I have two brief things to share and then my main topic for today, which none of you will be interested in because the video I’m going to share will probably draw most of your attention.
The Giants Again
Biblical literalists are mad at me today for not being a biblical literalist. You can read about James Courtright’s complaint on the Watchman on the Web blog, but he calls me and Mike Heiser “professional” skeptics of the existence of giants. I assume this is an offshoot of his earlier post in which he links to L. A. Marzulli’s latest blog post about giants, in which Marzulli accuses academia of “intellectual fascism” for refusing to accept old newspaper accounts of giant skeletons. Marzulli claims to base his views on Ben Stein’s creationist movie Expelled. Marzulli, of course, believes in David Childress’s anti-Smithsonian conspiracy theory, and Courtright says that he refuses to listen to anything I have to say on that alleged conspiracy because I am not a biblical literalist and therefore am untrustworthy. Note that facts do not play a role in his judging of my analysis of the conspiracy claims.
Mormons Parody America Unearthed
America Unearthed is popular in Mormon circles because it seems to provide support for Mormon claims for Jewish colonization of America before Columbus. I reported a few days ago about a Mormon conference that featured Scott Wolter’s research as a key point. Well, there was another Mormon conference held last week that also discussed America Unearthed, but this time to criticize the show for failing to incorporate Mormon views into its conspiracies and for refusing, according to them, to speak with Mormon archaeologists and historians about the Lost Tribes and sundry other Jews who once ruled the Americas.
As part of the conference, Kels Goodman of Tier 2 Media produced the following America Unearthed parody video, in which a Scott Wolter-like figure “investigates” the Mormon accounts of American prehistory and refuses to see the “truth” because of his pompous combination of arrogance and ignorance, appealing instead to the highest authorities he knows, “television executives.”
I’m not sure what I think of this. They nail Scott Wolter’s on-screen persona and the style of America Unearthed, but the message that the Mormon prehistory of America is the real story is just as lacking in evidence as America Unearthed, so the parody falls a bit flat if you do not subscribe to Mormon archaeology. The big problem with the parody is that Wolter accepts the same low-value evidence as the Mormons, but interprets it through a different framework.
Penny Dreadful Isn’t Quite Dreadful, But…
Showtime made the pilot episode of its new Victorian horror mash-up Penny Dreadful available for viewing on its website in advanced of the show’s May 11 U.S. premiere. I watched the show, and I was a bit less than impressed. Granted, it’s only the first episode and the show will probably develop from here, but it’s a rather middling entry in the horror genre, with a pilot that is supposed to make the case for why viewers should want to tune in for more but seems more like a bloodier League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Some mild spoilers follow, so if you have no idea what the show is about and have never seen an advertisement for it but want to watch anyway, you may want to skip the review below.
The pilot introduces viewers to its public domain world of classic horror monsters, making veiled feints toward Egyptian mummies, vampires, and other horrors before climaxing in the reveal of a classic monster and his maker that any semi-literate and half-awake viewer almost certainly saw coming long before, even though the show treats the reveal as its final revelation.
The pilot focuses on an American showman played by Josh Harnett who runs a traveling Wild West show touring the Europe of 1891 to modest success. Through a series of unfortunate events, he comes into the orbit of a creepy pair of Victorian occultists who hire him as muscle to battle a hive of vampires. One of the occultists turns out to be a minor character from Dracula, as the presence of vampires would suggest. The remainder of the hour focuses on the ragtag band’s efforts to investigate some mysterious hieroglyphs found tattooed inside one of the vampires. Perhaps the most effective scene in the pilot was the discovery of these tattoos.
There are some indications that the show plans to depart from its source material, as a late-episode reveal about a familiar female literary character indicates, but overall I found the pilot uneven and tonally disjointed. It has scattered scenes of effective horror unevenly spaced through an hour of insinuation and exposition. The characters are poorly drawn, at least so far, and the writing leaves viewers to do much of the heavy lifting by bringing to the story their own foreknowledge of horror clichés and the specific Victorian stories appearing here.
But what really bothered me is the lack of control in the production design. The show often looks cheap and empty. Some street scenes appear grossly artificial, soundstages or studio back lots that contrast jarringly with scenes shot on location. The lighting is uniformly flat, and there is almost no attempt at a consistent color palette unless you consider gray to be a color. Contrast that to NBC’s Dracula, which managed the same challenges with much more style, though married to a story too boring for words. The show at least looked good and knew how to use deep blacks and bright reds and golds to convey a feeling of suffocating dread. A better example might be NBC’s Hannibal, which on a miniscule budget makes its episodes into art through careful control of production design and effective use of color (particularly blue) to create a world.
Penny Dreadful would benefit enormously from having a style—really, any style—to support its narrative. A moodier and more unified look, with deeper blacks and lusher set design would do wonders. If I were doing this, I’d have taken more influence from the Victorian period itself as well as the Gothic, embracing the tropes of the horror genre for a show that is, by design, somewhat campy. I’d have made it look like the movie From Hell (2001), which looked like a nightmare version of Victorian London.
To that end, my other complaint: In the pilot, everything looked too small. The kind of Grand Guignol of horror Penny Dreadful wants to be really requires an epic feel and sweep to do justice to the mythic power of its monsters. A visit to the British Museum in the pilot exemplifies the problem. We see no slow approach to the Museum’s neoclassical façade, no walk through long halls of skeletons and sarcophagi. Instead, we get a rushed entrance into a small office fitted out with a couple of wall hangings and a reproduction Egyptian sarcophagus. It’s very obviously not the British Museum, and it fails to produce the feeling of nervous power and vulnerable certainty that should be the baseline for the monsters to subvert and threaten. Who would choose bright green for the walls of office of the keeper of Egyptian antiquities? It’s tonally off. Similarly, we get very few scenes of teeming streets, or vistas of the soaring spires and belching smokestacks of Victorian England. Instead, we have interchangeable, vacant backdrops, rarely shot above eye level, that gesture toward the Victorian but lack the era’s characteristic richness.
It may seem strange to focus so much on the aesthetics of Penny Dreadful, but the horror genre is founded on the atmosphere of terror and the sublime, descended from the Gothic and from Edmund Burke’s aesthetic theories in his On the Sublime and Beautiful. There might be a good story in Penny Dreadful—it’s too early to tell—but the title promises a different experience than the show actually provides.
5/1/2014 05:27:45 am
Jason, sorry, not related to this current post but have you previously read or reviewed "The secret of Atlantis" by Otto Muck ?
5/4/2014 04:07:12 pm
I wrote a little bit about Otto Muck and the end of the Mayan calendar here:
5/1/2014 07:27:11 am
I haven't watched the Penny Dreadful episode yet, though I do plan to give it at least a couple episodes once it airs.
5/1/2014 07:34:03 am
I haven't seen the series, but I did read the novel on which it was based. I didn't like the novel very much. I was... odd... and not in a good way. It seemed like a mash up of many different B-movies and canceled TV shows that I half-remembered, all caught up in a weird psycho-sexual fixation on its two male leads, culminating in a non-ending designed to set up a sequel.
5/1/2014 07:55:30 am
Yep. That's probably the most succinct description of the plot anyone could hope for. It was definitely all those things and more, but there came a point after the third episode where I was just watching to see what more could be done. I think a lot of the appeal for me came out of relief that the vampires weren't sparkling and the werewolves weren't running in chest-thumping, beer-swilling packs. It probably helped that I binge-watched it while working on other things and didn't have to focus so much on the plot.
5/1/2014 02:20:37 pm
I watched all episodes of Hemlock Grove. I'm a big supernatural horror fan (I don't like slasher or zombie movies) and hoped it would be a bit better than it was.
5/1/2014 07:22:39 pm
I'm ashamed to say it, but I haven't watched any American Horror Story yet. It's high on my list, though. I was going to do it right after Hemlock Grove, but wound up wandering down a dark alley into the Crime portion of my Netflix list instead- from which I highly recommend Irish detective series "Jack Taylor" and all the Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi you can get your hands on.
Father Gil Photsch
5/1/2014 08:06:29 am
Fr. Bill Bosh
5/1/2014 08:09:57 am
YOU... *sir*... are CLEARLY inciting controversy and IMITATING others... without... the... slightest... REGARD... to "the truth!" Lets stick to DISCUSSION of FACTS and IDEAS and THEORIES without resorting to mud-slinging!
The real Rev
5/1/2014 11:17:23 am
5/1/2014 11:27:01 am
now for some cutting edge 21st Century evolutionary science...
5/1/2014 11:39:06 am
hominid or hominin? http://anthro.palomar.edu/hominid/australo_2.htm ENJOY!!!
Rabbi Sol Mensch
5/1/2014 02:13:41 pm
5/1/2014 08:49:36 am
Today's blog heading got me digging around for more exact information on Joseph Smith's plagiarism. These very old articles are quite insightful, as it involves 1st person accounts and pretty well lays out how Smith began a fraudulent religion through stealing a dead man's words.
5/1/2014 12:09:54 pm
5/1/2014 12:15:30 pm
oooooops... eye forgot an "r"
5/1/2014 12:27:51 pm
I.Kant + D.C.Longinus also are Sublime! Cool Kudos by Jason!
5/1/2014 12:49:21 pm
H.P LOVECRAFT often likes to read books by E.A POE.
5/1/2014 12:56:03 pm
Throw them all to the Loch Ness Monster - he's mighty hungry because there's no food in that lake
5/1/2014 01:06:58 pm
but Nessie in digestive upset leaves behind bubbles of volatile
The diary of horace wimp
5/1/2014 01:14:41 pm
Let's fill this blog with rubbish spam - let's all do the same thing JAD
PLUTO is a PLANET...
5/2/2014 07:55:30 am
Newton was wise.
5/2/2014 11:24:54 pm
(trust me, duckie)
5/1/2014 01:09:23 pm
methane = swamp gas = ufo buffs going bugnutz
5/1/2014 01:13:11 pm
Throw them all to the Loch Ness Monster - he's mighty hungry because there's no food in that lake - and that's a fact
5/2/2014 01:01:05 am
no its not. there is life in the lake, living things.
5/2/2014 08:06:23 am
5/2/2014 08:16:47 am
5/1/2014 01:27:49 pm
Thank you, Jason for stealing 6 minutes and 58 seconds of my life that I will never get back.
5/2/2014 09:34:24 am
5/2/2014 09:37:16 am
Bosley Crowther, who wisely warned us all in 1967 that
5/2/2014 10:08:28 am
Johnny Carson's zingers about the NBC censor are legendary
5/2/2014 10:14:42 am
FOX has committed to SEASON THREE of THE FOLLOWING...
5/11/2014 05:04:29 am
Kevin Bacon's FBI guy who never ever says the Miranda Rights
5/1/2014 02:42:59 pm
Please excuse me for hijacking the thread again but Mark Goodacre posted more evidence on his blog that the Gospel of Jesus Wife is a forgery.
An Over-Educated Grunt
5/1/2014 03:12:55 pm
At this point it just feels kind of disappointing. Not surprising, just disappointing. Not that I think it would have changed any sort of Christian doctrine; two thousand years of inertia isn't easy to upset, and something from the 500s, which I recall being the proposed fragment age, isn't exactly an eyewitness account. But to have an ancient document of any kind forged casts doubt on the authenticity of every one that comes forward. Falsus in unam, after all.
heck... Mitt's son Tagg = j.s's White Horse Prophesy?
5/2/2014 08:09:41 am
Joseph Smith is said to have said in the tyme
5/25/2017 07:20:33 pm
Jason, I think you miss the point on the parody. 'Most' Mormons find as much wrong with Scott Wolter as you do (perhaps more?), and are simply surprised that, in all of his low-logic slumming, he's never once mentioned "Mormonism" and its claims. It's the elephant-in-the-room of Pre-Columbian contact legends, but he never even touches it (it would be a little like Ancient Aliens theorists never mentioning pyramids).
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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