Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From my grave to yours: PENNY DREADFUL (Showtime), FROM DUSK TIL DAWN (El Rey)



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! 
It all works because it's not that the performances are great, but that they are all of a piece; as is so essential for a good horror, they play it deadpan straight while never overdoing it and driving their ordeals into bummer territory (I mean, there's a way to act pained and ennui-ridden without causing viewers to get depressed or upset). I mention all that because, in Showtime's new horror series Penny Dreadful, that level of solid team player dynamics vanishes to be replaced with a bunch of breathing exercise-prepared actors all fighting over every syllable like it's their last chance at an Emmy. Only dimly aware there's other actors across the dark expanses of the cavernous Victorian era sets, they rant and rave and hope... hope....


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 VampireJust 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).


Meanwhile the murky dim brown Victorian London craftsmaship often runs the risk of choking the life out of things (though the darkness can be very very dark, almost 3-D and it seems thrillingly real, like life before electricity was one long SILENCE OF THE LAMBS climax) and the writers are so busy paraphrasing the eloquent flights of 19th century authors that the British thesps run unsupervised over actorly monologues until every line sings with resonant oratory. In other words, it's very gay, in its way, though not in a giddy, delightful Tim Curry or Udo Kier way, more a Sal from Mad Men kind of humorless straight burlesque. And each of these unsmiling characters must play many parts: Eva Green is a vampire hunter who is also a trance medium easily possessed by demons and departed angry daughters; Timothy Dalton is the Qatermain / Dr. Ven Helsing / Seward who just wants his daughter back (Mina, the daughter who's already gone to Dracula arms); Josh Harntett is a Wild Bill Hicocky dead shot who may also be Jack the Ripper; a brilliant young Frankenstein is probably going to have to be Jekyll and Hyde later on (his monster doubles as the Phantom of the Opera, Quasimodo, and The Crow). I have no doubt Drac will turn out to be another hunky British monologuist impeccably attired in elegantly distressed Victorian fashion who says things like "the burden of eternal life wears me down like a slow watch, like the taste of withered dying opium addicts, their narcotic blood crawling time to a standstill...."

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... 

1 comment:

  1. I've been watching Penny Dreadful and I'm not entirely sure about it yet. It LOOKS so good, and most of the time the acting is good enough that you can kind of take that running jump over its problems.

    It's like with Mad Men (as show that i like much, much LESS than Penny Dreadful): It's a very well-done show that I'm not overly interested in.

    In the case of Dreadful, though, Green and Carney are just so good to look at that i might keep coming back.

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