Saturday, 12 November 2016

Penny Dreadful - The Final Season

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Rory Kinnear, and Harry Treadaway

Creator: John Logan

462 minutes (18) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Reviews by Tony Lee & Steven Hampton  

Although partly inspired by The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Alan Moore’s graphic novel more than Stephen Norrington’s movie adaptation), John Logan’s Penny Dreadful posits tales of Victorian heroes in fantasy horrors, instead of sci-fi/ fantasy, and plays like a period version of short-lived TV series Demons (2009). As we might expect from the screenwriter of The Aviator and Hugo (both directed by Scorsese), the period details of this BritisHollywood TV series are frequently a bit too colourful to be fully authentic, but there is a charmingly presentable grittiness to location shooting in Ireland that adds some visual poetics. With derivative gothic plotlines - where science and superstition collide - this eight-episode postmodern mash-up of Stoker, Shelley, and Wilde, etc. is an entertaining batch of London legends boasting many deliciously uncanny images and splattery gore moments.

Timothy Dalton, as explorer Sir Malcolm, is the leader of an uneasy alliance with mysterious psychic Vanessa (genre goddess Eva Green), and American gunslinger Chandler (Josh Hartnett, 30 Days Of Night). As plain-clothes superheroes, they tackle all manner of gaslight stuff with as much flowery 19th century dialogue as will pass muster in a 21st century media production. Harry Treadaway as the young Victor Frankenstein, and Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, are average TV actors, but most of the supporting cast (that silly girl, Billie Piper, just for starters) really aren’t up to scratch alongside the headliners.

Although heroine Vanessa appears subdued, at first, second episode Séance gifts us with the full intensity of the amazing Miss Green taking on a spirit-channelling role (“if one is to engage with the primordial forces of darkness... expect a bit of social awkwardness”), that will not be forgotten easily. Alun Armstrong is very good as the amusingly polite Grand Guignol showman Brand who calmly recruits Frankenstein’s monster Caliban as his theatre rigger. A couple of episodes feature the very welcome presence of David Warner as Prof. Van Helsing, who is consulted by Dr Frankenstein.

Closer Than Sisters is a great flashback episode guest-starring Anna Chancellor as Vanessa’s mother who struggles to cope with her tormented daughter’s bouts of catatonia and violent seizures. Again, Green turns in a haunting performance - especially during her character’s brutal, harrowing ‘treatment’; proving that Green is a fearless, astonishingly expressive star capable of out-acting what few peers she has in the genre she’s made her own. “How dare you presume to speak to me of death?” Later, when Vanessa starts suffering Carrienetic fits, perverse guilt and quest puzzles converge into a moral crisis under threat of our heroine becoming “the mother of evil,” while she’s in urgent need of an exorcism.  

With excellent production standards, and story-lines that critique but also celebrate a range of literary sources, this blows away all the cobwebs from costume-horror movies and most modern-day efforts, too. Of course, the season’s finale has dark pasts of the main characters catching up with them and drags unfinished business into the spotlight. But it exposes their flaws and shows us their strengths instead of simply following after clichéd patterns of fight-the-fantastic behaviour, and so revels in the “the glory of suffering.”

Penny Dreadful: Season Two continued in much the same vein as its impressive debut, showcasing flashbacks with currency and spotlighting some rural gothic chapters just as much as the urban scenes of uncanny contrasts with the dawning of a modern, scientific age. Season three, Penny Dreadful: The Final Season closes this horror series, and it certainly bows out with plenty of shudders and shocks.

Depressed recluse Vanessa begins visiting a shrink, under whose care she demands and responds to hypno-therapy with theatrical nightmares about secret devils. As usual, Eva Green portrays the matchless archetype of a tormented heroine. And, even with rasping breath from surviving asylum tortures, her husky voice is a crispy dark chocolate liqueur, except for when she goes into levitating witchcraft mode with she howls like a banshee.

The obsessive Frankenstein and ambitious Jekyll team-up for some bold experiments to cure the inmates of Bedlam. Dorian enjoys his operatic threesomes, painted in villains’ blood. Dracula stalks the British capital where he spawns black-eyed anaemic followers that scuttle about like plague rats, hunting and haunting Vanessa, even during daylight hours. Playing an Apache mystic, Wes Studi puts in a fine guest appearance. Brian Cox makes a fist of his role as wealthy patriarch turned family tyrant whose belligerence now dictates a limited future for his prodigal son Ethan. Sir Malcolm travels from Africa to find cowboy Ethan under outlaw circumstances in the USA. Will the American werewolf ever return to London?

Tones of melancholy are broken only natural wonders, desperate promises of salvation for distressed or diseased souls, and once-innocents’ fond memories of better life found mainly in dreams. The programme’s title is used ironically, of course, as if it is offering a penny for humanity’s deepest darkest thoughts. The price of admission must be paid in pounds of torn flesh or gallon buckets of blood. It’s full of dread, not dreadful as artistic entertainment. The wrongly perceived lowbrow culture of malignant horror is elevated to supremacy with references to poets Tennyson and Wordsworth, exploring grim alleyways off the road to scientifically utopian immortality (“an eternity without passion”). This delivers subtle pleas for tolerance of unsubtle moral differences, that enables redemptive action for bad men and tragic monsters. Penny Dreadful brings together all the classic creatures of the horror genre, re-imagined for our post-Clive Barker era of new Hammer styled hells raised up to the rafters.

As the poisonous fogapocalypse descends (foreshadowing WW1's gas attacks), the heroes arrive in a dying metropolis that swarms with predators. Cauterising bite wounds is only the start of several drastic measures against overwhelming evil. Latecomer to the party, feisty Cat (Perdita Weeks, one of the Bennets from Lost In Austen) is a death-defying asset in the final battle. At a time when horror on TV remains unduly sanitised (The Originals), often bowdlerised into fanciful clichés (Supernatural), or simply modernised by the pointlessly garish (From Dusk Till Dawn), here’s an intelligent gothic period drama serial that never shies away from the impolitely grotesque, the casually brutal, or the knowing humour of its atmospheric scenario. 

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