For those unfamiliar with how a horror anthology works, you usually have yourself a number of different unrelated short stories that are stitched together very loosely through what is called a hub story, where another story leads us into each of the other stories. In the case of The Penny Dreadful Picture Show (henceforth known as TPDPS), that hub story revolves around the main attraction of the film and our hostess, Penny Dreadful herself.
Penny Dreadful (Eliza Swenson) and her small entourage comprised of a rotting zombie usher and a wolf boy are the caretakers of an old picturehouse (aka theater). Penny has become tired of life(?) alone however and wishes to find true love. So, in hopes of receiving true loves first kiss she has hit up the internet and set up a number of dates with some unsuspecting potential candidates. Her plan? To watch a series of films with these true love hopefuls to see how things work out which if they don't, its too bad for them because breaking Penny's heart is deadly.
When dealing with any anthology or collection of films (in any genre), there are a few things that should always be expected. First is that not every part of that film will work as well as the others. Second is that you will likely have a favorite and least favorite despite how much you like it the entire anthology. Third is that the hub story is almost always the worst part since there is almost never enough screen time to establish a proper story or any characters that can be fleshed out in any meaningful way.
Here is the first place where TPDPS surprises in that regard, which is with its hub story and its title character, Penny Dreadful. Rarely are we presented with an anthology style film where its best attribute is in fact its hub story, and the majority of the thanks for that must go to Eliza Swenson who plays our horror hostess with this naive bit of senseless glee that isn't unlike a child's need for love and attention. But when this child gets disappointed, her temper tantrum can be a bit messy.
Her search for true love's kiss is sweet and innocent, but her childlike demeanor adds a bit of unpredictability to her actions that will leave you just a little bit off kilter. Much of the credit goes to Eliza Swenson though for creating such a three dimensional character in so little time. It is a testament to her gleeful performance that instead of hoping to get to each short story, we find ourselves hoping for more time with Penny and her theater of horrors.
As for the short films themselves, of which there are three total, they aren't so bad either with some possible exceptions depending on what you are looking for out of them. Well, let's be a little honest here, there are only two short films and then there is a third film that isn't really a film at all, but certainly has more to it that at first glance. Let's look at each and go over them in the order they are presented in the film itself.
The first film we are shown is called Jack in the Slash, directed by Nick Everhart, and centers on a couple who have purchased a antique jack in the box that, unknown to them, is an evil possessed toy of some sort. At first this very very short film (it barely runs 5 minutes long) seems completely insignificant, but later on in the the hub story with Penny there is a revelation made that makes its all too brief runtime a little bit easier to accept. However, that still doesn't make up for the lack of depth here, because it's over before it even starts, which is a real shame. There was some potential there for a good old fashioned creepy throwback style horror flick, but alas it is over so quick that it is impossible to criticize beyond its extremely short length.
Speaking of throwback styles, the second film we are presented with (which is an actual short film thank goodness), The Morning After, is a throwback in a number of senses. Written and directed by Eliza Swenson, this particular feature is just oozing with style. Taking place during the swinging 60's, the film focuses on a woman (Samantha Soule) who wakes up the morning after and discovers something a little bit different about herself. It's a confident, stylish and atmospheric directorial debut by Swenson, but it's long build up to a somewhat obvious payoff may leave those craving for pure horror a little cold.
The third and final offering entitled The Slaughter House, directed by Leigh Scott, will likely satisfy those horror cravings with its much more straightforward approach. Taking place somewhere in the in the late 70's to early 80's (judging by the apparel), the film uses the very familiar horror framework of a group of teens or young adults whose vehicle breaks down and must rely on a bizarre family in the middle of the woods for help. Aside from an interesting twist to this familiar story, the film's biggest highlights are appearances by horror icons Sid Haig and Jeffery Combs who seem to be having a lot of fun in their roles.
Each of the shorts included here are generally well made and well acted, but here is the potential deal killer for those on the fence about it. For all the blood and guts that get spilt over the course of its runtime, there is a distinct lack of real horror to the entire production. This isn't so much of a criticism since the filmmakers were clearly going for a different approach to the material than just showing hapless victims getting ripped apart, but it is something to be aware of if your in the market for buckets of blood.
The Penny Dreadful Picture Show is more Twilight Zone meets Creepshow than it is Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that's alright since it is rare when a filmmaker (or filmmakers in this case) tries to offer something a little different in this crowded genre. Is it perfect? Not entirely, but what films (especially horror films) are? If you are looking for something a little different, then TPDPS is right up your alley. It's many successes (mostly centered around the deadly darling Penny) is enough to overlook any of its budgetary concerns and any problems inherent with its individual pieces.
Without the mutli-talented Eliza Swenson's many contributions (she served as director, writer, producer, composer and star for the film!), its likely that TPDPS would have just been another failed attempt at capitalizing on the crowded horror genre. But with Eliza Swenson's sublime performance as Penny Dreadful and the refreshing approach to its material overall, the uneven supply of horror shorts becomes less of an issue and thus turns the film into a dreadfully good time.
Here's hoping that this isn't the last we see of Penny, perhaps a feature film about her continued search for true loves first kiss? One can only hope.