Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part five - Spent Penny

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

We watched the last ever episode of Penny Dreadful this week - a wholly unique series which falls perfectly into this series of posts about 'monster mash-ups'. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and his intended Bride, a Wolf Man or two, Dorian Gray, Doctor Jekyll and various witches and demons all collided over the three years which this series lasted.

Not all of these people are quite human.  Hardly any, actually...
But none of these figures were mere archetypes, they were all as complex and nuanced as any of the programme’s human characters. To say this was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen done right is to pay disservice to both works - Penny Dreadful was like nothing else on television, stately in it’s pacing, utterly unpredictable and sometimes infuriating in it’s determination to avoid convention. 
 Oh how I gnashed my teeth in frustration when they introduced the very great David Warner as Van Helsing, no less, only to kill him off in the following episode!

Ethan's real last name is Talbot and he has an affinity with wolves.
Nope, nothing sinister here...
But above all, this was one of the most beautifully shot period drama TV I’ve ever seen - absolutely suited to a huge cinema screen - particularly the wild west vistas of this last season. Pause any frame from any moment of this series and you could frame it to hang it on your wall.

Victorian factories on the Thames - it's like being there
Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives was arguably the central character, initially drawn into events through there friendship with a certain Mina Murray. Mina doesn’t survive her encounter with a particular Transylvanian Count in this story, but her father Sir Malcolm (played impeccably by a grizzled but formidable Timothy Dalton) does. He becomes Vanessa’s protector and they gather an extraordinary league about them, all with their own secrets and dark pasts.

Dark events always centre on Vanessa - she's a spook magnet
To try and précis the dark and spiralling twists the series took is a fool’s errand, but moments stand out above the others. The first appearance of the Frankenstein creature and Greys portrait are unforgettable but for me Billie Piper’s Lily has the most startling scene. In the process of leaving her cringing creator Victor Frankenstein after terrorising him into submission, she suddenly turns and retrieves a bouquet of flowers he had naively offered. Her arm darts out like a striking snake, attention utterly focussed on this one action as if he no longer even exists, and then she’s gone. Something about this explosion of animalistic intensity in a harmless, even endearing, act is very unsettling.

Billie Piper as Lily Frankenstein - she's nobody's Bride.
It hasn’t been a flawless ride. Season two took a swerve from the Dracula story to involve us in what seemed to be a very long encounter with a coven of demonic sorceresses. It had it’s moments, but seemed to lose momentum and meander a little, concluding unsatisfactorily in one of those hallucinatory ‘confronting your own guilty past’ sequences.

(A 4:43 effects reel for Penny Dreadful season 3 - well worth a look.)

This final year was an absolute return to form. Every character given more depth, and some welcome new ones added, particularly Victorian adventuress Catriona Hartdegen, played by Perdita Weeks with an unusual delivery which makes it appear as if she’s being dubbed.
A lengthy interlude in the United States provides a fascinating Western adventure with added werewolves and Brian Cox, before returning to London, and Vanessa, both now in the sway of Dracula. The silent, fog-shrouded city, abandoned by the living and haunted by rats and ragged clusters on the undead, has all the elements for a worthy sequel to Bram Stoker’s novel.

The final showdown...
But now Penny Dreadful is gone, the usual masterpiece title sequence replaced with the simple caption ‘The End’. Victorian London will never seem so sumptuous, or foreboding, again - and these familiar characters may not be re-interpreted so memorably for a very long time.

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