A penny dreadful, for those not in the know, was the British equivalent of the American West’s dime novels. While dime novels, not surprisingly, focused on larger-than-life characters engaging in larger-than-life gun battles, the penny dreadfuls targeted British youth (literacy rates were steadily increasing amongst the young at the turn of the century) by serializing many classic Gothic thrillers. John Logan – who co-wrote films such as Gladiator and Skyfall and penned the screenplay of (oh, how ironic) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – is breathing new life into some iconic (and public domain) horror characters who once graced the pages of the penny dreadfuls. Created for Showtime and co-executive produced by Logan and Sam Mendes, Penny Dreadful is a strong success worthy of the title.
There are countless things that Logan gets right in this series that, even before a word is uttered, grabs hold of the viewer’s lurid curiosity. Set in late 19th century London, the series succeeds in masterfully recreating Victorian England with wonderful sets, great costumes, and an unbelievably perfect Gothic atmosphere. And while the temptation might be to say: “Vampires and Frankenstein and Spirits, oh my!” Penny Dreadful has surpassed – in only three episodes – full runs of lesser series that merely dabble in the horror genre.
Primarily, this is not a show where one can expect to see a pretty pop-star vampire kissing a handsome and impossibly hip werewolf. Logan has captured the essence of the horror icons and succeeded in making them scary again. Really scary. The atmosphere of this show is palpable, in that it doesn’t feel pretty or decadent. London in Penny Dreadful is grimy, overcrowded, and sickly as any true depiction of 1890s London should look. The wealth of the plump aristocracy is contrasted by the pasty, consumptive poor, ornate parlors with communal privies and it simply looks as if something sinister is lurking in the muck.
More successful than the five-star production design is the all-star cast Logan has wrangled. The show stars Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray (father of, yes, Mina Murray), a bona fide 19th Century British Explorer type who, in his storied journeys to Africa has brought home more than just a taxidermied lion or two. Murray is deeply mysterious, deeply troubled, and it is his quest to find his missing daughter, Mina, that drives the show. His assistant of indeterminate closeness, Vanessa Ives, is portrayed by the beautiful and incomparable medium/psychic Eva Green. They enlist the help of charlatan, Ethan Chandler, an American who is the star gunman of a traveling Old West show played by Josh Hartnett and an eccentric young doctor who believes the study of life and death to be the only facet of science and nature worthy of exploration. This doctor, of course, is none other than Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadway. While the well of influence may already seem vast, sprinkle in a bit of Egyptian mythology and Dorian Gray himself and you have a who’s who of Gothic horror.
Yet it’s somehow not overwhelming.
The show deftly weaves this mass of characters and ideas into a sturdy narrative that pulls no punches from the get-go. The first true “action” scene of the show takes place in the basement of a too-gross-for-words opium den where the mass of gore and feral appearance of the vampires should alleviate any concerns of encountering a “sexy vampire” within two seconds. Combined with a very graphic, very painful-looking reanimation of Frankenstein’s monster and you’ve got the sort of disturbing horror than almost any fan can appreciate. For the more psychologically inclined, Eva Green delivers one of the most haunting and disturbing possession scenes in recent memory when she is targeted by a demon during a séance in the second episode. That scene alone is worthy of discussion as it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the show and has already been the subject of several online articles. While séances were a parlor game of sorts for 19th century aristocrats, Green terrifies in an obscenity-laced diatribe that not only horrifies Timothy Dalton’s character, it lets the audience know that Logan came to play with a loaded cast of heavyweights.
Logan takes the material seriously and the result is stunning. Viewers have almost become accustomed to “fresh” takes on this sort of subject matter and that fresh take often involves too many attractive twenty-somethings with a lot of hair product and hardly any talent. The other side of the spectrum, when creators have attempted to stay faithful to the various mythologies, is that such shows are often done with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Creators, like True Blood’s Alan Ball, clearly doesn’t take his material seriously as certain scenes almost scream at the audience: “this is silly, right?” Not Logan. Logan has drilled down into the core of these stories and, when viewed at their baseline, are quite horrifying.
Fact: creatures who brutally murder because they subsist off of our blood are scary. Fact: assembling a person out of discarded body parts and trying to reanimate that creation is ghoulish and disgusting and any person who thinks that’s a good idea is demented. Fact: possession scenes, where a person not in control of herself says horrible, disgusting things to frighten someone is unnerving. Exhibit A: Eva Green, under control by a malevolent demon asking Timothy Dalton’s character if he “fucked [his daughter’s] cunt,” is far more terrible than any of Sam Raimi’s whacky bullshit.
Logan is not trying to re-invent the wheel with Penny Dreadful, he’s simply adding more wheels to his cart. Incorporating multiple influences into a single narrative is challenging, yes, but the fact that he does it with the intention to scare and upset us rather than appeal to teenagers might not guarantee the show’s commercial success but it’s certainly a critical winner. After all, the subject matter has been “reimagined” to death and it’s about time someone stopped trying to entertain us and instead tried to scare us.
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