For the last three weeks, I’ve been unable to escape the internet ads about Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s Gothic horror series set in Victorian London. You may have seen the ads. Most of them feature Eva Green, the star of the series, wearing a black dress, a necklace of scorpions, and an expression of grim determination.
The series takes its name from the ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap and lurid serial fiction books marketed to adolescents in the nineteenth century. Eva Green plays Vanessa Ives, a coolly enigmatic and nearly imperturbable aristocrat. Josh Hartnett plays Ethan Chandler, a charming and cocky young man, a skilled marksman familiar with violence.. Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, an African explorer on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter. Harry Treadaway plays Victor Frankenstein.
I decided to break my long-established rule of waiting to evaluate a new series until after the hype about it has died away. This one seemed interesting, even though I haven’t been a big fan of the horror genre, including the Gothic versions. The promotional materials and the initial reviews seemed to indicate that this would be different from almost any other horror show we’ve seen: light on the often-overused CGI and special effects, with more emphasis on story, setting, and character development.
The opening episode, Night Work, wasted no time in establishing the show’s theme. An impoverished young women, sleeping next to her daughter in her tenement flat, gets up to answer a call of nature. Something breaks the window behind her and seizes her, leaving behind a trail of blood. In the next scene, Vanessa Ives prays in front of a crucifix. A large spider runs across the crucifix, down the wall, across the floor, up her dress, and onto her right hand. (The producers of this series evidently want to hammer the point home, in case anyone’s inclined to forget it, that this is a horror show. They’re not interested in subtlety.) Our heroine goes into convulsions. Is this a fit? Is it spirit possession?
Having established the horror theme, the producers introduce the protagonists. The woman we saw praying is now watching a Wild West show. Impressed with the way its star, Ethan Chandler, handles firearms, she approaches him after the show to offer him ‘night work’. He accepts, and she introduces him to Sir Malcolm Murray, who is seeking his kidnapped daughter Mina. The three of them go into an underground tunnel looking for Mina. They are attacked by several vicious vampires. After fending off the vampires and killing several of them, they recover the body of one, and they ask Victor Frankenstein to examine it. His autopsy reveals Egyptian hieroglyphics etched beneath its skin. Ethan, leery of the occult world, accepts payment from Vanessa and Malcolm, and he withdraws from the project, but is plagued with second thoughts. Frankenstein brings a body to life in his laboratory.
From what I’ve seen in the first episode, Penny Dreadful is better than most Gothic horror. The settings are lovingly detailed, the opulent homes and social clubs of the wealthy contrasting sharply with the squalid and battered dwellings of the poor. The main characters are believable, and the acting is generally good. Eva Green, in particular, is perfect in a role that requires subtlety and range.
The show is marred by some glaring anachronisms, chiefly in the attitudes and the language of some of the characters, and the horror symbolism and foreshadowing are a bit heavy-handed. In the first episode, we see spiders, scorpions, rats, vampires, dismembered corpses, and signs of demon possession.
The writers of this series seem a bit lazy and insufficiently imaginative; apparently believing this story needs every theme and every monster in classic horror novels. I can’t think of much they’ve left out. In the first episode, we meet two of the characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, several vampires, even Dr. Frankenstein and the man he brought to life. In the second episode, we will also encounter Dorian Gray, the Oscar Wilde character who lived in wild debauchery and sold his soul so his portrait would age, but he would not. With this kind of start, I won’t be surprised if the Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman show up.
From what I’ve seen so far, I would give Penny Dreadful a B- or a C+: A for setting and cinematography, B+ for acting, and C- for story. If subsequent episodes ditch the cliched symbolism and the stock horror situations, they will earn a higher grade.
Editor’s Note: Penny Dreadful airs on Showtime East (DISH channel 318) on Sundays at 9:00 p.m. CST.