23 November 2015

Witches of East End: Season 1

Witches of East End's Season 1 is Too Muddled
by Kristin Battestella

Based upon the novels by Melissa de la Cruz, the late Lifetime series Witches of East End had plenty of magical potential. Unfortunately, this ten episode debut falters in balancing its bewitching tales and romantic plotlines, resulting in perhaps too many growing pains.

Artist Joanna Beauchamp (Julia Ormond) is surprised to see her wildcat sister Wendy (Madchen Amick) after a century apart – for unbeknownst to Joanna's daughters Ingrid (Rachel Boston) and Freya (Jenna Dewan Tatum), they are a family of exiled and cursed witches. The immortal Joanna is doomed to see her daughters continuously born, grow up, and die, and this time she has steered the bookish Ingrid and romantic Freya away from their dangerous magical abilities in hopes of giving them a fuller, longer life. An old enemy, however, is after Joanna, taking on her lookalike form or shifting into other guises as needed to threaten the Beauchamps and interfere with Freya's impending wedding to Dr. Dash Gardiner (Eric Winter). While her future mother-in-law Penelope (Virginia Madsen) is slowly warming to Freya, Dash's wayward brother Killian (Daniel Di Tomasso) makes for a much more steamy adversary to the nuptials.

Glitz, glamour, saucy dreams, and ominous rituals in the garden open Witches of East End, and the “Pilot” moves quickly with fast talking folks and one blink and you miss it spooky incident after another. There's a lot of house history and paranormal exposition shoehorned in the first ten minutes alone – making it tough to appreciate the morphing red flowers, poofing photographs, doppelgangers, pentagrams, and murder afoot. Did I mention the trite love triangle also being introduced? Witches of East End has much to digest, and although based upon its own book series, comparisons between Witches of Eastwick, Charmed, and Practical Magic are understandably apparent due to this initial patchwork and too similar feeling. Fortunately, Victorian flashbacks and glimpses into the twenties anchor past pain and fate coming to catch the titular ladies – unique tales that might have set Witches of East End further apart from those aforementioned comparables had it been set as a period piece. While it's nice to have all age appropriate adults and realistic looking dark haired ladies instead of cliché teen bimbos, the enemy evil is told about more than it is actually seen, strong women are always being attacked by icky men, and attempts to be self aware about such cliches end up playing into that very same old. Witches of East End takes too long to get rolling, superficial threats are too easily resolved, and hello look at that shoddy police work. Thankfully, the intercut spell editing and smaller threats in “Marilyn Fenwick, R.I.P.” tie into the intriguing premise's overall revenge and magical consequences. The sardonic comedy and rules of being a witch remain fun while serious conversations on whether magic is a gift or nothing but problems add drama. Rather than speedy shockers, time is taken with magic training and spell practice in “Today I am a Witch.” More sepia flashbacks and a long list of enemies shape the storylines while magical mistakes, face to face confrontations, and debate on whether these potions and powers should be used for protection and defense or the offensive help Witches of East End get a foot on the right moonlit path.

Fun guest stars, more sinister, and villainous history further up the conflict, surprises, and retribution in “A Few Good Talismen,” and the rules of the realm are established in “Electric Avenue” thanks to ghosts, legal tricks, and courtroom encounters. Witches of East End over relies on fast talking delivery and conveniently mentioned witchcraft information after the fact – we are told about more spells being done that we don't get to see. However, when action actually happens, it is entertaining and weighted with supernatural arguments. Is the witchcraft right and justified in one scenario and wrong in another? Unfortunately, the pretty people making moon eyes in the pool in “Potentia Noctis” detract from the historical nuggets, turn of the century saucy, and spell casting magical brownies. The period apothecary, rival magics, multilevel spells, and mansion tunnels are top notch, again making one wonder why Witches of East End didn't just dance the dance and begin with all this quality past beguine. The zombie resurrections and good girls gone bad consequences in “Unburied” are also hampered by the intercut romantic scenes. Yes, the magical hair pulling torture is kind of hokey, but the deadly high stakes is just a bit more important than love la dee da. New character dynamics and more evil shapeshifter meaty end up uneven or stretched thin because this need for dreamy keeps undercutting the magical ruses, occult research, fantastical dangers, and titular charms in “Snake Eyes.”

Whoa, whoa, spoiler alert! Forget the love triangle soapy, the Beauchamps come from Asgard, can never go home, and more family has been left behind – and all this news is dropped with a mere two episodes left in the First Season. Say what? Knowing this information makes Witches of East End a lot more interesting, even as we again wonder why the series didn't shoot out the gate with this enchanting who, why, and how it effects the present family. Any and all fantastical dalliances could have come through the town portal for our learning to be witches to wrangle each week and we got sweet nothings at the local pub instead? It's great to see the sisters going head to head and banging up the house, too – even if the animated laundry is laughable. “A Parching Imbued” has the supernatural feeling Witches of East End needs with the eponymous gals in white robes on the beach casting spells while the evil shifter interferes directly with counter magic. Doppelgangers walk down the street, powers are lost, and conflicts arise over surprise character twists. Granted again the evil torture chamber looks more like an industrial art museum display, but deaths, harbingers of doom, and threats both mortal and magical disrupt the wedding preparations in the “Oh, What a World!” finale. Why ruin all the Asgard answers, bad omens, and major dramatic developments with too many sappy montages and pop songs? I'm ready for the verbal bitch slaps and magic battles! Although the easy, rushed resolution leaves Witches of East End on a cliffhanger and the San Francisco flashback shows the audience the tavern with magic cocktails we already know, the connection to present truths create some much needed character changes to up the ante for Season Two.

Thanks to the lovely at any age and foxy but poised Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall), the viewer immediately likes immortal witch and mother Joanna Beauchamp. She's trying to keep her daughters safe due to a horrible curse and that live forever quality doesn't mean that enemies aren't out to test her immortality. Ormond's accent is an odd mix of toned down British and put on American, which may bother some, but it can also be excused thanks to her long lived times – there's certainly some fun Latin and doppelganger mayhem to chew on, too. Despite her continuously telling lies and withholding information, we don't blame Joanna for hiding the witchy ways in order to save this generation. Everything she does is to protect her daughters, to give them normal lives, and help them realize being a witch isn't their be all end all. Witches of East End's uneven focus between the ensemble love and Joanna's ongoing enemy plot wavers too much – sometimes we don't see our star very much from episode to episode. However, the backstory and family revelations late in the season add new spins. Joanna has her own moments of happiness amid the dangerous, and her second love interest should have been recurring all along gosh darn it. It's amazing to see a strong, mature, and classy lady working to keep her family together. Joanna admits she can't deal with her history and magic on her own, and her coming round to magic uses, accepting her past, and embracing her power gives Witches of East End a positive anchor.

It's unfortunate that Rachel Boston's (American Dreams) Ingrid is always siding with Wendy while Freya is most often with Joanna, as these limited pairings inhibit plot variety and keep critical information from all the players – who often behave more like four women in separate events rather than a core family. Unless you read some of the series' apocrypha, the audience doesn't get all the details, such as Ingrid being the older sister. Her level headed skepticism and slightly awkward but honest chemistry is a welcome change of pace early on Witches of East End, however her uber shrew detesting of Meg Ryan and Katherine Heigl movies is too textbook on the nose and used more to differentiate her from her dreamy lovestruck sister than develop her own personality. Ingrid is a realistic student of history and witchcraft that suddenly jumps the gun and writes spells because she's really powerful with a saucy evil past and not just a shy librarian after all. From episode to episode Ingrid is either awed, wide eyed, whoopsie surprised, and scared of her magical mantle or being selfish and stupid with serious life and death spells. It's great to see when her magic gets out of hand with erroneous consequences, but the character is made smart and stupid at the same time and too often caught in over her head whilst we are also repeatedly being told she is the good one. Which is it?

Likewise, Jenna Dewan Tatum's (Step Up) wishy washy romantically confused shtick gets old fast, and I wish I could skip over her 'he's oh so dreamy' scenes. We don't know anything about Freya except how she is torn between two men. Even when she finds out she is a witch, she turns princess and doesn't want to get her hands dirty with spells – only to be angry later when her powers don't work. Why couldn't the love triangle plot be developed later once Freya knows who she is and has accepted her powers? Instead she always needs to be saved by one of her men. Meh. This same old melodrama wastes time Witches of East End doesn't have to spare, and honestly, I would rather have seen only one daughter in a learning to be a witch plot with more focus on the elder sisters. Isn't Freya too old to be this juvenile? She learns of her magic history but would rather talk about boys, and she's a bartender who's good at potions, ba dum tish! I'm not opposed to Gothic love triangles done right in paranormal fantasies. However, I do expect to know something more about an allegedly strong woman – an immortal witch from Asgard no less – before knowing who she's boinking as though the boinking is the most important thing about her. As if!

Thankfully, Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks), is a feline delight for Witches of East End as Joanna's wild sister Wendy. She has nine lives to live and now in her slightly mature age uses her experience to protect her family. Wendy is self aware, sarcastic, and educates her nieces on good magic just as much as she imparts don't be like her reckless wisdom. Of course, that's not to say she doesn't get up to wrong doing spells and danger, but Wendy remains a positive sounding board. Some of her plots do move too fast – they use up her lives quickly and swoop in a love interest, too. However, some of the speedy exposition works when Wendy is dropping witty asides and one line adventures about being widowed, married, divorced again, or eaten by a crocodile. Her knowing how to fix or undo a spell is also a convenient dues ex machina used too many times on Witches of East End, but the sisterly pros and cons are well done with both Wendy or Joanna each being short sighted at times in their magical knowledge or uses. Where Joanna seeks to motherly protect, Wendy would rather empower her nieces. Is one way better than the other or can both styles strengthen the family? Amick is a fun counter balance whose personality doesn't change from week to week – unlike the under utilized Virginia Madsen (Candyman) as Freya's snotty future mother-in-law Penelope. It takes half the season for what we already suspect of Penelope to come to light, making for another missed opportunity that Witches of East End should have indulged from day one.

Dimension also comes too late for Eric Winter (The Ugly Truth) as Freya's fiance Dash. Why couldn't he have been a doctor first and foremost instead of one half of a limp couple? Scenes with science investigation to counter magic end up going nowhere, and time focusing solely on the brotherly rivalry is so slow compared to the rapid witch pacing. We can see man pain anywhere, and Witches of East End could have at least completed the trifecta and had Canadian Italian model Donald Di Tomasso play hockey instead of serving up the same old dark, mysterious, music, and motorcycle Killian brooding. The series continually falls back on this teen wannabe bedroom ho hum, and such glaring plots don't belong on what's supposed to be a sophisticated, women-oriented supernatural show. Fortunately, familiar guests including Matt Frewer (Max Headroom), Joel Gretsch (The 4400), Jason George (Grey's Anatomy), and Freddie Prinze, Jr. (Scooby Doo) add mature, supporting sensibilities to Witches of East End. It is, however, disappointing to see the charming Tom Lenk (Buffy) and Kellee Stewart (My Boys) typically typecast as the gay and black best friends, respectively. Tiya Sircar (The Internship) as Amy also starts with medical intelligence and character strengths, but is ultimately made stupid with Witches of East End once again wasting better, progressive plot opportunities and giving both its interracial and mixed couples ill fates. Tsk tsk. All these independent, confident chicks and ensemble support possibilities, yet it appears the only purpose of Witches of East End's unfocused storytelling is to toss every woman a man. Bechdel test my foot – when we do get all the lady librarians, doctors, immortals, and witches together they still end up talking about men!

Witches of East End has a fitting mood with black cats, bewitching eyes, skeleton keys, Latin curses, and a pink Victorian house that belies the spooky within its quaint. Books, photographs, ominous lighting, small period piece doses, and freaky bathtubs should be used even more for a slow burn atmosphere, yet once again I come back to the faulty execution at work. Witches of East End could have been styled as several television movies or at least had a feature length pilot episode, however the ridiculous playing at double speed opening title card is a lighting bolt blink and bam indicative of how by the pants these 42 minutes or less episodes were steered. The witch effects and magical movements are cheap and quick, as if making them one second longer would cost too much. Trite 'if this were a movie, this would be the part where happens!' dialogue doesn't excuse borrowed ideas – like the trapped in the painting plot lifted from The Witches. Cell phones and modern lingo are intrusive, and unlike The Witches of Eastwick, everything in Witches of East End feels lighthearted, too soft with little edge or dark style. Cursing and some near nudity amid brief 1906 orgies are fine, but such saucy is also an obvious, late in the hour desperate move – and something turn of the century should not be montaged with contemporary pop music! Witches of East End never fully establishes its titular setting, and we know almost nothing about the town's size, how many shops there are, or what the main street layout may be. Are there no nosy neighbors to spy on these backyard spells? Is the Beauchamp name beloved or notorious in the community? Viewers don't find out the town is shrouded on a map and secretly famed for its occult history or hiding a gosh darn gateway to Asgard until it is too late. Good job, everyone!

If you are familiar with other magical material, Witches of East End will be very derivative. Some audiences may like that whimsical comfort, readers of the series especially I imagine, but that unfulfilled basic may be disappointing for others. Undivided viewing attention is needed for this incredibly fast moving design, and a marathon session is a must to both keep up with the fast moving plots or exposition dumping and breeze over the spinning tires romance. The steamy attempts may cater to the Lifetime audience but such trite strays too far into soap opera over the top at the expense of the unique core potential. All that should have happened to start Witches of East End comes in the second half of the season, with numerous writers and directors falling flat over a backward execution – which is surprising since there is a literary source. Though Witches of East End is certainly watchable for paranormal light fans looking for a streaming weekend or ladies growing out of Charmed, the weekly witchy, immortal trials, and magical tribulations feel like they should be bigger somehow – leaving this debut with more than its fair share of flaws muddling the magic.

16 November 2015

Recent Horror Positives Deux!

Recent Horror Positives Deux
by Kristin Battestella

This contemporary quartet of movies and anthologies big and small provides plenty of quality murder, mayhem, paranoia, gore, and more. Your welcome.

Bug – Retro telephone rings, an isolated and rundown motel, and blue neon lighting establish the would be rock bottom for beat up, lonely, straggly haired waitress Ashley Judd (Double Jeopardy) in this 2006 psychological scare directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Unfortunately the solitary drinking, drug use, and one sided phone conversations become much worse thanks to the enigmatic and awkward Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) and his forthright perceptions on crickets and conspiracies. The smoke detector, a pizza delivery – even the disappearance of Agnes' son years prior is newly suspect. Violent, intrusive ex-husband Harry Connick Jr. (Copycat) is equally solid thanks to meaty one-on-one dialogues, masculine tensions, and terse back and forth exchanges. There's exposition, sure, but these conversations realistically rely more on past emotions and mistakes the characters already know. This is a messed up, small, and sad little world with more pronounced accents for the Oklahoma setting and a one room design that looks ten years older anchoring the dramatic first hour as the creepy crawlies, military history, and medical paranoia increase. Just because one can't see the infestations that doesn't mean they aren't there, right? People flipping out over bugs invisible to the audience can be unintentionally humorous, granted. However, the well edited camera cuts and movements within the tiny stage space ala the Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) source play accentuate the increasingly crazy theories and jumping to conclusions extremes – which are in turn ridiculous and unbelievable. Even if there is a grain of truth impetus and misplaced maternal instincts realized too late, sparse uses of bite marks, blood, plastics, tin foil, and bug lights – as in dozens of bug lights and wall to wall tin foil shiny – isolate our lead pair within their conspiracy together. The zapper glow adds a surreal, padded room reflection where homemade madness trades one type of abuse and insanity for another. Let's pull out our own teeth because the government put bugs in our fillings! Okay! This is not scare a minute slasher dicing horror as some viewers would expect but rather a freaky thinking person's examination of mind and body fears and inside and out delusions all done without CGI and $250 million hyperbole. As to the slightly confusing post credit clips, I suspect the first is where Agnes' mental breakdown began and the second is when her delusion passes the point of no return. Of course, I could be wrong, as it probably wasn't the smartest idea to watch this particular movie while I had a hives breakout!

Darknet – This 2013 Canadian anthology series jumps right into the First of Six half hour episodes with an internal website design, ominous subway obliviousness, and mysterious keys in a terminal locker leading to more clues. Our young and hip protagonists are often alone, in over their heads, and unaware they are horror subjects, and the seemingly random, intercut mini tales make it tough to grow attached whether our anonymous victims are in the played videos or surfing the visuals in real time. These aren't characters, just people being scared from scene to scene. Surveillance camera black and white accents the suspense and ironic toppers in each vignette, but the non-linear excuses only provide short term effectiveness. Through the keyhole views, police investigations, voyeurs, and saucy witnesses help rebuild tension in Episode Two, and bickering couples, incessant buzzing, faulty electricity, and erotic treasure maps don't lead to a happy ending. Whether the stories are creatively connected or not, the disjointed twists aren't necessarily crafty when the audience is duped into a confusing short attention span structure. Episode Three serves up eerie escorts, homeopathic pills, perilous jaywalking, and worse telephone repairmen – those tasers do come in handy! Despite the lack of logic needed to keep the shockers afloat, the storylines are quite quality along with the desperate prescriptions, kitchen hallucinations, and surgery fears of Show Four. Yes, be suspicious of house call doctors, cryptic contests, and fishy hotline calls! The isolation, blurred camerawork, and disembodied voices go well with the medical horrors, proving the plots here don't always have to be solely murderous. Cubicle ho hum and new town paranoia also do excellently in the full length story for Episode 5, using the alarming videos within an escalating tale for what ifs instead of the previous plot hole shockers. Ironically, the Finale goes back to hacker games and cheap sex thrills, weakening the killer tapping on the window simmer and turnabout is fair play surprises for a limp finish. A Season Two is in the works, and this kind of instant shock value fits its online Vimeo platform – where the over reliance on technology, messaging, social screens, and scrolling matches the current horror trends. Worse sex and violence can be found on the internet, however, and in five years, that technological steep will compromise all watch-ability. That's not to say the series isn't without promise, but its fleeting by design choices over brewing scares is only a fright fix memorable in small doses. Hopefully,the next batch will correct the kinks and notch up the fear. 

It Follows – A scantily clad girl running away in red high heels makes for a spooky start amid the rural, seemingly innocent Halloween leaves, sidewalks, and backyard pool safety here. The audience automatically suspects sexual violence – childhood fun and teen movie harmless quickly change to lipstick, pink lingerie, gruesome beach findings, and chloroform. Dating and sexual awakenings aren't so blissful, eh? Fortunately, the bathing suits and backseat panting aren't filmed for titillation. Outside of a few slow pans up a girl's bare legs to reflect what's on a guy's mind, the nudity here is for scares – the disheveled naked woman silently approaching and banging on the door allows the viewer to fill in our own saucy worst fears amid the middle America dated and downtrodden Michigan bleak. Old televisions, retro porn mags, and big station wagons with kids at the wheel add a nostalgia lost alongside the slightly eighties after school special music and Amityville lakeside scenery. Ice cream parlors, school halls, swing sets – this supernatural STD and sexual predator is everywhere with absentee parents, hospital visits, and assault evidence feeling bad but not really doing much about it, mirroring how our society both allows for the heartbreak whilst also saying she gets what she deserves for having sex. Oh, you consented, it will haunt you, but just get rid of it by passing it along. Sorry! We perpetuate a Little Red Riding Hood pursuit and sexualized too soon and then shame the victim with the Pilate need for water and a cleansing rain. Long hallways, locked doors, and Freudian disguises represent an abusive, festering trauma that all too often happens silent and unseen in these suburban locales where we least expect it. Of course, those friend zoned boys are willing to risk catching this crazy shit just for a chance at some vag! After all, it's for her own good, right? Do you prostitute yourself just to stave off the inevitable and allow the supernatural abuse and systematic robbing of our blissful youth? The horrifying answers are wisely left open to one's own interpretation, however the aquatic finale falters greatly. Again, perhaps having another eye for writer and director David Robert Mitchell might have strengthened some of the teen stupidity and invisible humorous – these kids fight before considering how to make it visible to attack. One character is completely useless – she is shot and no one cares – and although the clam shell meets birth control case design is smartly symbolic, this e-reader compact holding all the literary references is too on the nose, distracting from the otherwise fun old time horror allusions and general lack of modern technology. The absence of a research montage is also odd and no one looks into paranormal or religious cures, but shrewd pans and camera shots where the audience sees the titular approach when no one else does make for some scary moments. Like The Babadook, the real world horrors we aren't supposed to discuss are addressed without being preachy, and the social commentary amid the fears keeps the viewer doubly on edge.

The Theatre Bizarre – Udo Kier (Shadow of the Vampire) is discomforting in his puppet makeup and makes for a bizarre animatronic host indeed for the “Theatre Guignol” frame story linking this 2011 anthology. Our First tale “The Mother of Toads” is self aware with Lovecraft references, croaking old ladies, reptilian rituals, and disturbing nudity – but the vacationing couple clichés may bore horror viewers expecting oomph. Tale Two “I Love You” escalates from a dramatic break up and bad sex to a painful look at two timing revelations and honest cruelties. Again, the violent reactions are predictable, but the distorted editing is a pleasing accent on the unabashedly R skin and splatter. The Third segment “Wet Dreams” offers a weird therapist, torture devices, and several creative varieties on every man's fear of uh... dismemberment. Dream analysis blurs the line between conscious moments or imagination, but that abstract also muddles some of the sympathy involved. “The Accident,” however, has pretty scenery, a little girl asking hefty questions, intercut motorcycle fatalities, and upsetting animal scenes. Why do we lie to comfort our children? While such somber may seem out of place here, this vignette isn't trying to scare but instead relay what is scary to us. Next, rapid life flashing before your eyes editing, back alley stupor, drug fixes, and eerie needles anchor the premise of “Vision Stains.” What if memory collection was within the eye itself? Should it be stolen in a dark violent high disguised as some sort of vigilante justice? The solitary narration makes the structure difficult, but that askew perception is also necessary to the storytelling. Gluttonous decadence, sex meets food sustenance, and avante garde orgies make for some fun fetish extremes for the finale “Sweets,” and director commentaries and lengthy interview features provide more insights. The overall tone, however, does seem sexist on both sides – male directors telling tales about bitches but those gals are apparently justified over such creep dudes. The balance isn't quite right, and if viewers are going to pick and choose their favorite segments individually, the concepts might have been nice to see in a new Tales from the Crypt style series instead. A lot here is too weird, derivative, and uneven thanks to the unique design, but there is still some choice horror entertainment, too.

10 November 2015

Warped Wombs and Creepy Kids

Warped Wombs and Creepy Children
by Kristin Battestella

This quartet of seventies scares is full of evil kids, demented moms, and twisted science. Because we can never have enough of such macabre reproduction horrors...not!

The Brood – Mind and body horrors run rampant in this 1979 David Cronenberg (Shivers) allegory starring an on form Oliver Reed (Burnt Offerings), sympathetic dad Art Hindle (Black Christmas), and a crazy “Mummies never hurt their children” Samantha Eggar (The Collector). Harsh one on one psychological exercises, intense therapy, heavy confrontations, and upsetting family actions shape the believable anger and discomforting dialogue, layering the icky delusions and abuse suspicious before the violent attacks, blunt trauma, and blood spilled in what should be a safe visit to grandma's ye olde kitchen. The cutaway editing and low angle filming smartly disguises the unseen culprits while hissing, gurgling, and screaming create a look away repulsion to delay the creature reveal. Those are strong little suckers! Polaroids, old toys, a natural look, and rustic colors counter the strung out feelings, skeptical on edge, and simmering Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) music while the repressed character drama balances the metaphysical and fantastic conversations. What if we could manifest all our ills on our body? This cultish “psychoplasmics” takes the psychosomatic fears too far – the opposite extreme of looking the other way alcoholism, perpetuating abuse, and festering pains. Purple visuals set apart autopsies, mutant examinations, and radical science, upping the would be laughable of those frumpy seventies snowsuits with disturbing witnessing and child helplessness. Although the source of titular critters becomes obvious during the 92 minute uncut duration, the monstrous possibilities and mental spiral remain a frightening what if with plenty of gruesome projections for a twisted little horror finale.

Crimes of the FutureThis early 70 minute short film is featured on The Brood's Criterion blu-ray edition alongside another 85 minutes worth of cast and crew retrospectives, archive footage with Oliver Reed, and Cronenberg interviews. Understandably, the bizarre silence, slow comings and goings, weird stillness, and sporadic voiceover all on a 1970 nil budget is not for everyone. Fortunately, the 1997 bleak concrete and fallen industrialized affluence match the empty dystopian isolation. A “rouge” cosmetics plaque has killed all the women, and our androgynous, cleric clad in black unreliable narrator gives a detached lab report on the increasing gender changes. Red nail polish adorns men's sinistre left hand only and one with painted toes is mugged and beaten – but it's okay to consume the “chocolate” secreted by these special men so long as there are no women. Such venereal disease references, biological differences, and veiled statements on institutionalizing homosexuals for “therapy” are quite ahead of their time, and it would be intriguing to see Cronenberg do a fully scripted version today. The sorting socks and underwear scenes reflect a perverted ritual collection, but the near boring repetition detracts from a disturbing barefoot and white gloved secret pedophile meeting. Distorted sound schemes and the in limbo atmosphere create a lull before the chaos, as these repressed, feminine men escalate toward wicked violence, child trafficking, and disturbing sexual deviance for their supposedly justified and clinical cure. It's an ironic title, as it doesn't take a gender skewing apocalypse for this kind of horror to happen. Yes, this is an out there picture with poor pacing, structural flaws, and an upsetting real world horror finale – making this worth a look for sociological studies and film historians.

Devil Times Five – Teen idol Leif Garrett and his sister Dawn Lyn make for some creepy youngins in this 1974 picture also known as Peopletoys – and a dozen other titles for good measure. Eerie seventies lullaby notes ironically accent the snowy vacation spot, yuppie couples, and old fogies as perilous, icy, winding roads lead to vehicular disasters. Nuns and kids should be a sign of safety, however, real snow filming, old fashioned cars, and past technological isolation up the apprehensive mood. Although the teen voiceovers and their jive lingo are dated and the characters are initially stock stereotypes, the acting both from the adults and the children isn't bad. Slow motion and still zooms are unnecessary now, granted, but the black and white scenes showcase the shocking child violence, blunt objects, and group attacks – an extra oomph on how these miniature sociopaths get hungry and sleepy after a good bludgeoning. A belittling sex proposition of a slow adult is awkward, but cat fights, lingerie, and boobs about the bedroom scenes create a saucy upscale before our unaware adults come to realize they can't handle these escaped, killer charges – who have a wicked motivation and intellect far beyond their years. Guns go missing, knives disappear, wood needs to be chopped, and it's fun to see who or what is going to set off another crafty murder. Sure, this isn't scary by today's standards. However, the bathtub terrors and snow siege build well over the 88 minute time for some bemusing – if twisted – entertainment. 


Embryo – Barbara Carrera (Dallas) co-stars in this 1976 Shelley twist wildly proclaiming how the science fiction presented is closer to medical possibility than we think. Weird fetal pictures, stormy roads, and sensitive puppy moments have the audience believing the freaky, too. Dogs in horror movies – gosh darn it why?! Widower Rock Hudson (Giant) narrates these procedures upon returning to his nice, in house, rural laboratory, complete with sister-in-law Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) and warm cup of coffee comforts to hide the sinister science. Giant old tape decks, ancient computers designs, and period hospital imagery add a dated, fantastic mood alongside an ambulance (really just a van with lights and an orange stripe!) rung up to drop off a fetus. This old fashioned easy is inadvertently bemusing at times, sure, however the 104 minutes condenses too much of the accelerated timeline and sped up growth hormones via the dry voiceover. The experiments proceed with typical education montages, questioning individuals, and rehearsed introductions – rushing over what could be intriguing developments before some fun oohs and ahhs over a chess match at the center of a party. So chess is only a man's game, really Roddy McDowell?! It's interesting to hear “God is a liberated female and she is on my side” said as a joke when such concepts feel more recent, and controversial conversations on extending the titular viability outside the womb remain intriguing. Our well intended doctor discusses social prejudices and Biblical morals but gets some inappropriate saucy on despite regretting his uncontrollable creation. Of course your super intelligent protege is going to one up the ruthlessness when her survival is in jeopardy! The public domain print's quality is poor, often too dark with low volume, and overall, this needs more polish. Fortunately, tense near discovery moments, scary barking, violent tendencies, medical complications, murderous jealousy, and even some sympathy and surprises overcome the convenient presentation.

03 November 2015

Crimson Peak

I Really Like Crimson Peak!
by Kristin Battestella

Struggling writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is quickly infatuated with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when the English baronet comes to Buffalo seeking investment in his proposed clay mining machine from Edith's wealthy father Carter (Jim Beaver). The elder Cushing is skeptical of Sir Thomas and his stern older sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and Edith's childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) also hopes to protect her from the Sharpes – even after Edith marries Sir Thomas and moves to the dilapidated Allerdale Hall. The Sharpe family estate is sinking into its clay making hopes, turning the snow red and making for some suspicious bumps, creaks, and groans in the night. The gifted Edith, however, can see the ghostly inhabitants of the so called Crimson Peak, and the phantoms help her unravel the mysterious secrets surrounding Thomas and Lucille's gruesome family history...

A Gothic Throwback

My fellow horror enthusiasts know I had high anticipations for writer and director Guillermo Del Toro's (Pan's Labyrinth) latest film Crimson Peak for more than a year. Those horror aware also know the genre is quite diverse, with welcoming room for an R rated, sophisticated, Neo Victorian picture hearkening back to a Gothic Hammer glory. Unfortunately, it seems 21st century audiences are having trouble accepting Crimson Peak defined as a Gothic romance – perhaps due to both our limited perception of horror and a misrepresented modern romance genre. Today, romance publishers and big box bookstores categorize to meet readers' expectations of escapism and happy ever after endings, and that's certainly well and good for lighthearted literature fans. If you are looking for a tragic love story, however, you won't find such Bronte bleak of old on the Harlequin shelf. Fortunately, Crimson Peak embraces this dark romanticism onscreen, filling the void where studios like nuHammer have faltered. Is Del Toro the new Bava ala The Whip and the Body? Who is the next Corman with a star like Price and a source like Poe? Television is catching on to the innate no cellphones and lack of technological convenience scares in this kind of period horror, where hours can be taken for the pot boiling macabre instead of the jump scare gimmicks a minute now expected in today's formulaic horror movies. Classic horror heavyweights like Alien or Psycho know how to provide crossover appeal alongside an escalating slow tingle – and leave creepy memories long after the story ends. Have we forgotten how to watch the simmering scares from fifty years ago? Poor Guillermo has to repeatedly predicate that Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance every time he talks about it, and the faster audiences realize we need this kind of quality throwback horror the better.

Crimson Peak is spooky, sure, but that doesn't mean it will be a modern by the numbers slasher – a relatively recent horror style compared to the tawdry Victorian melodrama likewise found in Penny Dreadful. Heck, an American heiress with a hefty dowry is so Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers it's downright Downton Abbey. The slightly unreliable narrator bookends in Crimson Peak allow for dime novel embellishment complete with a halo of light when the tall, dark, and handsome stranger enters and a sweeping sunlight backdrop for the first kiss of a whirlwind romance. Gasps over a shocking waltz, a scandalous slap at a dinner party, somber siblings obviously up to no good, a ridiculous “By the time you read this, I will be gone...” letter – the soap opera framework in Crimson Peak is not meant to be a surprise. If Crimson Peak was supposed to be a terror a minute horror movie meeting current expectations, the final half hour of perilous, slice and dice, house mazes and pursuits would have happened much sooner, eliminating everything before Edith crosses the threshold at Allerdale Hall. Instead, most of the shock scenes and scary moments in Crimson Peak were erroneously revealed in the trailers (more on that later), and the spoon fed, sheep viewing mentality of brainwashed American viewers blinds us from Crimson Peak's pay attention to detail requirements. Here murderous intentions, gory deaths, period accessories, marital unease, discomforting familial twists, and an increasing sense of household dread break the accustomed. Crimson Peak is set in 1901 – the real shock here is why anyone ever thought a Victorian piece was going to be like a contemporary splatter-fest. I don't expect millennials to love old Mexican horrors such as The Witch's Mirror or The Curse of the Crying Woman, but my goodness, hasn't anybody seen a Vincent Price movie?! 

Our Heroines

Edith Cushing herself reiterates her manuscript isn't a ghost story but a story with ghosts in it. She balks at the idea of including a love subplot just because she is female, would rather be a widow than a spinster, and although she is an incredibly observant writer, Edith is not exactly street smart when it comes to people. Mia Wasikowska is delightfully wide eyed to open Crimson Peak, a Jo March dreamer unfulfilled in her big house with servants, progressive gaslight, and new automobiles. Edith knows nothing of love, ignores her father's warnings, and stupidly falls for the first baronet who bothers to read her story. She is manipulated by the Sharpes from the start and is too swept up to care when Thomas' love letter arrives. Granted, the character is an audience avatar, as Edith herself doesn't realize she is backed into the corner of a proverbial horror movie until the final act. Some viewers may even perceive her as starting smart but becoming cliché once she reaches Allerdale Hall. However, Crimson Peak shows Edith gaining practical experience for her literary license for the first time in her life. We may have more clues about the situation then she does, but there is an audience joy in seeing her piece together the spooky mystery with some fantastic help and ghostly metaphors. It's no coincidence that the star of Jane Eyre is cast here in Crimson Peak, and Wasikowska has both the period poise and ingenue naivete needed to anchor all Edith's facets. Viewers may not have expected an empowering female path of discovery in Crimson Peak, but Edith blossoms from worrying about if her handwriting is too feminine to taking matters into her own hands. She faces her phantom fears, explores Allerdale Hale for her own revelations, takes charge in her marital life, and defends herself when her new husband and sister-in-law aren't the family she thought they would be. Brava!

Likewise, the dark haired Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) is the delightfully Mrs. Danvers villain of Crimson Peak. Lucille has spent most of her life in Allerdale Hall's attic, festering and hording from childhood to adult, appreciating the looming bugs in the manor and dressing like a dated matching décor to the collapsing dwelling. Even Lucille's pointy, medieval-esque cloak matches the spires of Allerdale Hall when she is apart from it! Past abuses suggest she bore the brunt of her father's wrath and had to remain strong in caring for her ill mother – but unfortunately, Lucille has taken her stalwart to extremes and she enjoys it. As the older sibling, she took her brother under her ignoble wing, nurturing a warped maternal instinct. Her calculated way of cooking, pouring tea, and serving porridge with a scraping spoon has been wound up one too many times a la Suspicion, and Lucille is one night away from flinging the pots – or worse – if any Notorious keys are out of her control. In her eyes, she has witnessed, endured, and personally ensured the family legacy enough times to be the lady of the house – and maintains her sociopathic control by plucking the wings from butterflies who come too close. Lucille has earned her title and takes Crimson Peak with her via the hefty, binding red gown symbolic of the blood she has shed for Allerdale Hall. We hurt the ones we love the most, right? Insect ensigns, poisoning inside and out, and a devouring hierarchy reflect Lucille's twisted idea of love, and this is an impressive, commanding, in charge turn by Chastain. Lucille objects to the blonde, young, and vibrant Edith, taking her innocent, sisterly affection as a foreign threat to her domineering establishment. This is her own trapped, repressed, playing house little world – Lucille has everything to loose and will do anything to keep her status quo. She may be lonely and wanting of love, but when we finally see Lucille's room, her almost scientific collection, and justified in her own mind do what must be done actions, it's a scary, gut wrenching finale with no cheap jump shockers needed.

The Gentlemen
In retrospect, it's understandable that the predatory sexy crawl so prominently displayed in the Crimson Peak trailers was trimmed, as Sir Thomas Sharpe is not a strong male, but instead sways like a child with whichever way the dominating women in his life tell him to be. This is not Victorian Loki or a mischievous master manipulator; Sir Thomas is a meek follower wearing a dreamy, too good to be true facade as it suits his sister's plans. He knowingly reads Edith's story and plays into her sweeping ideals – foreshadowing a turnabout conflict and the heavy choices to be made if he would but accept his part in this play. Thomas may be charming, but his engineering dreams, stunted adolescence, and misplaced loyalties keep him small and easily corrupted. He has been molded like the very clay he is trying to harvest and his idyllic attempts to improve Allerdale Hall only perpetuate his out of touch, leaving him in his high up but still sinking workshop playing with symbolic toy marionettes. His top hat is too big for him, borrowed and behind the times. His sister has the house keys and rules the roost, and he's okay with that routine – until Edith. Soon Thomas realizes that his inventions may not save Allerdale Hall, he is deluded by the price he pays to keep Crimson Peak, and now there could be a brighter future elsewhere. He admires Edith's creativity and genuine put on the page, however, when he shouts that she is sentimental, weak, and knows nothing of life and real love, is he really angry at himself? Yes, Thomas is sympathetic, but the explanation behind his character arc doesn't make him any less culpable for his actions. He may question, but backs down and does what he's told – clueless on how to craft change. Despite the scene chewing in Crimson Peak, Hiddleston is superb in using his eyes and stolen glances to show Thomas' inner turmoil and emotional spectrum – feelings the baronet himself probably doesn't know how to express. Too late he accepts his own accountability, maturing only after he realizes what real love with Edith is like compared to the monstrous of Crimson Peak. Ironically, audiences going into Crimson Peak with starry eyes and Marvel comparisons may be missing Hiddleston's finely layered and nuanced character discovery. I personally enjoy his unrestricted, non-Disney/Marvel pushing the envelope serious more, and unlike most modern actors, he looks delicious in period garb. For Crimson Peak, his Peter Cushing Force is strong, and I'd love to see Hiddleston be this century's go to period horror star – or you know, a young Grand Moff Tarkin in a Star Wars prequel!

I'm less familiar with Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam, but his accent and hairstyle feel too 21st century out of place in Crimson Peak. Some viewers may find Alan behaves too stupidly for supposedly being such a smart doctor and feel the character wooden and superfluous all together. However, rather than being the solid fourth corner of a leading quartet, Dr. McMichael is fittingly reserved as a solid supporting role and sounding board workhorse. Alan provides exposition, information, or choice as needed to advance Edith's story while serving as a one-sided, would be romantic antagonism as the plot requires. Edith is not interested in the good doctor as anything more than a friend – she is initially unaware he is back in Buffalo and doesn't send him follow up letters from England – but the virtuous blonde trying to be a hero trope must be present to counter the dark and mysterious stranger nonetheless. In films of old we could balk at such a stereotypical strong chinned insert, but rightly motivated as he may be, Alan isn't always successful in his deeds, making room for a few surprises and more gender reversal in Crimson Peak. Likewise Jim Beaver (Supernatural, Deadwood) is superb as Crimson Peak's period piece patriarch. With his staunch ideas on tough work versus easy aristocracy and protecting his daughter's chances for a respectable match – not a career with a typewriter – he's still living in the last century. Unlike the Sharpes, however, Carter's motivations, cautions, and affection are well placed with hard evidence and get out of my town demands. Despite his gruff exterior and seemingly harsh actions, everything Cushing does is in tenderness for his daughter as an extension of his legacy. Women of this era were controlled by the male nearest them, and Edith is supposed to stay young and innocent and take care of him until he chooses, correct? Beaver's final scene is wonderfully well done – gruesome, suspenseful, immediately visceral, and most effective. Not to mention the newfangled pen he gifts Edith comes in handy for more than just literary pursuits!

A Lavish Attempt

Crimson Peak excels with its splendid look, lush costumes, and freaky ghost effects with a score both whimsical with possibility to start and ominous orchestral to match the colorful Dickensian on acid design. Meant to represent blood on the hands, manifestations of worse human horrors, and linger as symbolic wallpaper rather than be a scary antagonist, the ghosts of Crimson Peak mirror the titular clay and sinking family home, struggling to crawl and keep afloat as they woefully lend a hand. Early photography with phantoms captured in the negative also parallels this unfinished business while vintage typewriters, gramophones, round spectacles, and dangerous elevators accent the turn of the century setting. Opening and closing iris wipes marking each chapter hearken to the early horror film making industry to come, too. While Edith is adorned in flashy soon to be Edwardian designs, the Sharpes are notably dressed in the previous generation's older Victorian fashions to indicate how their living in the past has outlived any usefulness. Lucille's dress is of dead leaves and moth motifs – a perpetually bitter autumn with tattered, frayed trims compared to the sparkling butterfly combs in Edith's hair. Part of the fun in watching Crimson Peak is looking for the butterflies in Edith's scenes, and I love the slightly cthulhu ring on the ladies. Fittingly, the fancy frocks are stripped down by the end of Crimson Peak – raw nightgowns and simplicity reflect the film's color progression from a golden patina to sinister blue, sickly green, and finally, a black and white snowscape with shocks of red clay and blood spilled. Whatever else audiences may think of Crimson Peak, the visual achievements and stunning design of the fully built and beautifully realized Allerdale Hall with all her nooks and crannies are certainly deserving of technical recognition and awards. Yes, I would live there!

Of course, that's not to say that Crimson Peak isn't without any flaws. The pacing is odd with perhaps too much of the early, over the top but rushed period drama and a wavering timeline. The Sharpes have been society entertaining for long enough to be known and friendly to the McMichaels, implying they have planned their groundwork carefully. However, in a century sans internet, Carter Cushing's investigation happens way too fast. Mercenary pinkertons, the new Google! Return passage to England is largely skipped, but a map overlay like Indiana Jones or a Demeter type ship montage may have helped anchor the weeks in between what appears to be a very fast funeral and wedding – a throwaway sentence mentioning a supposedly respectful mourning wait doesn't say enough. The duration at Allerdale Hall is also unclear, with Edith left alone, ignored, and free to explore for what seems like days. How long do the Sharpes' plans usually take? Medical ills or miraculous heals come and go as needed, and travel in the snowstorm is conveniently easy for one on foot or difficult for a carriage as the plot requires. Again, maybe these time jumps are meant to be part of the Victorian manuscript play within a play melodrama at work, and a certain amount of rapid soap opera time can be forgiven. Though the near two hour time is pleasing, some poor editing leaves important backstory and family history unclear and most likely left on the cutting room floor, and ironically, the practical ghost effects alone look better than the CGI bells and whistles they receive. Hopefully, we'll have plenty of deleted scenes and making of treats on the video release! The over the top moments here are enjoyable, too, but Crimson Peak can be inadvertently humorous at times, compromising the slow burn mystery and sinister brainwashing calculations with a false tame. A dangerous mining machine is also shown injuring someone but becomes a non-factor later, and if audiences are taking the ghosts at face value rather than metaphorically, the specters can seem convenient or even unnecessary. There's enough suspense when Edith finds evidence on her own, and if one ghost can tell her to “Beware of Crimson Peak,” then why can't the recently late ghosts with all the facts do the same? Indeed, several layers, why fors, and character biographies that should have remained to strengthen the somewhat thin script with meaty dialogue for the on form cast instead seem relegated to online content and companion literature. This annoying supplemental trend is only made more frustrating when the trailers, clips, and behind the scenes footage reveal glimpses of those extra moments that didn't make it into the film.

But Marketing Amiss

I confess, Crimson Peak is one of those rare films where I've started my review document before seeing the picture, largely due to my thoughts on the sometimes genius but mostly overkill and misfiring marketing campaign. Despite my attempt to avoid spoilers, there was still too much “I see what you did there” online promotion with crafty gifs and the sharing of fan art on Crimson Peak's official instagram and tumblr media. Twitter question and answer hashtags with cast and crew repeated amid an infinite number of five minute or less interviews and press days where every reporter asked the same trite sound bite questions. For those times when watching Hiddleston interviews is like a potato chip and you can't watch just one, it was a surprisingly obvious but shrewd move to play the Crimson Peak ads on Youtube before this related content. Along with all the television spots and billboards, there are Crimson Peak books, calendars, perfumes, and even jewelry on the Home Shopping Network. These efforts, however, generally cater to young viewers expecting cheap horror slashers and jump scare frights, belying that Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance more about the dread and macabre of old. Naturally, this audience was miffed when Crimson Peak deviated from the anticipated formula presented in the trailers, and the erroneous mass appeal horror marketing backfired with a fifty percent box office fall in the second release week because movie goers told their friends that they were promised one film but were given something else instead. Unfortunately, the millennial viewing public should also be Hello Mcflyied for tweeting spoilers as they happened on opening night – I'd hate to see The Sixth Sense released today! If Crimson Peak had half as many clips and dropped either the twitter or tumblr teasing but kept the Crimson Peak Awaits online game, enough mystery as to what it actually contained within would have lured just as well as the marketing deception. Then, the campaign becomes an interactive discovery with out of context clues and photos that don't give away all of Crimson Peak's secrets – or abundant spoon fed misinformation – and if you want more, why, here's the film itself!

Do See!

Crimson Peak is how Tim Burton's Dark Shadows should have been, but sadly, because of the poor marketing and unjustified but underwhelming audience return, the potential for more old school horror films like Crimson Peak may have been irrevocably squashed. As to my first Wednesday morning cinema experience, there were only a few other people attending. There were more on a second Monday afternoon, but really, the cell phone lights going off and being checked every five minutes? Let it go. Despite a ridiculous twenty minutes of trailers eating into the actual movie time, some such as Star Wars, Victor Frankenstein, and Krampus are cinema-going worthy. Spoilers, mismarketing, and the contemporary inability to go into a picture cold aside, Crimson Peak has more than enough revelations locked up in its attic to enjoy – and more than once for full effect. There is definitely an overlooked audience for this kind of Phantom of the Opera meets Jane Eyre not Saw film to whom the industry should be happy to cater. I want to see Crimson Peak again and can't wait to have it on video if only to do a drinking game every time someone says “Cushing.” Sure, viewers may be disappointed that the paranormal in Crimson Peak is not paramount and often predictable. Fortunately, it's easy to get over any period piece viewing problems or uneven editing flaws thanks to a refreshingly adult approach, oh no she didn't melodrama, and splendid gasp inducing macabre carried by the haunting visuals and spirited ye olde performances.

31 October 2015

Penny Dreadful: Season 2

Penny Dreadful Season 2 is Again a Macabre Good Time
by Kristin Battestella

Penny Dreadful's sophomore year opens with a recap of the the Showtime series' debut before picking up the Gothic sophistication right where we left off – this time with ten episodes of scorpions, witches, monsters, and devils.

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is attacked by a group of Nightcomer witches led by Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), but ex-gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) protects Vanessa along with Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – whom Madame Kali pursues romantically. Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) helps translate a mysterious demonic tale written on a monk's relics alongside Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), but Frankenstein is distracted by his work on the late Brona Croft (Billie Piper) – now resurrected as Lily Frankenstein at the request of the Creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), himself going by the name John Clare for his new job at a waxworks museum. Unfortunately, Lily eventually sets her sights on the decadent Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) instead.

White snow, demonic language, and dangerous carriage attacks waste no time starting “Fresh Hell” alongside excellent tender moments and graves dug from last season. Where Year One was about meeting the team and facing a largely unseen evil, now Penny Dreadful puts a more human face on our company's threats with evil women and meddling inspectors. It's a delightful step to share the gruesome aftermath while we get to know this enemy – a little demon family to mirror our flawed fighters. Monstrosity is just everywhere in Londontown!These naked witch ladies should be alluring but they are not, and new biblical threads arise in “Verbis Diablo.” Even prayers are no longer sacred amid pity projects, cholera ills, and enchanting deceptions. New character interactions infuse Penny Dreadful, anchoring the stories of possessed holy men, titular puzzles, disturbing infant abductions, and unique voodoo uses. That's one diabolic arts and crafts room! There's superb war room plotting in both our houses – and a mole between them – so it is perhaps unusual to have an all Vanessa flashback episode so soon in “The Nightcomers.” However, the Victorian meets Baba Yaga magic, symbols, and protection motifs are excellent thanks to critical past information that will be important later and sublime guest star Patti LuPone (Life Goes On). This well paced character drama fills in history from the First Season and serves it with quaint do no harm and brutal persecution.

The demonic riddles and unique character confrontations continue in “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places.” Deception always wears such a pretty face yet Penny Dreadful makes time for our darkly clad band to enjoy some lighthearted social moments before a creepy chameleon siege upon Sir Malcolm's house that has the viewer studying each frame for clues. While padding time and unnecessarily stretched out scenes are apparent in this longer season, the final moments here are an appropriately simmering, silent unease. “Above the Vaulted Sky” has some fine true horror as extensions of our family pay a terrible price, and recalled Apache atrocities parallel the montages of faith and battle preparations. Are steel doors, guns, prayers, and totems enough to face the devil? It's pleasing to have time dedicated to the turmoil and lying in wait for harm to come as evil and the authorities close in on our company. Penny Dreadful has touching poetic moments before major ghosts encounters and hefty scares. However, the sex scene finale here is very poorly edited with intercut frightening erroneously mixed with what should be tender bedroom moments. The morning after in “Glorious Horrors” is non too peachy either as influences are asserted and bloody fatalities become as simple as replacing the carpet. Can one be oblivious to threats when everything is connected and nothing is happenstance? Funeral talk and awkward balls shape a deliciously off kilter splendor, and Penny Dreadful puts all its players together in a twisted little bloodbath with intriguing character asides, jealous pairs old and new, superb revelations, and gruesome showdowns.

Little Scorpion” is a shorter Penny Dreadful episode at only 49 minutes, but this Ethan and Vanessa-centric block has lovely one on one character moments questioning solitude and the growing distrust among our eponymous team. The tormented have some small, delightful comforts away from the inescapable monsters and demons at their backs, making for some dangerous tension and steaming dancing in the dark storms. Superior hours where not all the cast appears suggests Penny Dreadful creator John Logan may be juggling too many storylines or characters, but “Memento Mori” trades deadly toppers for swift interrogation filming. Askew up close shots, intercut tension, and lies contrast softer fireside conversations and waxing regrets. Can you look at yourself in the mirror when you do what has to be done in the fight against evil? The ongoing demon incarnate puzzle solving ties together pieces from Season One as mirrors and dual camera tricks heighten the character heavies. Although the evil plans seem too wishy wasy at times with back and forth possessions and reversed enchantments, this episode allows its three plotlines to play out as uninterrupted acts, bucking the A, B, C standard television story structure to elevate its scary revelations. 

Monster does catch monster, and even the authorities consider otherworldly and superstitious possibilities in “And Hell Itself My Only Foe.” Upticked violence and hauntings find our team, and the witty dialogue and intelligent scripting add to the surprises. The subtle Talbot name drop is worth all the wolf mishandling in the First Season, and more self-awareness comes in the ugly waxworks entertainment. Evil is beautiful and seductive with temptations from Lucifer to display one's inner beast. That internal made manifest leads to some stunning confrontations, indeed. $%#%(*&! The excellent multi-layered horrors and battle of wills continue in the “And They Were Enemies” finale as Penny Dreadful's not so merry band is tested in enemy territory. Devils on the shoulder present a most convincing case – be it death, our darkest desires, or the brightest dream too good to be true. Once you cross the line toward darkness, what must you do to come back to the light? Can you save yourself at all? Granted, moments with the effigy puppetry and lookalike demonic language arguing become hokey quickly, a jarringly laughable moment amid the utmost heavy. After a hefty but quality slow build and some unnecessary treading tires and stalling plots, the final evil confrontation also feels too rushed by comparison. There are some wild surprises and a character denouement with time for reflection is a welcome change from an action finale. However, maybe the pacing should have been tightened to have an all battle second to last hour and then an entire sigh of relief end instead of a finale that feels too half and half. Fortunately, Penny Dreadful concludes with plenty of creepy nonetheless. Are our players moving forward stronger after these paranormal events? Their ships may be sailing their separate ways, but Year Three of Penny Dreadful looks to promise plenty! %%$%#$@#*@!

Evil just won't let go of Vanessa Ives so easily, will it? Her strength to fight against demons inside and out glues the team together as much as it puts them in peril, and Vanessa needs them as much as they need her. She talks about what must be done and what she is capable of doing, and even when some of that is just delayed exposition issues, we believe her wrath because we've see her pain. For all the good she does and her ongoing struggles to keep this delicate balance, her ties to Amunet leave nothing but badness in her wake. How do you cling to faith when there is so much wicked? Vanessa endeavors to embrace her power within – but does that mean you abandon your belief in a higher power? Having religion doesn't necessarily make you good, and Vanessa admits she and God are on challenging terms. Can we just be who we are or is that too much responsibility for one soul? Vanessa's therapy is in her support of the boys about her – she is a confessor for each of them in different ways. Will solace be found in like tormented persons? She can soothe others but not herself, and Vanessa has some deliciously intellectual conversations with John Clare, adding a new damned soul to her repertoire – which looks quite cloudy for next season.

Likewise, Ethan Chandler is beginning to suspect his wolfy connections as more dastardly carnage comes to light. He's perpetually trying to leave town thanks to his fear of admitting what he is capable of doing, which is beautifully foreshadowed in “Verbis Diablo” before the tenth hour finale. Ethan's charming banter with Lyle deflects his inner lupus with Latin research, and Hartnett very nearly steals the show in his witty battles with Douglas Hodge (Red Cap) as the persistently not stupid Inspector Rusk. Like Vanessa, Ethan pegs people for who they really are, and his coy comes in handy as his pursuers mount. Even if he can face his affliction and its monthly consequences, he tries to protect Vanessa from his wild in a wonderfully unconventional romance – if it can even be called that. We don't see the wolf outs for flash in the pan cool, but rather as choice visuals to emphasize the tormented monstrosity now fully realized on Penny Dreadful as it should have been all along. Danny Sapani as manservant Sembene also has more to do now that he helps Ethan bind his lycanthrope tendencies, adding to the fine moments he has with Sir Malcolm. This stalwart and strong but humble workhorse character provides a shaman wisdom while doing the dishes, baking, and waxing on how Ethan should see his moonlit changes as a blessing not a curse. Sembene shares his own past sins and guards his household kin with unwavering duty and respect, but by golly, audiences will be understandably angry at the treatment of the character. He still deserves more, #$%D#&*%! 

New bewitching temptations and continued family losses grip Sir Malcolm once again on Penny Dreadful, but the in control, noble gentleman on the outside can't use his suave to hide his pain. Sir Malcolm must face the questions and consequences regarding his daughter Mina's death from Last Season, and he's ready to trade his life and accept his punishment to spare his newfound family further torment. His internal demons provide ghostly experiences both positive and wicked. Dalton is charming in his unknowingly deceptive courting with Mrs. Poole, but the shaving of his beard is a surprising character development. It's just so odd seeing the ex-007 sans scruff again, but the change is a perfect reflection of the evil influences at work. Despite some strong advice from Sir Malcolm and an interesting science versus faith intellectual pairing with Lyle, young Victor Frankenstein is also blinded by his wrong doings, chiding John Clare's pressure on Lily while Victor himself is slowly but surely shaping his perfect woman. Frankenstein's muddled monster making motives become increasingly creepy science for fetish alongside his now not secret drug addictions. He's a little nasty, too, but bonds with Vanessa, trusting her to help him with his awkward shopping experience. Slowly Victor becomes aware of his mistakes, even admitting his addiction is affecting his freaky science, but by time he wants to escape his creations, it's too late. Ironically, Dr. F. doesn't believe in witchcraft, but evil knows what he has spawned and uses his deeds against him in smashing fashion.

Those wonderfully macabre waxworks and layered Victorian deceptions elevate the Caliban aka John Clare plots this season, and his scenes with Vanessa are refreshingly honest and mature. Clare speaks his mind without malice instead of his usual mine mine mine childish wants. Why are these Frankenstein men so pressed and gushing over every woman they meet? Clare's friendship with Vanessa is his first genuine and healthy relationship. Kinnear has room to shine in the poetic recitings and quiet moments with Green, but the well read doesn't do Clare any good if he won't learn from his to err is human. Once again, he misuses his chance to do right, can't catch a break, and ultimately must flee. When Clare finally looks past Lily's beauty and his desperate need for companionship, he sees a worse ruthlessness and rightfully realizes that Pandora's Box contains a mirror. Was Lily's creation worth it? Though the short blonde hair doesn't fit the period and it is unusual that Vanessa doesn't recognizer her, Billie Piper is much better this year as Lily Frankenstein compared to the dead end and bad accent that was Brona Croft. It's perfectly acceptable on Penny Dreadful when the resurrection of a character can fix all that was dislikable, and Lily smartly questions why women wear corsets and are meant to be controlled and appealing to a man. She seems innocent, but soon proves the dastardly of her rebirth and wrongfully remodeled by Victor is not for anything angelic. Lily learns how to lie, finds her deadly instincts, and grows tempted by Dorian thanks to elegant white frocks, gruesome blood stains, and a man-made monster superiority complex. We should like Lily – we don't blame her for remembering the abuses of her previous oldest prostitution profession and using her strength for revenge. However, her twisted and wrong doing companionship with Dorian is anything but empowering to anyone but herself.

Unfortunately, I did not miss the absent Dorian Gray in “Fresh Hell,” and his brothel shenanigans feel more like interfering annoyances during the first half of Penny Dreadful this season. I'm all for more penis on television, but compared to the more serious, self aware, and better developed star roles, the character seems like an excuse for depravity mixed with would be modern social commentary. Dorian doesn't even interact with any other main character until “Glorious Horrors” – or anyone else but Jonny Beauchamp (Stonewall) as Angelique for that matter. These scenes become shoehorned in titillation or sensationalism, a cruel and cliché storyline serving no purpose in the overall season arc. Angelique's gender struggles in Victorian society and finally finding a tender relationship should be touching, but by slicing their aforementioned consummation scene with evil seduction and paranormal death scenes, are you saying gay sex is as bad as casting demonic spells on a man and using voodoo to kill his wife?!?! #$%$^$@*&! We know this tryst is fun and games for Dorian, but this is no fling to Angelique, and those consequences also unfairly stereotype Angelique as a nosy, jealous beotch when Dorian moves on to his next fancy. The about dang time reveal of his eponymous portrait and his blasé attitude toward it proves how ugly his true self really is, but we already knew that from his toying with Angelique. This entire unnecessary and unjust plot further proves Dorian Gray is a tug and pull supporting player who should only be recurring as needed – and Angelique should have been the gosh darn regular joining our dreadful company instead!

Thankfully, Simon Russell Beale is deliciously good fun as our team's flamboyant Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. Despite the sophistication and heavy work at hand, Beale provides a covert humor and positive gravitas with his flirtations:

“American! I am undone!”
“Well, I do have a gun belt.”
“Stop!...Will you bring your gun belt?”
“Both guns.”

Underneath this fluttery chemistry, Lyle is unsure where his allegiance lies, and by admitting his conflicting circumstances and burdens to bear, he fits right in with the Penny Dreadful gang. The homoerotic undertones match the main story instead of being uncomfortably apart from it, adding flair to a character largely saddled with fantastic exposition. In addition to the already established Catholic iconography, Lyle adds more conversations on faith, reflection, and recompense thanks to all he has witnessed from Helen McCrory as that sometime Madame Kali and always evil Mrs. Evelyn Poole. Her enemy house not only has a medieval ossuary bent, but Sarah Greene (Vikings) as the ruthless but cool Hecate is ready to step out of her mother's much older than she looks shadow. Madame Kali is in a powerful tit for tat with her demonic master, and she intends to gain new praise by delivering Vanessa to him – with Sir Malcolm as a dark bonus for herself. Her ambitions, Hecate's rival desires, and their evil foil, however, do get stretched thin at times. These are formidable ladies cutting out hearts and invoking killer puppetry with more provocative tricks – The Pooles shouldn't have to hurry up and wait to harm our dreadfuls. Nonetheless, such evil planning talks make for some juicy scene chewing for McCrory and other returning guest stars. Just because you're dead doesn't mean you can't reappear as Madame Kali sees fit!

Iffy CGI cityscapes, animated scorpions, and more sweeping scene transitions don't always look right on Penny Dreadful, but the up close London streets alive with horses, waxworks, and period mechanization look the ghastly Victorian needed. The below the British Museum dusty, piles, statues, and maze-like clutter for good or ill is simply begging for some Mummy plots! More Universal Horror nods including the one armed inspector and swan style gowns layer the lush alongside a haunting score. The witch designs look of the past, with evil sprites coming out of the walls or mirrors and matching a colorful scheme of orange for evil firesides and gruesome greens for the dead. Candlelit patinas contrast the all gray and white ghostly while coffins, shrouds, gargoyles, and dungeon traps keep the macabre personal rather than today's hollow torture porn gore – often with 55 minutes plus for full morbid effect. Sharp language uses mix old staples, making for a twisted new tongue where eerie terms like lupus and Lucifer stand out and force the audience to pay attention upon first viewing Penny Dreadful. The fashions are again scrumptious, and it's lame of Hot Topic to go with scorpion tee shirts when this kind of long skirt and button up lace is on the runaway and ripe for a comeback. Penny Dreadful has an excellent attention to detail, and I'm surprised this uber sophisticated design isn't receiving more technical awards.

Watching Penny Dreadful can also be tough thanks to cumbersome Showtime Anytime and Xfinity interfaces, loading and log in troubles, and expiring episode rushes but there are Amazon streaming and DVD options in addition to Showtime reruns. Ironically, the show's premium channel home allows it to be top tier scandalous yet also makes Penny Dreadful difficult for viewers to find. Nonetheless, the series remains must see for Gothic horror fans. The sensationally spooky material and often outlandishly wicked are treated intelligently, and we've been waiting for Penny Dreadful's kind of sophisticated, top drawer horror for too long.