who took down Brunner’s tales. This gives the director the option of using a narrator to fill in the details and explain any issues that may not be easily shown on the screen. These stories aren’t overwhelming with the details, and they are both faithful to the source material and easy to spoon feed to the uninitiated.

Second, Brunner’s tales thus far (I’m three and a half stories in), have taken place more on along the frontier than anywhere near Altdorf. Finding a place to shoot hills and forests would be much easier than constructing huge keeps and streets, especially on a fan’s budget.

Third is the fact that the tales don’t have to be made into a full length movie. The short stories could probably be made into 30 minutes-to-an-hour in length. This reduces the investment of time and money. Rather than banking too much , the success or failure of it can be recognized on a bite-sized piece of film craft.

Fourth is the fact that Brunner himself is such a powerful, interesting character.

Rather than a tiring origin story or extreme development, Brunner simply is. His motivation is clear. His appeal obvious. That steely action-hero glare just draws you in, regardless of whether you have any idea what Warhammer is.

But despite these points, there are hang ups and considerations for a short movie. Of the three stories I’ve finished thus far, two of them involve non-humans. Beastmen and a werewolf. How would I make such monsters on the screen?

It’s possible to try CGI if I know the right people, but I’ve never been terrible impressed by that sheen that appears on the surface of digitally made objects. Besides, it would be more interesting to come up with the right costumes and the right camera work to create beastmen. CGI has its place, but I want that place to be as minimal as possible.

Although the frontier setting would be much easier to recreate, there are still medieval/colonial settings that would have to be made. This is where being an American on the east coast pays off, as there are many historic locations that might work for this effort. Indeed, I feel the setting is more a matter of research and creativity than stage construction.

Another concern is the sheer number of props. Some of it can be alleviated by contacting a group of local LARPers (Live Action Role Players). These guys buy and craft weapons and armor for their sessions, sometimes looking quite authentic and dirty. I’m sure they’d jump at the chance to put together a movie.

That would solve many of the problems, but not all. Brunner, for example, would need a well made costume. His sallet and armor would have to be carefully made. He’s also a walking arsenal, frequently described as having multiple throwing knives, a falchion, crossbows, a knife for combat and beheading and black powder pistols. Rather than a single special or weapon, Brunner comes equipped for almost any situation.

Another concern are horses. While a horse farm would be willing to provide horses for a price, many scenes involve horses being spooker or involved in combat. And there is absolutely no way I’m going to risk the safety of amateur actors around a large, scared animal.

Which brings me to my final concern for the moment. Finding good actors. Brunner has an advantage in that his face is frequently hidden by his helmet. All I’d need is someone capable of portraying a general badass for a few hours, no heavy emotional scenes or points of incredible drama.

I think there’s a part of me that would want to try it myself, but being a main actor/director has always struck me as a somewhat vain pursuit. And besides, for a first effort I think it would be best to try just the directing. And everyone else? Well, it depends on the role and whether or not I can find people skilled enough to fill it.

I think this Halloween, I’ll keep my eye out for particularly talented costume makers. Who knows? It may solve at least one of these issues.