By PJ Grisar
The modern monster mythos was born one rainy summer night in Switzerland when a teenage girl decided death was not necessarily the end of life. This teenager was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who won a scary story contest with a tale of revivification later to be published as Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus. Among the other contestants in the creaky chalet, in the midst of the fittingly queer volcanic winter of 1816, were the poets Lord George Byron and Godwin’s beau, and later husband, Percy Blysshe Shelley. The latter is quoted to tedium in the new Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Oddly enough the person doing the quoting is Mary Shelley’s own creation, Victor Frankenstein.
This confounding detail is far from the only bit of dissonance we receive in Dreadful’s eight-episode run. Actually, the conceit itself – mixing icons of Gothic Horror – makes for a piquant mélange of clashing tastes. The Wolf Man smacks of rot, Dorian Gray of lavender and Frankenstein of formaldehyde; blending them only makes those flavors jump more. The emulsion becomes the reduction. I understand the temptation, but chocolate and peanut butter this ain’t.
On paper the TV Mashup makes sense; more so for the horror canon than for say, a Flintstones–Jetsons–Simpsons–Family Guy–Silver Spoons–Different Strokes–King of Queens–Everybody Loves Raymond orgy that network TV might be eager to push around Sweeps Week. But it’s not a matter of more or less disparity in the source material of a given genre or format. The shows above are paired for what they have in common, be it geography, format or group dynamic. This would work, except they are doing such similar things they may as well exist on their own terms. We know for instance, in the Family Guy/Simpsons smoosh we’ll get Homer and Peter Griffin comparing skin-tones and local beers.1 Because they exist in universes that may as well be facsimiles, together they add nothing to a larger continuity. Weird Tales are different.
The beginning of the Monster Crossover goes back to the Universal films where it was something largely commercial to milk from the old vertical distribution studio system – Lugosi was committed to three pictures, why not knock out more of the same? This era brought us Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula and later period Abbott and Costello where they meet Drac and the Monster and where the world met a new novelty feature. But really, it could just as easily be Scooby Doo meeting the Harlem Globetrotters and scratch that same itch. This grab bag-type conception changed, literarily at least, with the ambitious design of speculative writer Phillip Jose Farmer.
Writing in the ’70s, Farmer sensed a need in the culture for a more modern kind of myth. He stumbled on a compelling way to retell beloved characters’ stories and to link their continuities, dreaming up a common ancestor imbued with magic sperm after a meteor carrying alien germs collided with his stagecoach. Ridiculous, maybe, but appealing to many. The so-called “Wold Newton Family” model tells us Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernell, Sam Spade and Nero Wolfe are all related. I find this far more interesting than the typical viewer-grab both for its more mythological implications and because, although it strains credulity, it also reinforces it to a degree.
Consider the erstwhile Lord Greystroke (Tarzan’s human name, shared with Farmer’s imagined progenitor): can we accept a world where there was a singular instance of a man raised by apes and nothing at all remarkable besides? Not easily. Burroughs’ work, though it does not preclude the existence of a similarly superlative master sleuth or a man who built a time machine, also doesn’t presuppose them. It’s sensibly safe to say, however, that in a climate where there is a Tarzan that there would be a Sherlock and Verne’s Time Traveler, too. Right around the time these tales had reached their half-life – and the end of their copyright – Farmer saw an opportunity to retcon.
For me the seemingly unresolvable issue, inherited by his later imitators, is the way in which Farmer links these outliers’ histories. In placing the whole lot under the shade of the same family tree, Farmer created something no more believable in terms of supernatural probability. It’s now just one singular bloodline as opposed to one extraordinary personage. That all our heroes come from the same place may strengthen the mythology, but doesn’t hack it in terms of world building. That within the whole world there exists only one family to encounter the business side of some moonrocks2 and becomes prodigious in this way is not a buy-in one can make easily. That and it seems scarily similar to eugenics. Granted, Farmer was probably not looking to do what I was hoping for in a crossover. I don’t think anyone can.
It’s not enough for Farmer and his successors to acknowledge the existence of other masterminds or beasties, they feel the need to have them share a larger narrative as well. They need to meet. Shake hands or fists or claws or something. I, on the other hand, think it would be great if we could go back and scrawl somewhere in the margins of Dracula a vague, 18th century report coming out of Vienna of a man made from patchwork flesh. Such a subtle move acknowledges the mythos without glutting us on fan service and improbabilities heaped unto already improbable yarns. But I see how my solution is also problematic. It looks like a wink to the reader, “I read that, too.” It jars us out of the experience. It’s on record that most of the core audience doesn’t cotton to this tactic of namedropping. Part of the proof is the frigid reception of the film adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Based on the comic series by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, the 2003 flick was blasted for being silly. And it is. This is the movie that put Sean Connery into retirement. It features the requisite ragtag paranormals whose motivations and reasons for being there are garbled, not sufficiently explained, or just to float the doomed career of Shane West.
The film almost seems a reaction to questions from that annoying kid in Freshman English: “Say, but what does Mina Harker do after Dracula?” or “What’s Captain Nemo up to on his days off?” It has the unwanted effect of reducing beloved characters to caricatures and, in the singularly strange presence of one – Tom Sawyer (West) thrown in for the American audience – completely manufactures character traits to have it fit the story. It’s an affront to the comic, its fans, and coherent storytelling. And yet it does its job better than Penny Dreadful, which has all the same pitfalls with none of the levity.
Penny Dreadful shares a couple of characters with Gentlemen. Each has Dorian Gray (who was absent from the Gentlemen comic and serves as little more than a plot device in both) and Mina Harker, from Dracula, who is a part of the League’s founders and the MacGuffin of Penny Dreadful. The specifics of both can be overlooked, though, for in broad strokes, all of the characters capably occupy stock roles and are more or less interchangeable.
There’s the grizzled veteran. In Penny Dreadful we have Mina’s father, Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who is pretty much King Solomon’s Mines’ Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery in Gentlemen). Both are explorers of the “Dark Continent,” gentle proponents of the White Man’s Burden and grieving fathers. The parallel isn’t helped in that they’re each played by ex-Bonds.
Then there’s the girl with a dark secret: Dreadful’s Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene) and her childhood friend, Mina (Peta Wilson in Gentlemen, where she’s more than a plot device). There’s a brilliant man of science and his monster: Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and “Caliban” (Rory Kinnear) and Jekyll and Hyde (Jason Flemyng). Add a token American and stand-in for the wizened man’s dead son: Dreadful’s gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Gentlemen’s, well, also shooter Tom Sawyer (West, again), and the result feels very bloated, and, oddly, in the case of Penny Dreadful, more contrived when it is angling to be less so.
Now, we could suppose in the novels and stories this film and series are based on, that whatever odd things are happening in the world we have a limited aperture into are not the only strange things going on. We can tacitly accept there’s more stuff happening elsewhere, and to focus on one is not necessarily an act of omission. I can swallow that easier than the Gentlemen being corralled together by a faceless organization to thwart the threat of Dr. Moriarty and his plans for world domination or some shit. But if these things have to be put together, as many of us must want them to be, that’s still a more viable scenario than the one proposed in Dreadful. At least for Gentlemen it was planned. There was some traveling done, ships chartered and tickets booked. They weren’t all living shoulder-to-shoulder.
In Dreadful, how lucky that everyone (including an American ex-pat who is as out of place as his duster in the London winter) is right there in Victorian England—even the Austrian scientist who was, by all counts, more active (and alive) in the Georgian period. They’re also all bunking up with Dorian Gray who seems to be there merely to exercise the ham-fisted metaphor of beauty corrupted or just to telegraph to the viewers at home that show-runner John Logan read the book in high school. Logan even throws in Van Helsing just to give the show some more literary street cred.3 The show falls for the snare of being more fan service than storytelling.
Gentlemen is guilty of this, too. It’s winkier, but it knows it is. You can catch stray references to the canon – Quatermain quips of Hyde hulking out on the rooftops of Paris, “This creature has terrorized the Rue Morgue for months.” Captain Nemo’s valet insists, “Call me Ishmael.” But it is self-aware in its gimmickry. When viewed another way, one may actually take the film as a commentary on the ridiculousness of its own odd franchising. Moriarty’s master plan after all, is an attempt to cobble together more groups like the League by sapping their members of what makes them unique in isolation. Penny Dreadful, in grouping its monster-hunters serendipitously together – or maybe, to give Logan something of the benefit of the doubt, having them be pulled by the occult lodestone that is Vanessa Ives – sets up a demography where one out of four people is possessed, undead, or a monthly moon-kissed monster.
Gentlemen has no pretensions at art or stirring, thoughtful meditations on bestial humanity. Penny Dreadful does, and in doing so, it comes out looking more ridiculous with tropes that are no less transparent.
I’ve come to think a crossover cannot keep the severity of the original properties. It needs to give a bit. Its energies are divided between setting up its own world and paying homage to those of its sources. To effectively tell a story like this, a creator or “reimaginer” must lean on the viewer’s familiarity with the characters or else slow narrative momentum by demonstrating their individual schtick.
Marvel’s The Avengers, the last truly great Mashup, though not a strictly monstrous one, had the benefit of stand-alones, which make the players recognizable. It also had the distinct advantage of a precedent and a unified, not to say consistent, entity that produced them. But looking back, what makes it work best (and what has me worried for the much darker-looking follow up) is its humor about bringing so many disparate elements together. It cracks jokes about the mythic, “basically God” Thor rubbing up against soft Scifi’s Tony Stark and walking-anachronism Captain America. It’s what keeps the airship aloft. That for me, also keeps the unwieldy Nautilus of Gentlemen from an outright capsize. Some of that buoyant humor, and a little less dramatic ballast would work wonders for the dirge-like omnibus of Penny Dreadful.
In review, there’s one dangling question I have when I consider the tone of our Monster Mashes, and it comes from the poet Bobby Pickett: “Whatever happened to the Transylvania Twist?”
1We actually got a whole, mind-numbing hour of it.
2No fewer than six Green Lanterns of Earth have encountered something similar. Say what you will of the unwieldiness of all the Marvel and DC redundancies, they give us a credible world in their abundance of Superhumanity and the fact that they rub elbows or are in weird kinda social clubs or academies only makes sense given their aims.
3The 2004 movie of the same name is another noble attempt at a Mashup, doomed to failure by the presence of Hugh Jackman’s bad wig and too many scenes on trains.