Friday, October 24, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Possession" and "Grand Guignol"

Like “Closer Than Sisters,” “Possession” focuses primarily on Vanessa and Sir Malcolm. It doesn’t dig more into their past though; it questions their future. Whatever has been possessing Vanessa is making a final push to completely take her over, turning the episode into an homage to The Exorcist. All the other main characters are there, but the action is contained to Sir Malcolm’s house where everyone is keeping vigil over an increasingly tortured Vanessa.

I said before that Eva Green is an incredibly game actress and that’s never showcased more than here. It’s hard to watch her performance because she’s so convincing that she’s going through something despicably horrible. How the others react to that though is telling about their characters and makes the episode compelling. For most of them, it's varying flavors of compassion, but Malcolm is the one to watch. He’s determined that Vanessa not die, but Ethan (who’s especially nurturing to Vanessa) questions Malcolm’s motivations. Whatever inhabits Vanessa is also somehow connected to Mina, so if Vanessa dies, Malcolm’s only tether to his daughter is lost.

By the end of the episode, Vanessa is freed of her demon. It’s not entirely clear how that happens, because it involves one of the characters’ displaying a previously hidden ability, but it comes off as intentionally mysterious and I bought it. That leads into “Grand Guignol,” the final episode of the season.

My biggest hope for the season finale was that it would resolve at least one of the character arcs introduced so far. It certainly does that and I kind of don’t want to spoil it, even though I’ve talked freely about the rest of the show so far. What I will say is that Vanessa has been the heart of the season and it’s appropriate and satisfying that her story is the one to get a resolution. And while that’s happening, Victor Frankenstein and Ethan’s stories both reach major turning points that will propel the show into Season Two. It’s a perfect way to wrap things up for the year.

All in all, I've loved Penny Dreadful. The plot lagged in places, but the characters were always enjoyable to watch and spend time with. Very much looking forward to the next season and I may even spring for Showtime to watch it live.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The War of the Worlds: Adapt or Die [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

HG Wells inspired so many branches of the Science Fiction tree: time travel, human-animal hybrids, invisibility, moon men, giant animals, super intelligent animals, and alien invasions. When I skim through The Great Book of Movie Monsters (1983) by Jan Stacy and Ryder Syvertsen, I can identify that at least one third of the films included have Wellsian roots. HG Wells is surely the single most important writer of SF in Hollywood.

That being said, the adaptations of his works have been confused, cheap or downright stupid. Every giant insect drive-in thriller is his legacy as much as objects on strings, giant killer ants chewing up Joan Collins, or men in rubber suits. Not to mention the entire Irwin Allen disaster movie and Godzilla genres. Wells was a great thinker; a controversial social critic, but his films usually come off as silly screamfests.

To my mind, his masterpiece is The War of the Worlds (1898). Wells imagines an invasion of earth by Martians who come in meteor-like canisters that open and produce killing machines on tripod legs and armed with death rays. The narrator journeys through the London landscape, seeing the devastation until the invaders die from earth bacteria. (This is bad Science but Wells was making a comment on Socialism not bacteriology.) This novel, due to its scope, has had fewer adaptations than most: four, not including Orson Welles' famous radio scarefest of 1938 and other media. (The most popular film product is The Invisible Man with twelve.) Destroying all of London (or is it New Jersey?) is a big enterprise, so the low-budget schlock makers have avoided it for the most part.

The first adaptation in film was the 1953 George Pal classic with its saucer-like machines. Garishly brilliant in color, it plays out Wells' novel in a modern setting and philosophically misses the boat with its churchy ending. (Wells must have spun in his grave faster than the Lord of the Dynamos.) An Oscar for special effects proves it typical SF fare in that the effects take center stage, making Gene Barry and Ann Robinson even more forgettable. To my mind, I missed the tripods but understand that flying saucers were all the rage in the 1950s. Pal would have been crazy to use the great stalking machines.

The 1960s and '70s did not produce a new film version. We had the cool, if superhero-sized comic book Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven created Roy Thomas and Neal Adams. This Marvel comic supposed an earth overrun by the Martians and how they would reshape our planet. Even better was the Jeff Wayne musical starring the voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. Wayne leaves the Victorian setting in place with tripods and all, though he did reshape the story a little to create scenes worthy of emotional duets.

The next adaptation on film was the 1988-90 TV series that was begun in the 1970s by George Pal, but took another 10 years to be realized. The Canadian-filmed show starring Jared Martin and Adrian Paul offered a more modern alien invasion. The Martians from 1953 have been sealed up by "the Government" and hidden from the public. Rather than being dead they are actually in suspended animation. Once released they assume the bodies of the terrorists (I didn't know they could do that!) who have stolen and released them. Their plans to take over the world are back on. The themes of government cover-up, UFOs, toxic waste, and terrorism are the flavor of the show rather than Wells, whom they piggybacked rather unnecessarily. Everyone in the first season dies and is replaced (along with the creative team) for a second season that was no more successful. The show was cancelled after two seasons, pretty much guaranteeing nobody would touch the property in the 1990s.

The next adaptation is one of my favorites, despite being reviled by some. This was M Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002) starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Shyamalan does something amazing and gets no love for it. First, he does an alien invasion movie without showing a thousand buildings falling down, tripods, or ray guns. Instead, he focuses on one family and how it affects them and only hints at the mayhem and destruction. That alone is amazing. This same technique will be used in Cloverfield (2008) (and receive much more praise).

The second and even better thing he does is to play his own philosophical riff from Wells. One of the strongest themes in the novel is that aliens have come therefore everything we thought was real has changed. How can a world with aliens in it believe in religion? Wells uses the character of the curate to explore these ideas. Shyamalan turns this on its head and actually finds a way to say, yes, religious belief is possible. Though I side with Wells on this personally, I still found Signs a wonderful rebuttal to the curate. I may be the only person on the planet that liked Signs, but as a Wellsian I'd love to see more films like it.

The last adaptation of War of the Worlds was the 2005 Steven Spielberger starring Tom Cruise. Now that it's ten years old I think I can look at it with some perspective. Visually the film is stunning. It also does a good job of being truer to Wells, having the Martians injecting human blood directly into their veins and such details, while at the same time being faithful to the New Jersey version of Welles and Pal. It uses the tripods, which is a big thumbs up from me. There were some justifiable criticisms about Cruise being able to drive from New Jersey to Boston without running into car jams. I could make the same criticism about a lot of recent disaster films too. Tim Robbins is great as a combination of the Artillery man and the curate. Cruise and Miranda Otto are able to bring some romantic energy to the tale, most likely inspired by Jeff Wayne's rock opera. Even Wells was not much for romance in his novel.

This film is likely to be the last for a while since it featured cutting edge special effects that haven't dated much. When CGI advances to the point where it can do something more, then perhaps we will get a new version. My personal hope is that the BBC does an incredibly faithful version as they did with The Day of the Triffids in 1981. I'd love to see the Victorian setting with really good CGI. John Wyndham's pal and fellow Wellsian, John Christopher's Tripods series would also be up for a remake with a good special effects budget. Until then, we'll put up with the schlock. Syfy's Sharknado Meets the Martians, anyone?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mummy Monday | The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

Who’s In It: Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Tomb), John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula), Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin serial), Ramsay Ames (Calling Dr. Death), and George Zucco (House of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes).

What It’s About: The new high priest of Arkham (Carradine) is tasked with returning the mummies of Princess Ananka and Kharis from the United States to their Egyptian tombs, but the job gets complicated when the spirit of Ananka is transferred into a local woman (Ames).

How It Is: This isn’t how you’d think it would go, but the Universal mummy movies seem to be getting better as they go. This is my favorite so far. As I said about Tomb, the traditional, shambling mummy is a powerful image and Ghost improves on it by having the monster skulk around the suburbs of a small, college town as opposed to the rural area of Tomb. It’s eerie enough seeing the mummy wander through woods and old mansions, but it’s a special thrill when he step-drags his way down what looks like could be your street.

There are other improvements too. For starters, John Carradine is always a welcome addition to any cast. It’s a little strange that George Zucco is still running the show back in Egypt after seemingly passing the torch to Turhan Bey in Tomb, but after what happened with Turhan's character, it’s understandable that Zucco may have rethought his retirement. As expected, Carradine makes a cool, creepy villain, even if he eventually falls prey to the same passions that ruined both Turhan and Zucco's efforts. Those priests of Arkham are a horny bunch.

In Ghost, the woman the priest falls in love with is an Egyptian American played by Ramsay Ames. I haven’t talked about the titles of the Mummy films yet, but they’re mostly interchangeable and unrelated to their plots. Hand doesn’t especially focus on Kharis’ hand any more than Tomb features his burial place. Kharis isn’t actually a ghost in this one either, but the title is still appropriate if you look at it sideways, because this movie does sort of resurrect the spirit of the original Mummy film starring Boris Karloff. It brings back the concept of an Egyptian woman who possesses the reincarnated soul of the mummy’s true love. And of course her boyfriend (Lowery) has to save her.

Ghost also brings back the mummy as an independent agent. Tomb offered a glimpse of that, but this time when the priest tries to possess the woman for himself, Kharis is having none of it. I thought I was fine with the mummy as a weapon in the last two movies, but he’s way cooler and even more terrifying when he's acting on his own.

The final thing that makes Ghost greater than its predecessors is the way it ends. I’m totally going to spoil it because it’s so cool, but skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Instead of the expected ending where the boy saves the girl from the monster, Ghost goes with a tragic finale. The whole movie, every time Ames’ character sees the mummy, she gets a shock of white hair. At first I thought that was just an aesthetic thing, but it turns out that it’s part of her transformation into Kharis’ mate. By the end of the movie, the change is either completed or almost completed and she’s starting to look like a mummy herself. As the hero and his posse pursue, the mummy carries her into the swamp where they both presumably drown. Forgetting for a second that there’s no way that would destroy the monster (and of course there’s one more film to go in the series), it’s an awesome twist to have the creature succeed in his plans. It elevates the movie above kids’ fare and gives it a shocking, somber finale that reminds me of old EC horror comics.

Rating: Five out of five disentombed darlings.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Closer Than Sisters" and "What Death Can Join Together"

In "Closer Than Sisters," Penny Dreadful finally reveals the story behind why Vanessa Ives is so invested in helping Sir Malcolm find Mina. In fact, it dedicates the entire episode to that without checking on any of the other characters or the show's main plot. I won't go into detail about the answers it reveals though, mostly because they don't matter.

On it's own, this is a fine episode. I enjoyed seeing younger versions of the characters and the story of their changing relationships is a good one. It's also a fantastic showcase for Eva Green's acting talent. The woman has absolutely zero self-consciousness and throws herself completely into whatever her role demands, whether it's in Penny Dreadful or Casino Royale or Dark Shadows or 300: Rise of an Empire or Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Whatever the quality may be of what's going on around her, she's amazing to watch. But as good as "Closer Than Sisters" is on it's own terms, its answers are totally mundane and not worth all the build-up they got in the previous four episodes.

The show gets back on track in "What Death Can Join Together," even if it doesn't progress the story very far (or at all). One interesting thing about having "Closer Than Sisters" in the rear view mirror though is all the questions that it didn't answer. Before I knew her story, I was fascinated by the way Vanessa interacted with the other characters, especially Dorian Gray. On the surface, she seemed attracted to Dorian, but I always wondered if there was something else going on with her. She seemed too smart simply to have fallen for his superficial charm. But "Closer Than Sisters" doesn't give any evidence that Vanessa is especially insightful about men. Instead, when she and Dorian continue their relationship in "What Death Can Join Together," it appears that she really is just smitten with him. That humanizes her character a lot while making Dorian even more dangerous.

The quest for Mina takes a false step forward when Vanessa's tarot cards suggest a ship and Malcolm leads an investigation onto a quarantined vessel from Cairo. Vanessa's off on her date with Dorian, but Ethan Chandler joins the party along with Malcolm's manservant, Sembene. They find Dracula there, along with Mina and three other of Dracula's "wives," but Dracula and Mina escape and no real progress is made.

The best part of Malcolm and Ethan's section of the episode is a conversation between the two men about Ethan's dying girlfriend Brona. Though Brona sort of broke up with Ethan in the fourth episode, that was really about something else and she's too in love with Ethan to really want him out of her life. They quickly get back together in "What Death Can Join Together," though the issues Brona cited when breaking it off haven't gone away. She's still not long for this world and Ethan is in for a lot of heartbreak that he seems ready and willing to bear for her sake. It's a lovely relationship and Ethan describes it perfectly when Malcolm warns Ethan that Brona will "cease being who she is." "Then," Ethan replies, "I will love who she becomes."

That's such a beautiful, mature idea. It's the definition of unconditional love and it of course raises the question of whether Malcolm feels the same way about Mina. If Mina is forever changed by her experience with Dracula, will Malcolm continue to love her anyway? Or will he write her off as no longer being his daughter? From what we know about Malcolm so far, he could go either way.

"What Death Can Join Together" also revisits Frankenstein, his Creature, and Van Helsing. A couple of episodes ago, I questioned why the Creature seemed so happy at the Grand Guignol, but so upset around Frankenstein. This episode explains that by going deeper into the Creature's experience at the theater. He's attracted to the show's main actress and she treats him kindly, so it's easy to understand why he would be happy when he's working around her. But he's also afraid of being rejected by her, which has to be part of what's driving him to want a Frankenstein-built companion of his own.

As for Frankenstein himself, he spends the episode hanging out with Van Helsing and learning some more about vampires. At least until the Creature shows up to remind Frankenstein in a violently dramatic way not to let himself get distracted. Like the rest of the episode, the plot doesn't move forward any, but we've now checked in with all the characters again after a week away from most of them, and even learned a thing or two about where their heads are at. Hopefully that tees us up for a slam bang couple of last episodes. I don't expect everything to be resolved by season's end, but I would love for it to finish with a satisfying arc for at least one of these characters.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Resurrection" and "Demimonde"

In "Resurrection," the third episode of Penny Dreadful, there's a lot of time dedicated to catching up with Frankenstein's first creature. The beats are all familiar, but tweaked enough to keep it fresh. Frankenstein did abandon his creation in fear and loathing, but the flashback to that night reveals the horror of it, for both creature and creator. The creature screamed and carried on out of its own fright and that's what made Frankenstein freak out and leave. This isn't Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, but a man who wants to do good and has made terrible mistakes.

Instead of a blind hermit, the creature finds acceptance with the actor who runs an English version of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, but he still wants an immortal mate like himself and that's why he's tracked down Frankenstein. Frankenstein seems to agree, but he'll need money and resources, so that sends him back to Sir Malcolm Murray.

The "previously on Penny Dreadful" segment replays some of Vanessa Ive's outburst during the séance, narrowing it down to a few bits that make it clear that she was channeling Mina at least part of the time. During that episode, I had a hard time following what Ives was saying, but some of it sounded like a different Murray child who had maybe passed on. The fourth episode kind of confirms that, but "Resurrection" is focused on Ives' connection with Mina. In fact, Ives has a dream or vision about Mina that suggests Murray's daughter may be in the zoo. Ives and Murray put together a party to investigate and hopefully rescue Mina. Ethan Chandler even joins, because he needs medicine money for his consumptive friend Brona.

Mina's not at the zoo, but a couple of weird things happen there. First, a pack of wolves surrounds the hunters, but Chandler's able to calm them and send them on their way. I was trying to figure out in the first two episodes if Chandler is a literary character, but the show is now hinting strongly that he's a werewolf. He confirms that he's spent time among the American Indians and while it hasn't come up in the show yet, there's plenty of shapechanger lore in various native tribes. Then of course there's all the talk of Chandler's dark past and inner demons, and he gets really nervous when people talk about a recent spate of Ripper-like murders. But mostly there's him calming those wolves.

The other weird thing to happen at the zoo is that the group does find a vampire, though still not Dracula (who's unnamed in the series so far). They have hopes that he'll lead them to Dracula though, so they capture him and keep him chained at Murray's house in order to run experiments. This is where Frankenstein comes in, though he doesn't work entirely alone. In the fifth episode, "Demimonde," he takes a sample of the vampire's blood to a hematologist named Van Helsing (it's awesome seeing David Warner again) who analyzes it and discovers an anticoagulant property that helps vampires digest blood.

Murray begins to suspect that Dracula only took Mina to get to Ives. It's revealed that Ives and Mina had some history together and that Ives betrayed Mina in some way, which probably explains her dedication to finding the girl. At any rate, Dracula seems to be using Mina to draw out Ives, while Murray uses Ives to get to Dracula and Mina. It's a fun cat-and-mouse game.

"Demimonde" comes to a head when several characters end up at the Grand Guignol. Ives is there, as is Dorian Gray, whom she flirted with earlier in the episode after a chance encounter at a conservatory. I was surprised to see that Frankenstein's creature (nicknamed Caliban by his actor friend) still works there. The flashbacks in "Resurrection" didn't show him leave the Grand Guignol, but there's such a huge difference between his anger when he's around Frankenstein and his joy at working in the theater. I really thought they were depicting different times in his life. That's a strange disconnect that I hope the show is able to fix.

The other characters at the theater are Chandler and Brona, out on a date. The play that night is all about werewolves, so I expected a strong reaction from Chandler over that, but he was cool and collected the whole time; more interested in Brona's enjoyment of the show than of the monster on stage. That could be misdirection though.

During the intermission, Chandler and Brona run into Gray and Ives, which makes things awkward for Brona who knows Gray "professionally." As Gray, Ives, and Chandler chat, Brona becomes increasingly uncomfortable until she has to leave. Chandler follows her into the street, but she breaks up with him, realizing that there's no future in their relationship. Even if she weren't dying of tuberculosis, he's part of another world that she doesn't believe she'll ever be included in. I don't know if it's a major plot point, but it's a nice bit of drama that ends with her huddled in an alcove, coughing up blood, as strangers pass her by. It's a truly touching moment that highlights the need for friends and family in this impossible world, a major theme in Penny Dreadful.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The House of Seven Corpses (1974)

Who's In It: John Ireland (Spartacus), Faith Domergue (This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea), John Carradine (House of Dracula), Carole Wells (TV version of National Velvet), and Jerry Strickler (who wasn't in much else, but reminds me a lot of Thomas Lennon, which was the one entertaining thing about this movie).

What It's About: The worst director in the world (Ireland) shoots a horror movie in a haunted house.

How It Is: Utter crap. Although I lied when I said a second ago that the only entertaining thing was Jerry Strickler's passing similarity to Thomas Lennon. John Carradine is in it and I always enjoy watching him, even when he has nothing to do like in this movie.

Carradine is the caretaker of the Beal mansion, a cool old house in which seven murders and/or suicides of family members took place. While the film's cast and crew are there, his main job is to warn them against being too light-hearted about the place; not that he gives them any good reason to be concerned. He tells them no stories about the place except to run down the list of deaths. For all anyone knows, including the audience, it's just a house where something horrible once happened. There's no tension around it at all.

And that's the movie's big problem. It's just dull. Scenes drag on forever. I imagine that's intended to build suspense, but since nothing is happening, it's boring. No one dies or is even seriously threatened for the first two-thirds of the movie at least, so all the focus is on the miserable people making the fictional movie within the movie. Ireland's character bullies his actors, especially Gayle (Domergue) who's no treat herself. One of the other actors is a pretentious prick who quotes Shakespeare whenever he leaves a room and tries to rape Gayle at one point. The only characters I liked were Wells and Stickler's married couple, but House of Seven Corpses doesn't spend enough time on them and when it does it's only interested in her being creeped out by the house and his sort of digging it.

There's meant to be a mystery aspect to the plot. Carradine's caretaker starts doing some strange things and someone decapitates Gayle's cat, but there's never a clear resolution to either of those things. They're abandoned in favor of a zombie's rising from its grave in the third act for reasons that seem to be connected to one of the filmmakers, but are super muddy.

Rating: One out of five assassinated actors.

When Elephants Rule the Earth... [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman won himself a place in Fantasy history as the author of the Silver John stories that first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1960s and later in novels. Before that he had a prolific career writing in the SF Pulps beginning in 1931 in the pages of Wonder Stories Quarterly. After that he appeared in practically every SF magazine until the 1950s including John W. Campbell's Astounding. As an SF writer he penned many tales under his own name (such as the Hok the Mighty series for Amazing Stories) as well as under pseudonyms like Gans T. Field (in Weird Tales) and Levi Crow (in Fantasy and SF), as well as under house names like Will Garth.

One of those times he used a nom de plume was when he wrote "Elephant Earth" as Gabriel Barclay for Astonishing Stories, February 1940. I am not sure why he chose to publish this story under a different name since he does not appear in the same issue under his own name, the usual reason for such changes. He did use the same pseudonym for "Hollow of the Moon" (Super Science Stories, May 1940) also edited by Fredrick Pohl, so he may have intended it as a name for Pohl publications alone.

No matter the by-line, "Elephant Earth" is an unusual and charming tale. It follows a man named Lillard who has been put into suspended animation, waking to find the human race destroyed by a mysterious plague, though a handful of humans may have escaped to Venus. The elephants, in Man's absence, have developed language and civilization. The elephants take Lillard to their leader so that he can decide what to do with him. Three factions vie for the last man on earth. The Medicals want to dissect him. The Mechanicals want to use him for delicate work that the elephants find impossible to do. And the last group, containing the Lillard's sole friend, Aarump, are space scientists who want to use him as a test pilot. While the chief of the elephants is deliberating on these choices, the scientists sneak him away and send him into space. Lillard lands on Venus, feeling even more lonely when he hears a female, human voice...

Wellman has great fun with this story, doing a good job of reversing the roles between man and animal. He allows us to see just how cruel humanity is in its attitudes towards beasts of burden. The majority of elephants have no concern for what Lillard wants any more than we would have for what a dog or a horse desires. Rod Serling captured this same disregard almost 30 years later in the film The Planet of the Apes (1968). Wellman has a few good chuckles like the Apes films, like when the elephants discover that the humans they admire most from ancient books, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe, are all fictional characters.

And we could leave Wellman there easily enough, but circumstances would arise that Manly would get a second chance at his elephant story. In 1951, Wellman, along with other Pulpsters like Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder) had moved to writing comics as the Pulps began to fade. Wellman wrote for the DC comic Strange Adventures. In issue #11 (August 1951) Wellman produced "The Reign of the Elephants" (drawn by Jim Mooney and Frank Giacoia). This tale appeared alongside Pulp old-timer Edmond Hamilton's "Chris KL-99", loosely based on his Captain Future character, a character Wellman had written as well in the pages of Startling Stories. It must have felt like old times. But I digress.

This time around the elephant tale begins the same but very quickly changes. The elephants have no desire to dissect the man, now named Clay Parks. (He is given a thought translator to make conversation easier than in the Pulp story.) When invaders come from the stars, it is up to Parks to show the elephants the art of war. Clay meets one of the invaders and sees she is a beautiful woman, not a human fled from earth but a product of parallel evolution. The invaders try to sway the last man on earth to betray his planet but he uses the thought transmitter to set a trap. Once the invaders are in the elephants' control, it is easier to sue for peace. The story ends with Parks and Lylla, the beautiful space girl, in love, and men and elephants working together.

In the second version of the tale we get to see Wellman rework his original idea, going for more action. The thought translator could have been just a cheat but he is a pro and makes it the key to the story's resolution. The original story strikes me as a more powerful tale, while the comic elephants are more passive and less convincing. In "Elephant Earth," Wellman extrapolates things like elephant architecture and their mental outlook, which lacks the concept of luck. Ultimately this could be a matter of medium. A constraint of the comic book storytelling is that things must be shown while in a story the more esoteric stuff is limited only by the length of the tale. All that aside, it is intriguing to see how an author plays with the same idea in two different ways. And there are few authors more able and fascinating than Manly Wade Wellman.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Penny Dreadful | "Night Work" and "Séance"

This is kind of breaking my Countdown to Halloween format, but Penny Dreadful certainly counts as horror viewing, so I'm rolling with it. There were only eight episodes in its first season, so for the rest of the week, I'll talk about a couple of episodes each day. Unfortunately, I won't be able to do this spoiler-free, so even though these won't be full recaps of each episode, be aware that I'm not going to tiptoe around major plot and character developments as they come up.

Basically, Penny Dreadful is League of Extraordinary Gentlemen done right. After a couple of shocking scenes to set the tone, it opens in Victorian London with Vanessa Ives' (Eva Green) hiring a travelling gunslinger/showman named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) for a little "night work." Chandler pretends to be a devil-may-care womanizer, but Ives sees through that and uses her insight to manipulate him into being her hired gun for the evening.

The job turns out to be assisting Ives and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) as they hunt a creature that's abducted Murray's daughter. Bram Stoker fans will quickly realize who Murray and his daughter are and there's a little Allan Quartermain in Murray too as it turns out he used to be world-traveling adventurer. Ives and Chandler are more enigmatic and if they're based on literary characters, I haven't figure it out yet. Both are obviously wrestling with inner demons (and that may not even be a figure of speech for one of them), so part of the show's hook is wanting to uncover those secrets.

The hunt turns out partially successful. They find and kill a vampire-like monster, but it's not the one Murray wants and his daughter Mina is nowhere to be found. Hoping that the monster's corpse will reveal a clue, they take it to a medical school where students learn anatomy on human corpses obtained through questionable means. One very serious student is off working by himself and he's the one whom Murray and Company approach. He refuses them at first - saying that he's only interested in the research he's doing - but changes his mind when he sees what they brought. The monster's body is covered with a thick, leathery carapace, but the young doctor peels some of it back to reveal a second skin beneath, covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

From there, the story begins to split. Ives offers Chandler continued work that he refuses, but he does decide to stay in London instead of going with the rest of his Wild West show to the continent. In the second episode, "Séance," he befriends an artists' model/prostitute named Brona Croft (Billie Piper), but where that relationship is going and how it ties into the main story remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Murray tries to convince the young doctor to join his cause, but the doctor refuses, saying that his work is much more important and rewarding to him than anything Murray may be involved with. The end of "Night Work" reveals what that is when the doctor goes into a secret lab behind his apartment and begins tinkering with a stitched together corpse. It was about that point that I remembered his earlier interest in Chandler, because the Americans had made such great strides in the study of electricity. By the time the stitched together corpse moves and the doctor reveals his name to it, there's already no question of who he is.

"Séance" continues Murray and Ives' investigation into the markings on the vampire's corpse as they consult a famous (and hilariously dandy) Egyptologist named Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale). He invites them to a party at his house where Ives meets an intriguing young man named Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and a séance takes place. During the séance though, Ives accidentally upstages the medium by going into a trance and channeling some kind of spirit. From its accusatory tone and the effect it has on Murray, it sounds like it could be the ghost of Murray's child, but not necessarily Mina. I may not have caught all of that, so I'm hopeful that it'll be made more clear later.

Back to Frankenstein, he begins teaching his creature who chooses for himself the name Proteus from a random page of Shakespeare. I was fascinated by this part of the story, because I'm a huge Frankenstein fan and Penny Dreadful seemed to be deliberately riffing on that story in some interesting ways. Besides having Victor Frankenstein live 100 years after the time of Mary Shelley's novel, the care and affection that he showed Proteus was completely different from the thoughtless loathing that the literary Frankenstein had towards his creation. I was curious to see how Proteus would develop with the loving nurture of his "father." Would something happen to turn him into Shelley's vengeful monster?

But then, just when I'd fully embraced this different direction for Frankenstein's story, Penny Dreadful revealed in a totally shocking way that "Proteus" was a misnomer. In the hardest way possible, the poor guy learns that he wasn't Frankenstein's first creation after all. And now we have a different, much more familiar creature to get to know.

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Who's In It: Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Ellen Drew (The Mad Doctor, The Monster and the Girl), and Alan Napier (Batman).

What It's About: A ruthless general (Karloff) becomes increasingly suspicious that a young woman (Drew) on a quarantined island is a vampire-like creature.

How It Is: I need to see more of producer Val Lewton films. It's been years since I've seen The Body Snatcher, but Cat People is one of my favorite horror movies and I also enjoyed its less spooky sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. On of my favorite things about Cat People is something it shares in common with Isle of the Dead, so I'm curious to see if it pops up in more of Lewton's films.

Cat People and Isle of the Dead would make a great triple feature with Night of the Demon, which wasn't produced by Lewton, but was directed by sometimes Lewton collaborator Jacques Tourneur (who made Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man for Lewton, as well as the less frightening Tale of Two Cities). What Cat People, Night of the Demon, and Isle of the Dead really have in common though is the theme of skepticism vs belief. All three films have characters claiming that something supernatural is occurring while other characters disbelieve. But better than just that, all three movies also wait until the very end to reveal who's right.

In Isle of the Dead, Karloff is the skeptic. He's trapped on a quarantined island with a varied group of people that includes a British consul named St Aubyn (Napier), his wife, and the wife's paid companion Thea. There's also a superstitious housekeeper who sees how ill Mrs St Aubyn is, how vibrant Thea is, and concludes that Thea is a supernatural creature draining the life from her mistress. Karloff's General Pherides scoffs at first, but the more he observes, the more he becomes convinced that there may be something to the housekeeper's tale.

I won't reveal whether or not Thea actually is some sort of life-sucking demon, but it's not spoiling anything to say that since Isle of the Dead is coy about the revelation for most of its run time, it progresses more like a thriller than a horror story. There are a couple of levels of danger going on: the danger that Mrs St Aubyn is in if Thea is a monster, and the danger that Thea is in from Pherides if she isn't.

It's a cool set up and the script adds another layer by having these conversations about skepticism and belief spill over into discussions of religion. At the beginning of the movie, Pherides doesn't just laugh at the housekeeper's theories, he's also an atheist. But as the story progresses, his openness towards the idea of a life-sucking monster is also reflected in his softening about religion. That raises all kinds of interesting questions about the connection between faith and imagination. Isle of the Dead doesn't attempt to answer these deeper questions, but I love that it makes me think about them.

Rating: Four out of five obsessed officers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Creature (2011)

Who's In It: Mehcad Brooks (True Blood), Serinda Swan (Aphrodite in Percy Jackson, Zatanna on Smallville), Dillon Casey (Nikita), Aaron Hill (Greek), Amanda Fuller (Grey's Anatomy), Pruitt Taylor Vince (True Blood, The Mentalist), Daniel Bernhardt (Parker), and Sid Haig (Spider Baby, Diamonds Are Forever, Jason of Star Command).

What It's About: A group of young people head out to the woods to... hey, wait! Where you going?! No, seriously. Just stick with me...

How It Is: My heart sank at the opening shot in Creature when I saw a truck full of three couples heading into the Louisiana bayou for a vacation. I barely made it through Shark Night; I didn't think I was ready for another just like it so soon. On the surface, the main characters in Creature look like all those other cabin-in-the-woods stereotypes. There's the obnoxious guy who's going to get everyone into trouble (Casey), there's the slutty girl (Fuller), the virginal girl (Lauren Schneider), the jock (Hill), the token black guy (Brooks), and the token black guy's super hot girlfriend (Swan). All that was missing was a nerdy stoner. But as the characters kept talking, I realized that something different was going on.

For one thing, Casey and Fuller play brother and sister and not an especially annoying couple as I first thought. It makes sense that they have similar personalities coming from the same family. And that both of them are single, because the only people who can sort of tolerate them are each other. But more importantly, Brooks and Hill are playing Marines and it doesn't take long to realize that they're smart, serious ones. Casey and Fuller are wild cards in the group, but it's quickly obvious that Creature isn't about a bunch of stupid kids getting into trouble. It's about a group of friends that actually feels like a real group of friends. I especially like Brooks and Swan who convinced me that they're a normal, healthy couple in love with each other. And the fact that a couple members of the group are highly trained in combat means that this isn't just going to be all screaming and running when the alligator-man shows up.

That's kind of how the whole movie goes. It starts with apparent stereotypes and then reveals them to be honest-for-real characters. There are scary rednecks in this movie (led by the awesome Sid Haig and including the always spooky Pruitt Taylor Vince), but they have genuine motivations and complicated feelings about what they're doing. Even the alligator-man (Bernhardt) has a touching - though sick and creepy - backstory that adds facets to him as a character.

I'm in danger of overselling it, so let me dial back a little. Creature is super cheesy in places. The rubber, alligator-man suit looks cool, but there's no getting around that it's a rubber suit. And director Fred Andrews loves a slow motion shot a lot more than I do. There's also some really disturbing stuff in the movie. It earns its R rating not just on what you see and hear, but on tone and theme, too. It's neither a completely serious horror film nor a fun homage to B-movies; it walks a thin line somewhere between those two. It does so well, but what it's going for is a specific enough thing that I suspect not everyone will dig it. For me though, I was pleasantly shocked by how much I enjoyed it.

Rating: Four out of five totally beautiful couples whom I actually hoped would live.

Mummy Monday | The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

Who's In It: Lon Chaney (The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein), Dick Foran (The Mummy's Hand), Elyse Knox (the Joe Palooka movies), George Zucco (The Mummy's Hand, Tarzan and the Mermaids), Wallace Ford (The Mummy's Hand), and Turhan Bey (The Mad Ghoul, The Amazing Mr. X).

What It's About: Thirty years after the events of The Mummy's Hand, the guardians of Ananka seek revenge on the party who invaded her tomb.

How It Is: As the Mummy series becomes more throwaway (Tomb is only an hour long and 15 minutes of that is recapping Hand) it also becomes more fun. For better or worse, we're in full-on children's adventure mode now.

It doesn't make much sense why the evil high priest Andoheb (Zucco) has waited 30 years to go after Stephen Banning (Foran) and his buddy Babe (Ford), but as Tomb opens, Andoheb is way too old for the job. Hand started with Andoheb receiving his evil priestly commission from his predecessor and Tomb begins the same way, with Andoheb's passing it on to the next guy, a dashing fellow named Mehemet Bey (Turhan). Mehemet takes the mummy (Chaney, taking over from Hand's Tom Tyler) to the United States to murder Banning and Babe and all their relatives.

Unfortunately, Mehemet suffers the same weakness of the flesh that Andoheb did in Hand and falls in love with Isobel (Knox), the girlfriend of Banning's son. After a couple of murders, Mehemet deviates from his mission and diverts the mummy to kidnap Isobel. This leads to one of my favorite moments in the movie, where the mummy mutely (and unsuccessfully) tries to change Mehemet's mind. Through all of Hand and most of Tomb, the mummy is simply an instrument of the high priest, but in that one moment he has a mind of his own, which makes him potentially much more dangerous. I forget if the rest of the series follows up on that, but I kind of hope it does. Or maybe I don't.

It's not like the mummy would be more of a threat if he acted on his own. He's plenty deadly and plenty scary as the weapon of an evil cult. And as cool as Karloff's portrayal is in the original Mummy, I actually prefer Tyler and Chaney's cartoonish, silent, shambling versions that have more successfully infiltrated pop culture. And Chaney's is even more so than Tyler's, introducing the famous step-drag walk to the character.

There's nothing special at all about the plot of The Mummy's Tomb. Mehemet is a cool-looking villain, but he's dumb as dirt and reveals himself as the mummy's master in a ridiculously stupid way. But that lack of cleverness keeps the movie short and focused on what I came to see: the mummy shuffling around scaring and killing people. And I'm not sure I want it any other way.

Rating: Three out of five kidnapping, cognizant corpses.


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