Studio: Phase 4 Films
Director: Leigh Scott, Eliza Swenson, Nick Everhart
Writer: Leigh Scott, Eliza Swenson, Nick Everhart
Producer: Brad Southwick, Eliza Swenson, Nick Everhart, Leigh Scott
Stars: Eliza Swenson, Samantha Soule, Josh Hammond, Sid Haig, Jeffrey Combs, Alexis Iacono, Devanny Pinn, Al Snow
Undead horror hostess Penny Dreadful presents three tales about a killer jack-in-the-box, unexplained memory loss, and a strange encounter with a family of backwoods hillbillies.
An advantage to anthologies is that varied stories can be told, but they must still contain a unifying element that ties the package together into a singular unit. Whether it is overall tone, shared themes, a specific showcase, or a common character, anthology pieces work best when they are related by something other than their wraparound. Otherwise, nothing identifies it as a complete feature film instead of as a random collection of miscellaneous shorts.
“The Penny Dreadful Picture Show” is a horror anthology unable to develop a truly unique flavor due to having individual jigsaw pieces that come from different puzzles. An alternate way to describe it is to say that each segment appears to have been made without knowing or without considering how it was meant to flow together with everything else. The result is a disjointed mishmash of uneven quality, concepts, and executions.
Undead horror hostess Penny Dreadful tries injecting playful charm throughout her framing device, but whenever the other shorts exhibit their own senses of humor, they have different tongues in different cheeks. Proceedings begin with a bouncy musical beat that wants to be confused for a lost Danny Elfman composition, so the natural expectation is to prepare for a Tim Burton “Beetlejuice” vibe that never really manifests to connect the dots.
Anything written about the first segment, “Slash in the Box,” would take longer to read than to watch the actual short. Clocking in at just over four minutes in length, “Slash in the Box” is not so much a short story as it is a threadbare idea. The short is basically just a setup for a visual shock punchline that looks absurd thanks to a CGI eyesore passing for digital animation. It is a silly piece and the entire film would be better off without it.
The other two segments face an inverse problem in that they are much longer than they need to be. 35 minutes is a long way to go for “The Morning After” to deliver what amounts to a metaphor for metamorphosis in a figurative sense, if not a literal one.
“The Morning After” fares better than its peers in making a low-budget look part of its production design. Perhaps forced to use a green screen for driving sequences she knew would never play believably, director Eliza Swenson goes the other direction in embracing the obvious fakery and incorporating hyper-style into the “Mad Men” era aesthetic on display. The effect falls short of convincing, but it comes close enough stylistically to justify some confidence that sticking with the narrative will provide a payout in the end.
“The Morning After” suffers from a rambling length (e.g. were the donut boys really essential?), and its pretentions do not always fit the artistic intent. But there is a visible honesty in what Swenson is trying to convey onscreen, even if it journeys along a bumpy road in getting its story across.
Credited for some reason to the pseudonym “Sinjin” Scott, Leigh Scott’s “The Slaughter House” is another almost-but-not-quite segment that has a tough time completing its intended look. “The Slaughter House” combines “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and The Manson Family mainly through aviator lens frames, wood-paneled walls, and waist-length hippie hair, but little else. Contemporary movies aiming for retro appeal like “House of the Devil” and “Planet Terror” fulfill their looks with seventies-styled cinema techniques and film scratch filters. “The Slaughter House” doesn’t even try to hide its shot on video origins. It has no chance of convincing anyone that it was ripped from a grindhouse projector, and that is a missed opportunity.
What initially appears to be a clever switcheroo on the familiar tale of a stranded van and a family of backwoods cannibals turns out to be another shot short of the target. The hook is that “The Slaughter House” plays with predictability to promise a fun take on a tired trope, but it ends up boomeranging right back where it began for a conclusion that is not new territory at all.
An embarrassing digital impaling on an overturned coffee table is almost as horrendously animated as the jack-in-the-box from the first segment. Thankfully, performances both unexpected and expected to be solid offset the more terribly delivered moments. Former WWE superstar Al Snow stands out as a likably suspicious redneck mechanic. Though it is Jeffrey Combs running away with the show as a mentally stunted cripple. It is the one bit of fun in “Penny Dreadful” that everyone can partake in universally. Combs is clearly making the most of the role to keep himself entertained and it puts all eyes rightfully on him whenever his character is in a scene.
“The Penny Dreadful Picture Show” might have passed in the late 1990’s when small budgets and a digital video look were more forgivable. But with the feature-length horror anthology experiencing a recent renaissance, there isn’t the shortage of choice there once was to make a mediocre anthology more tolerable. Films like “VHS2” (review here), “The ABC’s of Death” (review here), and even “Chilling Visions” (review here), which Penny Dreadful’s own Nick Everhart participated in, have set a higher standard, and “Penny Dreadful” is neither polished nor tight enough to meet that same bar.
Review Score: 55
NOTE: The DVD of “The Penny Dreadful Picture Show” contains a bonus segment from Nick Everhart titled “The Scout.” It is not included with the online streaming version of the feature, but Origin Releasing has made it available for free on YouTube at the link below:
“The Scout” is an on the (brown) nose tribute to childhood-centric films of the Spielberg 80’s. I admired the throwback aura Everhart went for, but I’m not susceptible enough to sentimentality and family charm to find the delivery personally appealing. Although it is just as loose content-wise and tonally as anything else in “Penny Dreadful,” it is a fair indicator of the level of production value that can be expected from the full feature. It would be worth sampling as a factor in determining if “The Penny Dreadful Picture Show” might be a better fit for you than it was for me.