I expected Showtime’s Penny Dreadful to be an overwrought, edgy attempt at League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the film adaptation, not the comic book series by Alan Moore, which cannot be outdone in ‘edginess’). I expected to see a team of classic Victorian characters fighting crime, and some standard twists, turns and whatnots.
I was wrong. Penny Dreadful is a complicated, high gothic horror thrill ride with a mix of classic public domain characters and original characters, brought to life by amazing actors. Eva Green as Vanessa Ives is an absolute revelation, she should be an icon. And Timothy Dalton should play every last Victorian occult researcher/protector of mankind.
Naturally, the show does include characters from classic Victorian horror fiction, which are freely in the public domain to do with as you please. Among them are Victor Frankenstein and the Monster (both well done and their actors, Harry Treadway and Rory Kinnear, shine in their roles).
And then, the “Bride”, whose Universal Studios iteration is NOT in the public domain. Yet you are still allowed to make stories about the monster’s intended mate from Shelley’s novel. And this Penny Dreadful did, with singer/actress Billie Piper at the helm. The result is impressive and frightening.
This character started out as Brona Croft, an Irish immigrant to London. She escaped an abusive suitor and subsequently made her living as a prostitute. She lost a daughter due to the actions of a malevolent customer. She knew a thing or three about being downtrodden and beaten down.
Nonetheless, she becomes the object of affection and obsession for several of the show’s main protagonists, including Josh Hartnett’s gun-slinging werewolf Ethan Chandler, Dorian Gray, and fatefully, Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. The latter demanded his bride, per the novel, and Frankenstein murdered the consumption-ridden Lily in order to resuscitate her with his process. And later, he too becomes deeply smitten with her in her new incarnation as “Lily Frankenstein.”
And now, as ‘The Bride’, Brona/Lily’s story becomes a dark, dark tale. I think Grant Morrison was onto some spiritual current when he too reimagined the Bride as the reincarnation of an ‘assassin goddess’. Lily Frankenstein is dark, violent, murderous and she doesn’t reign in her desires. She thirsts for revolution, for an uprising by prostitutes and oppressed women, for a retribution against men that makes the SCUM Manifesto look like a polite article in Ms. Magazine.
It’s easy to see why and how you can tell deeply resonant feminist stories around the Bride of Frankenstein. A female creature created by a male on whom he, or his Monster, can project all of his pathetic desires, rage, entitlement and expectations like a blank screen, and she is only expected to be buffeted back and forth on those winds.
You would be screaming like Elsa Lanchester too. You might just be leading an army of bloodthirsty killer hookers in an uprising.
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