Penny Dreadful (2005) DVD Review
Written by Steve Pattee Pattee
DVD released by Cinema Image Productions
Oh, those children. Mischevious little devils. Especially after death. – Trudie Tredwell
Written and directed by Bryan Norton
2005, Region 1 (NTSC), 30 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on June 26th, 2007
Emily Vacchiano as Jessica Clausen
Sebastian Lacause as David Clausen
Tina Krause as Marla
Peter Dupre as Gary Stender
Warrington Gillette as Donald Acquin
Jodi Kelly as Louise
Betsy Palmer as Trudie Tredwell
Haunted house movies are an interesting subgenre of horror. When they are good, like in the cases of The Haunting (1963), Poltergeist or The Shining, they are superb. But when they aren't, like Thirteen Ghosts (2001), they are simply awful. There are very few that fall in the middle. Penny Dreadful, the debut effort of writer/director Bryan Norton, falls into the superb category.
When Jessica (Emily Vaughn) and David (Sebastian Lacause) inherit a beautiful home in New York, things seem pretty sweet, until Jessica is informed that she has to pay an inheritance tax of a couple of million bucks. So instead of moving in to their dream house, the couple turns to fixing it up so they can sell it. Oh, and one night Jessica finds the house is haunted.
Jessica's discovery (early on) is the start of a very good movie. Dreadful puts itself ahead of other haunted house flicks in many ways, but Jessica's reaction is one of the coolest. After seeing something that most definitely should not be there, something that disappears the moment her hubby enters the room, she doesn't freak out, panic or, well, act like a girl. She simply turns to her man and says, "We have ghosts!" Then she's off to bed. She makes no effort to convince anyone what she believes. It is what it is, take it or leave it. Inevitably, as things start getting worse (like apparitions with shotguns wandering the house), Jessica never seems to lose her composure, and is rather rational throughout the entire film. It's a refreshing change from the stereotypical role of a woman running through the house, screaming and pulling out her hair at the smallest thing out of the ordinary.
Jessica wouldn't have been so damn likeable if actress Emily Vaughn didn't have the skill to pull her off with such believability. Her character is strong and levelheaded, and you immediately root for her from the get go. It also helps that there wasn't a bad actor in mix. From former Friday the 13th stars Betsy Palmer (Mrs. Vorhees from the first) and Warrington Gillete ("unmasked" Jason in the second) to Tina Krause (Blood Oath) and Leo Geter (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), Dreadful has quite the solid cast, each giving strength to the movie.
But where Dreadful really stands out, the reason why this movie should be seen by fans of horror (big budget or no), is the writing. Aside from the aforementioned choice with the Jessica character, Bryan Norton has put together one hell of a story. There is a mystery to this house, for sure, and that mystery is only deepened when psychic Trudie Tredwell (played wonderfully by Palmer) proclaims the house is not, in fact, haunted after Jessica calls her in for her opinion. Or when the real estate agent Barry Simms (Leo Geter) informs Jessica that, to his knowledge, nothing bad has ever happened in the house. So what the hell is going on? I promise you, by the time you get to it, you will not be disappointed.
Dreadful's biggest problem is that it's not as long as it should be. At 30 minutes, there is a lot of room for growth. That's not to say it's lacking anything — everything from the character development down to the nods to horror classics like Poltergeist and Halloween III is very well done — but you want more. In its short running time, I was effectively creeped out at least three times with subtle scares, and twice with the BAM! technique (aka "the black cat"). The writing, coupled with the terrific job of the atmosphere created, made me want a much longer movie.
Penny Dreadful is a movie that almost didn't happen. Director Bryan Norton explains in the commentary that after a horrendous experience with his first director of photography (DP), the movie went to the shelves for a year. Fortunately for us, Norton teamed with a new DP, reshoots happened, and the movie made its way to DVD.
One important note: Do not confuse this movie with the awful After Dark Horrorfest movie of the same name. This Penny Dreadful is actually good, can be had for around ten bucks at Amazon.com and comes highly recommended.
Video and Audio:
It's a damn shame that such an abysmal presentation is given to such a fantastic movie. Dreadful is one of those rare films shot on 35mm, but not only is the film not anamorphic, but there is digital noise riddled throughout. Colors bleed in places and instead of blacks you get some sort of murky gray. For the money going into shooting 35, there should be no excuse why the extra effort couldn't be made to make this 16:9.
The audio is a bit better, but is only 2.0. Horror movies should get 5.1 at a minimum (most movies, really), but haunted house movies in particular to play on the atmosphere and the things that are going bump in the night. Audio scares can be as just as an effective tool as visual scares, and sometimes more when you have an overactive imagination. A 2.0 presentation cannot use the back and side speakers for that extra effect.
Overall an extremely disappointing presentation.
- Building the Bad House: Making Penny Dreadful
- Interview with Betsy Palmer
- Blooper Reel
- Commentary with writer/director Bryan Norton and Icons of Fright's Robg
- Bonus Short Film: Tomorrow's Bacon by Bryan Norton
The commentary with Bryan Norton is packed with trivia, problems with the shoot and hatred for the original DP. Norton's anger with the first director of photography gets redundant (something which he even admits), but even so, the commentary is engrossing. One thing I found particularly interest was Norton's reasoning for the title of Penny Dreadful, as after watching the movie, I thought it to be a rather odd choice. While I'm still not convinced it's a good title for the film (as the movie doesn't really fit the definition of a "Penny Dreadful"), I'm glad that Norton addressed it.
Betsy Palmer's interview is fantastic and should be watched regardless of whether you are a fan of Friday the 13th or not. Sweet and honest, Palmer discusses Penny Dreadful, Friday the 13th and horror fans, amongst other things.
"Building the Bad House" is just over 11 minutes of behind the scenes footage. It's a consists mostly of quick interviews intermingled with shots of the filming. There's nothing spectacular about it, but worth it if you enjoyed the movie.
The "Tomorrow's Bacon" is a fun five or so minute short. Concerning a bickering couple that stops in a soon-to-be-closing diner for directions, it's well acted and directed. I don't quite know where Norton was going with it, and I don't quite know why I enjoyed it as much as I did, but it's entertaining nonetheless.
(Equipment includes a Mitsubishi WS-48613 48” HDTV, OPPO DV-970HD DVD player and Onkyo HTS-770 Home Theater System and, in some cases, a Sony 27” WEGA TV and a Sony DVP-NS50P DVD player.)