Penny Dreadful Review: ‘Predators Far and Near’ (Season 3, Episode 2)

As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This post originally appeared on The Victorianist, 13 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.

This post contains plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful, as well as a few minor comments on the HBO series Game of Thrones that might be construed as spoilers.

Penny Dreadful’s identity as a show hinges on a small number of key characteristics. One is its appropriation of Gothic monsters. Another is its status as a premium cable series, and a work of ‘quality television’. Robin Burks of TechTimes.com had the following to say about the series in this context:

Penny Dreadful doesn’t need the shock and awe that shows such as Game of Thrones often rely on. Instead, it’s a smart and frightening tale told slowly by candlelight that holds a light up to the monster that lives within all of us.

In other words, Penny Dreadful frames itself as an intellectual show, for an audience of television connoisseurs. Arguably, Game of Thrones does the same, though it is increasingly criticised for its utilisation of nudity, gore, and sexual violence. While Penny Dreadful may not need to resort to Game of Thrones’ particular set of shock tactics, there’s no substantial difference between the way this episode handles its ‘adult’ content and the way the season six premiere of Game of Thrones does so.

For example, the episode closes out in a surprise reveal much more reminiscent of Game of Thrones than it is of Penny Dreadful. Dr Alexander Sweet, the taxidermist and zoologist who is Vanessa’s most recent object of attraction, has been Dracula all along. This makes him one in a long line of monsters to whom Vanessa feels drawn, and this attraction may well have something to do with the sexual nature of the demon that possesses Vanessa. In any case, there is none of the abject terror present at the end of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’. Instead, the finale relies on inappropriate desire to unsettle the viewer – though both scenes rely heavily on the superb acting of Samuel Barnett. Falling to his knees, Renfield latches onto Dracula’s bleeding wrist a little too eagerly, and a little too amorously, for comfort. ‘You will be flesh of my flesh,’ Dracula tells Renfield, ‘blood of my blood.’

Mirroring its conclusion, we open Episode 2 with violent spectacle and some light Oriantalism, as Lily and Dorian make their way through Chinatown. Here they enter a private club, where gentlemen pay to watch as young girls being beaten to death. This is where we are introduced to a new character, Justine (played by Jessica Barden). We are exposed to her body in intimate detail long before we know her face, let alone her name.

Like Brona/Lily, Angelique and Vanessa before her, Justine is yet another stereotypical Strong Female Character with sexual trauma in her past. Vanessa and Lily represent two vastly different responses to sexual trauma, linking them to different perspectives on both feminism the New Woman. Lily reflects the violence and oppression that was inflicted upon her, planning to take down not just the men who wronged her, but the patriarchy altogether. This trauma is clearly the reason Lily has chosen Justine to participate in her vendetta against the gentlemen of London. Vanessa turns her pain inward, blaming herself for the violations she has suffered. So far no character paints a very positive picture of female identity and agency, but then again few characters in Penny Dreadful are shown to be truly admirable.

Across the pond in our B plot, we rejoin Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm on their journey to find Ethan Chandler (nee Talbot) in North America. Ethan, we discover, is an honorary Apache, though exactly how he came upon this identity is unclear. Kaetenay claims Ethan as a son, but he also reveals that Ethan killed his first family. Certain bonds, he argues, are as strong as the those created by blood. Kaetenay describes a hatred for someone so strong that you cannot kill them, but instead wish them to suffer with you forever.

Not only does this echo some of Sir Malcolm’s familial issues in seasons 1-2, it also opens up an allegorical discussion of American colonial policy. How do you live with someone who has done you a terrible wrong, or whom you yourself have wronged?

Memory, identity, and forgetting in the light of monstrosity is once again a strong theme on Penny Dreadful. In this week’s therapy scene, Seward’s practice of recording sessions on wax cylinders causes Vanessa to comment on the burden of memory technology imposes on us. ‘How could we forget anything?’ she asks, to which Seward responds ‘Why would you want to?’ Seward blurs the lines here between therapy and confession, as she compels Vanessa to not only tell her story, but to ‘tell me your sins’. Though it seems to help Vanessa temporarily this episode, not only does her confession visibly disturb Dr Seward, it also falls into Renfield’s hands, and through him Dracula is able to glean the information about Vanessa he so desperately (and mysteriously) desires.

To what end? Is forgetting ultimately the better of Vanessa’s options? Hopefully all will become clearer next week. Stay tuned!

Notes

  • The mandatory ‘laboratory reveal’ camera pan around Jekyll’s workspace in Bedlam was a nice homage to classic horror. Also, the barber chair at its centre is a fun nod to Sweeney Todd.
  • Renfield can’t stand the bells memorialising Tennyson. Is this because he doesn’t like to be reminded of the past? Is it a negative reaction to what Tennyson stood for particularly? Only time will tell.
  • Does anyone happen to know the artist responsible for the paintings hanging behind Renfield and Vanessa in the reception hall scene?
  • Most memorable quote this week goes to the following exchange between a broken Victor Frankenstein and the increasingly indifferent Lily:
    ‘I must save you from all of this, one way or another. You are my responsibility. I created you.’
    ‘I need no man to save me. And I think… in a way… I created you more than you created me.

Review: Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016)

11452529_oriNOTE: This review contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Lionsgate’s Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). Proceed at your own risk.

Last week I finally made it to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, the film adaptation of a historical monster mashup that I’ve written a lot about, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The venue? A Utopolis cinema in Almere, the Netherlands, complete with Dutch subtitles (about which I could probably write a whole separate blog post).

Having arrived rather late to the party, I already knew from various critical and word-of-mouth reviews that I shouldn’t expect too much from this adaptation. The problem that most critics seemed to have was that the film lacks a clear creative vision. This is a complaint I can agree with. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies simply tries to be too many things at once – horror, romance, comedy – without seemingly mastering any of these genres. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin was wrong in predicting that the film would ‘probably get its money’ regardless, however. It’s pretty much officially a box office flop.

94274The acting was competent overall, though not particularly stellar considering the long line of actors who have played these roles. Sam Riley, though smouldering, is no Colin Firth, and while (for me) Lily James definitely tops Kiera Knightly in the list of best Elizabeth Bennets, her character isn’t really done much justice in this particular adaptation. (Of course, few can beat the wonderful Ashley Clements in my books, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) Matt Smith is the one shining exception to the general mediocrity of the performances in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, and his portrayal of Mr. Collins (‘Parson Collins) may be my favourite version of the character to date. Mrs. Bennet (played by Sally Phillips) also deserves a mention.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. The wardrobe and music were both consistently excellent, and did a brilliant job of negotiating the genre shifts between horror and costume drama. Likewise, the pop-up introduction to the zombie apocalypse that forms the film’s title sequence is wonderfully atmospheric, seamlessly blending Regency and horror aesthetics. In terms of the film itself, there were some nice visual touches and translations from page to screen. For example, the scene in which the Bennet sisters are introduced has them polishing guns rather than reading or sewing, which is passed off more subtly (and thus humorously) on screen than it ever could be on the page. A scene where Lizzy deftly plucks corpse flies from the air, kung-fu style, to the bemusement of Mr. Darcy also stands out as particularly, absurdly entertaining, as does a later scene where she and Darcy engage in both verbal and physical sparring.

Queue the obligatory 'suiting up' scenes.
Cue the obligatory ‘suiting up’ scenes.

Only the last of these scenes is actually to be found in Seth Grahame-Smith’s literary mashup, which brings me to another interesting point about this adaptation: it’s not actually particularly faithful to the novel it’s allegedly based on. The film version of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies features many entirely new subplots and character arcs. Sometimes this is clearly to meet the needs of a cinematic narrative, as opposed to a prose one (the final, climactic action sequence springs to mind here). Sometimes, however, the reasons for these changes are less obvious, and in a few cases simply baffling. This of course raises the question of the extent to which it is really an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or actually just another zombie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

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A shot from of the eerily out-of-place horror scenes in the film.

This seems like a good moment to raise one of the points I found particularly problematic about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. Namely, and it’s worth noting that Wired disagrees with me here, it may be the only Pride and Prejudice retelling I have ever seen in which Elizabeth Bennet is not really the hero. Instead, from the opening scene to the final camera pan, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies seems set on establishing Mr. Darcy as its action star. The story begins with him, he is given most of the good fight scenes, and the central conflict is between him and Wickham (Jack Huston), who is the film’s central antagonist (besides the zombie horde). This seems like a very odd choice considering the recent spate of financially and critically successful Hollywood films starring female action heroes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spring instantly to mind). Lizzie Bennet was practically gift-wrapped, by both Austen and Grahame-Smith, as a spiritual continuation of this trend.

I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.
I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.

Likewise, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey) barely gets any action in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel (if it’s even fair to compare the two texts, considering how different they actually are), she gets an epic, fighting showdown with Elizabeth, but in the film Elizabeth fights one of de Bourgh’s goons instead, while the older woman looks on. The movie is full of big talk about women ‘trained for battle, not cooking,’ but in the end it simply fails to convincingly sell me this narrative. Lizzie Bennet may have been front and centre on the film’s posters, but somehow she fails to achieve the same level of agency in the film itself.

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The film ultimately had far too few of these moments.

The class politics in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, however, are arguably much better developed in the film than they are in Grahame-Smith’s book, though even here there were a few missed opportunities. In the novel the link between the zombie plague and the lower classes is quite subtle. More so, certainly, than it is in Quirk Books’ follow-up novel  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009). Two plotlines – the one that focuses on a besieged London, and the one involving George Wickham’s Christian zombie ‘aristocrats’ – seem specifically designed to call into question the way the upper-class characters deal with their lower-class countrymen, most of whom are now zombies (the film doesn’t bother with the book’s dainty use of the term ‘unmentionables’).

George Wickham, hero of the people.
George Wickham, hero of the people.

A scene in which Wickham comes to Lady de Bourgh for money to continue his zombie rehabilitation project at St. Lazarus Church is especially interesting in this regard, framing the rich as cold, uncaring individuals who would much rather just kill the poor than relinquish a single cent – even if it might mean saving England. Wickham’s obsession with money and charity completely makes sense in this context. If it weren’t for a certain deus ex machina (zombina?) near the end of the film, I would have been inclined to champion him as the film’s real hero. In any case, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t come off looking very good in the area of zombie class politics.

Overall, then Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is a flawed film in which a lengthy, troubled production process really shows in the finished product. It’s not the film I would have made, but it still has its moments. It’s just a pity there weren’t many, many more of them.

What They Do in the Shadows is Basically What We Do, Too

Whatever I had been expecting from vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, it wasn’t what I got in the end. And I mean that in the best possible way. Where to start? With plot, I suppose, though that may be the least interesting part about this film. What We Do in the Shadows follows a film crew documenting the lives of five vampire flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand, in the run-up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball.

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Meet the boys.

They may be eternally youthful in the stories, but in pop culture vampires are kind of old. It’s more or less all been done before, and there’s a lot of baggage to engage with. What We Do in the Shadows runs us through the stereotypes of vampire folklore and cinema. You’ve got Petyr, a silent, Nosferatu-esque vampire who’s over 8,000 years old. Then there’s the medieval noble Vladislav (a.ka. “Vladislav the Poker”), a tongue-in-cheek reference to Vlad the Impaler, often cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Next up is Deacon, a mere 183 years old, who considers himself the “bad boy” of the group and enjoys pulling the turning-food-into-worms gag from The Lost Boys. The most recent addition is the two-month-old Nick, who goes around telling people he’s “that guy from Twilight”. The description is more accurate than he knows: he doesn’t make a very good vampire in the traditional sense, and honestly he’s kind of a douche. Plus all of his bragging eventually brings a vampire hunter down on the house, with upsetting consequences.

Finally there’s Viago, the primary narrator. A dandy from the 17th century who is basically a mashup of Louis and Lestat (you probably know them as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) from Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, Viago tries to keep the peace between his flatmates, feed on victims without getting blood all over his antique furtiture (unsuccessfully), and entertain the camera crew, all while pining for his lost love Katherine.

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Poor Viago. He can never quite keep the house clean.

The film may be a mockumentary, but it also uses a lot of horror tropes, mostly for the sake of a joke. The typical melodrama found in contemporary vampire movies is turned on its head to highlight how ridiculous classic phrases and scenarios sound when taken even slightly out of context:

“Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
“Whatcha bidding on?”
“This table…”

The typical glamour of the vampire lifestyle also gets flipped around in the mockumentary. Like Ann Rice’s bored and decadent vampires, you can see that the five flatmates in What We Do in the Shadows basically make it as vampires because they were (and are) so bad at being people. Ironically this is also what makes them sympathetic as people.While we’re laughing at their quirks and misfortunes, ours feel small in comparison. Their mistakes may have bigger and bloodier consequences – though is blood harder to get out of upholstery than red wine? – but most of us can empathise with their failures and frustrations. And if that fails, we’ve still got Stu the IT guy.

You rock, Stu.
You rock, Stu.

What I honestly didn’t expect was how funny or engaging I would find this movie, something that has to do with how good of a parody it is on several levels. It takes a poke at a lot of different things – pop culture, New Zealand, bachelors, the elderly, support group slogans (“werewolves, not swearwolves”) – but it also does a great job at using vampires to pick apart our ideas about loneliness, immortality, and just generally being human. Ironically, this makes What We Do in the Shadows a good vampire movie in addition to a good parody. Though some have accused the film of being shallow, for me it was a much-needed breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale crypt of vampire cinema, and it delivered everything we want from our vampires in this specific place and time.

Without casting any literal reflection themselves, vampires still manage to reflect our needs, interests, and emotions, even in 2015.

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They know what we want more than anything right now is ghostly floating teacup antics.