Two new horror series are worth checking out, presuming you have the patience, the cajones, and the channels on your cable. The Robert Rodriguez-backed channel El Rey (read my shuddering praise here) launched a month or so ago with the From Dusk til Dawn series, a ten episode-long elaboration of the RR-QT 1999 film, adding the full measure of hallucinations and Tex-Mex flavor and replacing Tarantino in the part of psycho brother Richie Gecko with a much more mesmerizing low key lad named Zane Holz. As Richie's brother and fellow bank robber Seth, D.J. Cotrana diffuses Clooney's terminal charm with hothead overreactions, so now the two feel like real brothers who actually grew up together, rather than the charismatically mismatched Quentin and Clooney, and each has problems the other helps correct, like real siblings. And the queen Mayan reptilian hottie Santanico Pandimonium (Selma Hayek in the original) has a much more integral part with lots of dialogue and empowering femme fatale inscrutability, embodied by Mexican TV actress/pop singing star (and staggering beauty) Eiza Gonzalez. Robert Patrick is the disillusioned preacher, Don Johnson the sheriff, and a cast of handsome Mexican-Americans with either admirable swagger or furrowed brow intensity. The ten part series all occurs over the course of one 24-hour period, from dusk to dawn more or less, which slows things way down with that old tick-tockality and a novelistic attention to detail.
|Eiza on the street!|
I'll confess I desperately wanted to love Penny Dreadful. I am a chronic disciple of Eva Green. But the show simultaneously tries too hard and not hard enough, cramming in all the famous literary characters from the Victorian era's (and earlier) literary mythology it can remember from its year at Cambridge. It never seems to know what to do with all these public domain easily-recognized monsters, though, other then send them walking in ornately-stressed Victorian garments through long tracking shots or into bed for joylessly graphic sex scenes. I'm hoping they rectify the absence of any characters or monsters actually from the real penny dreadfuls (such as seen above in my hand-made collage), instead of the same old Dracula (here a Drac-mummy hybrid) or Jack the Ripper (and no doubt Burke and Hare are soon to follow), or Frankenstein. Where's Spring-Heeled Jack? Wither Varney the Vampire? Just because Dorian Gray's an immortal bunburying Sadean doesn't make him a monster, just an aesthete.
On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned this young fellow playing him, Reeve Carney (left), has the whole show sowed up in his pocket. While the other characters rant and rave and underplay, Carney's Gray seems genuinely entranced, not in any effusive way but in a delicate, eerily jaded way, and graced with an in-the-moment openness that makes him seem to me one of the few young actors around who seems to understand the importance of seeing as much as being seen and who seems to fully inhale the atmosphere. (the only other one I can think of offhand is Kristen Stewart). Trying to figure out who Carney reminds me of, then it hits me --he could be the son of old Brian Deacon, the young man in the trailer outside the castle in VAMPYRES (1974).
Second Episode is a big improvement - it gets more down to a set of reversals and twists and seems less about getting its lighting as painterly and haunted. The purplish blue mist of London coal fog in gorgeous compositions of ships in harbor and snug waterfronts is impressive, but the centerpiece Eva Green possession monologue, while a brilliant showcase for a brilliant, nervy performer (her voice sails up and down octaves while her body writhes and contorts and eyes glare with unholy fire) goes on long past our patience or its own effectiveness. By contrast, FX's AMERICAN HORROR STORY might pick up and abandon story threads like an impatient schoolkid but it understands momentum as key, and transgression as a locomotive, and above all it doesn't take itself a tenth as seriously. PENNY is so busy covering the period and its famous characters that it doesn't notice a real person squeezed through. Played by Billie Piper as a de facto heroine streetwalker, she's coughing up blood like a Poe heroine or Doc Holiday, but doesn't complain and not only that, has large measures of bar whiskey for breakfast (Doc, is it you?) with Josh Hartnett's Earp, whose staying at her same inn? They lounge with ease in the saloon window they're written by Eugene Goddamned O'Neill waiting for Hickey and for just a minute there, the show is awesome. It's not trying to be eight ways of macabre at once and winding up paralyzed, waiting on the x while the art director fiddles with the sun-dappled coal dust streaks. These two are in a real scene and it's lovely and vivid and not overwrought or trembling with import.
These kind of character-based critiques don't concern FROM DUSK TIL DAWN. As Santinico, Eiza Gonzalez is no Eva Green she's got a certain cold allure, even naked but for a golden bronze tan, brown bikini and Aztec shaman blood queen headdress she's always capably holding her own, in charge, using her body to seduce and ensnare men, to believably conjure ancient Mayan deities, to pit brothers against each other, not to be objectified but worshipped, and she's no ham. In DAWN, even big tearful farewells or life and death anxieties are--in the American Carpenter-Hawks tradition-- nicely underplayed (rather than being overly underplayed in the British style of PENNY). If only PENNY's writers were up to the challenge. DAWN goes for the jugular with a laid-back shrug, while DREADFUL, like so many other pieces of 'mature audience' horror hackwork, confuse graphic sex and violence with what being truly dreadful really entails.
POST SCRIPT (6/2/14) - Just saw the fourth Penny Dreadful episode and things are picking up, with a detailed evening at La Grand Guignol that managed to weave together nearly all the disparate threads, as well as a climactic absinthe scene that allows the series' hitherto locked closet door to finally burst open. Can't spoil it of course...