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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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