Penny Dreadful: The Exquisite Pain of the “Exceptional”

Penny DreadfulI recently finished the second season of Penny Dreadful and can’t stop thinking about it. I will admit – I was reticent to invest my time in this series. The first season didn’t get the best reviews (not that this has ever stopped me before), and I think that it’s entirely possible that the name of the series itself put me off a little. After all, a “penny dreadful” was a less than favorable slang name during the 19th century for serials of sensational fiction. So, basically, the name itself advertises as “cheap thrills” for the masses. But while the series does use many familiar monsters and horror tropes, it manages to do so in an often surprisingly insightful and quality way.


The series has a variety of familiar names and creatures. There is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monster (a.k.a. John Clare played by Rory Kinnear), Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney), a Western side-show star/werewolf (Ethan Chandler played by Josh Harnett), an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton), and a possible voodoo priest (Sembene played by Danny Sapani). At the center of it all is Miss Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the doomed spiritualist who is possessed by demons. It all sounds far too fabulous to be put together in any manner that could work – but it does.

During the first season, a sort of team is formed by Vanessa, Victor, Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Sembene. Together they face a variety of supernatural threats: the majority of which are vampires in the first season, and witches in the second. The first season begins their friendship and the second cements it, since now that the characters are familiar both to each other and the audience, there is opportunity to work in more development. And, the second season is definitely worth waiting for.

Victor pretty much nails the theme when he is discussing his new love with Vanessa. He explains to her that he had given up hope of being loved and thought that it was only for other people – he had resigned himself to the fate of the “exceptional”. This choice of wording is apt in describing the suffering he has undergone throughout his life due to his focus on, and success in, the realm of the mind rather than that of the heart. However, it also fits the singularity of each of these main characters, and the loneliness that plagues them. They may fight monsters together, but they are each very alone when it comes to fighting their own personal demons.

Throughout the second season, they each manage to catch a glimpse of that love that seemed so out of reach, touch it, be warmed by it – only to watch it slip from their hands. There is true torture here where love is concerned: Victor loses his love, Lily (Billie Piper) – a love that he himself created – to the more seductive Dorian Grey; Sir Malcolm is spellbound by Mrs. Poole simply as a means to her nefarious ends; and Ethan and Vanessa come together just long enough to see the other for who they are, grow to love them, and then be so devastated by the blackness within themselves that they cannot find a way to share the path going forward. Perhaps the saddest fate is that of the monster, John Clare, who is shunned by the “love” created for him by Frankenstein, betrayed by the blind girl who pretended to befriend him, and – most tragically – finally seen and loved by Vanessa, only to have her refuse to share her path with him for fear of him falling victim to the black curse that surrounds her life. The weaving together of these story lines is elegant, clever, and tragic.

In addition to the substance of the series, the cinematography is gorgeous and dark. The casting is spot on, as is the dialogue and acting. The exchanges between Josh Hartnett’s character, Ethan Chandler, and the investigator Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) are some of my favorite, with Hartnett quickly volleying back Hodge’s questions and digs with short, terse responses.

However, all this is not to say that the series isn’t over the top in places – it definitely is. But the balance between the sensational and deep is interesting and well done. This series has the bitterness and bite of dark chocolate with the sweetest black cherry filling. I can’t wait for Season 3.

Mommies Dearest: Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy

Posters for the Three Mothers movies

Ever since I first watched Deep Red I’ve been big fan of Dario Argento. I like the giallo genre in general. Something about the blend of elements – the overall style of the films, the mystery/slasher/supernatural, the subtle eroticism, violence, and darkness – works for me. So, over the holidays I decided to watch through the Three Mothers trilogy.

I had seen the first, Suspiria (1977), a couple times before, but watched it again to have it fresh in my mind. I had not watched Inferno (1980) or Mother of Tears (2007), so these were new to me. While there were things that I liked about all of the movies, there were a few things that stood out to me. Most of this probably has to do with the timing of when the movies were made. The first two were only three years apart, but the last didn’t come until 27 years later, which is a really large gap for a movie in a series, and the time between definitely showed.

The history of the Three Mothers story is that there were three powerful witches bent on gaining money and power. They each took up residence in a different city – Freiburg, Germany (the Mother of Sighs); New York City (the Mother of Darkness); Rome, Italy (the Mother of Tears) – and commissioned an architect to build houses for them. There are three signs associated with identifying the houses of the witches: a strange, bittersweet smell, a portrait of the mother housed underground, and a third key to be found underneath your feet.

So, here is what I saw – the first two movies are closely paired with many similarities:

  • lighting – both make use of brightly colored accent lighting in reds, blues, yellows, and greens. This lends a particular feel to the darkness that infiltrates the rest of the films, and enhances the use of stained glass windows that appear throughout both films. In Suspiria stained glass serves as a dramatic way to expose the murder of one of the dancers.

Image of the red hall in Suspiria

  • rainy cab rides – both protagonists arrive at their destinations on dark, rainy nights, after riding with some kind of weird cab drivers.
  • the use of disabled characters – in Suspiria there is a blind pianist and in Inferno there is a book seller suffering from partial paralysis. Both of these characters are victimized.
  • architecture – the architecture in both films creates a gothic element (while not, at least from what I remember from art history class, being technically gothic in design) and lends a brooding feeling. In Suspiria the building is a dance school while in Inferno the building is an apartment building.

Image of hotel from Inferno

  • death by glass – both movies make use of this in different fashion
  • killer animals – cats, rats, bats, and a dog. Both movies have groups of animals that are overtaken by demonic forces and then go on to kill. In both cases, the disabled characters are killed by possessed animals. In Inferno there is quite a bit of animal related violence – cat on rat, man on cat, cat on man, etc.

Suspiria had the advantage of having Jessica Harper (from the Rocky Horror spinoff Shock Treatment) and Joan Bennett (from Dark Shadows), along with Udo Kier (who is actually in Mother of Tears, too). The feel of this film is dark and dreamlike and there are several shocking moments and a death scene that will stay with me forever (death by room filled with snarls of razor wire).

Image of room with wire in Suspiria

Overall, I felt that the quality and feel of Suspiria was superior to Inferno, but I still thought that there were some interesting aspects in this movieFor example, I liked the opening of this movie where in trying to identify the odd odor surrounding her apartment building the girl explores a bit underground, and drops her keys in a sort of puddle that turns out to be an opening to an underground room that has been flooded. In this room we see evidence of the portrait of the Mother of Darkness. Additionally, I liked that there was an unpredictable nature to who the actual protagonist was – the focal point changes throughout in an interesting way.

Mother of Tears differs greatly from the others in that none of the similarities of the first two appear. (We don’t see the extreme colored backlighting, death of disabled characters by possessed animals, etc.) The plotting in this movie is more well defined, but there is also an extreme focus on violence – whereas the first two films see violence visited on individuals in secluded locations, in this film demons possess the general populace creating havoc in the city. There are also roving bands of witches that are gathering for the “rise” of the Mother of Tears. The building in this movie – rather than being actively inhabited and working as the main setting for the film – appears to have fallen into disuse, except for some homeless people sheltering in the basements. Our protagonist has the benefit of her mother’s ghost as a guide and she has some of her own, white witchcraft to call upon to help her. There are a lot of interesting “surprise!” moments – like surprise – demons!, and surprise – baby murder! The deaths in this movie are more extreme as is the sexualization. I think the most amusing part of this movie, to me anyway, was what I have deemed the “red half-shirt of power” – a relic garment that apparently bestows power upon the Mother of Tears when she puts it on.

Image of the Mother in Mother of Tears

So, basically, this last movie has more plot – but also more gore, and gross-out factor. Oh, and only one, solitary possessed monkey.

Overall, I wish, that the third had stuck more closely to the format of the first two – to me, they were more along the lines of traditional giallo, whereas the last branched out more into horror. I did, however, enjoy watching these three movies so close together.