Penny Dreadful Debuts with Scary Sophistication
by Kristin Battestella
The 2014 Showtime series Penny Dreadful has some hiccups in blending the stylish past and its literary based madcap of monsters and macabre. Fortunately, shrewd writing and a gothic, sophisticated approach keeps this eight episode debut a cut above the rest.
The alluring but mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) recruits Wild West show shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) for a dangerous mission headed by explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). No longer climbing mountains with his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani), Sir Malcolm is searching for his daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn), who has been abducted by a vampire master while brutal, butchering violence shocks the post-Ripper London. Young Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) aides Sir Malcolm while Vanessa has several risky dalliances with the enticing Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Victor’s monster Caliban (Rory Kinnear), however, pressures the doctor to do his wishes, and Dorian has encounters of his own with Ethan’s immigrant girlfriend, the ill prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper). Will the supernatural secrets of this unusual group unite them or tear the team apart as they go head to head with vampires, demons, and monsters in hopes of saving Mina?
Not having all the trademarks to Dracula gave Penny Dreadful creator and Oscar nominated writer John Logan and fellow Skyfall and Spectre James Bond producer Sam Mendes an excellent dramatic license to combine the gothic tropes we know and love along with uniquely macabre off shoots. The expected upscale period splendor is here yet the cinematic film quality and realistic visual schemes add a dark and dirty as each episode narrows the character focus and clues the viewer in on these bizarre circumstances. It’s downright fun to guess who is actually who, as not all of our similar but different literary inspirations are immediately named or their secrets revealed. My husband doesn’t know what’s up with Dorian Gray and I’m not going to tell him! The audience takes the paranormal leap along with the psychic connections and horrific elements thanks to the character concentration, great dialogue, and a writing first approach instead of the more recent lame brained gore over substance horror. The well written, likable players make literary allusions themselves and the sophisticated conversations don’t insult the viewer – though that’s not to say their isn’t some shocking, then colorful language or scandalous words flavoring the ghastly polish. Racist, of the time terms are also unfortunately necessary, but honest conversations about American Indian history and past injustices make up for the occasional harsh term along with parallel circumstances and bitter, supernatural lessons not learned. Wild West side show parodies and horrible killings set this miserable Victorian mood in Episode One “Night Work” while Latin prayers, an opium house, Nosferatu underlings, monsters, and abductions add to the titular creepy along with a macabre mix of the well dressed, violent fighting, mysterious Arabic, and Egyptian Book of the Dead hints. How did this disparate crew get into this dark underbelly? The good versus evil and seemingly untarnished layers aren’t as clear as we think. Do our players find themselves amid the spiritual realm between life and death or the new world of science – or are their transgressions across both?
“Seance” introduces more Penny Dreadful players to the dockside desolate with prostitution, tuberculosis, and Dr. Frankenstein joining the fold. Everyone has a secret – Victor, his creations, and the so pretty yet so naughty Dorian Gray. Are the crimes about London related to these concealed truths and Sir Malcolm’s paranormal quest? The saucy is both demented and artistically done even if it is also slightly over the top, but the intriguing dialogue continues alongside the parlor fun and spiritualism winks. What can I say, it’s simply great to hear people use big words, and the titular sequence is superb. Vanessa’s unrevealed role to play goes wild, hooking the audience thanks to creepy voices, hidden history, and possession. Demonic language, sad revelations, and frightening powers – I’d leave that table! At only 48 minutes, Episode Three “Resurrection” is shorter than Penny Dreadful‘s usually true hour long airtime, but this segment focusing on Victor adds some flashback colorful before unpoetic death enters in and a bloody convulsing spurns Victor’s goals as his mother is snatched from him. Do our violent births, first rejections, and brushes with death irrevocably shape our outlook on life? The Caliban framing narration slows the pace, but transferring the monster’s plot to a theatre underground adds a Phantom of the Opera-esque gory onstage pulp. The zoo showdowns, wolfy scares, and captured informants, however, are more sinister, and details about finding Mina and the antagonism between our players are more interesting than Caliban’s complaints.
Penny Dreadful could have been cheap and nasty in showing Dorian Gray’s depravity in “Demimonde,” but I’m glad it doesn’t go there despite his increasingly extreme desperation. His creepy mirrors, photography, and secret passages juxtaposed nicely against innocent questions, sad burials, and melancholy churches where one is not sure she is permitted entry. Bright outdoor scenes and delicate orchids belie dangerous nightshade and peril in beauty. Is there a method to nature’s madness or these supernatural apparitions? The show within a show audiences and theatre behind the scenes add more dimension, and players previously unknown interact as Vanessa’s revelations happen in Episode Five “Closer than Sisters.” Childhood beach side splendor, white lace and sunshine evoke the time before Penny Dreadful began, when evil temptations, sexual desires, and “little acts of wickedness” lead to much more. This past recounting is better than Caliban’s bitterness because this is the root cause for Vanessa and the show’s main quest – creepy taxidermy and tales of safari cannibals hint at macabre to come. Do we willfully choose this dark path over prayers unanswered as jealousy and hatred mount? Are evil possessions at work on a corrupted soul or is physical illness the cause of a sickly body? The hospital cruelty and institutional torment are just as dehumanizing as the demonic possibilities. Who is at fault for such suffering and sin when the devil is your friend? Penny Dreadful puts all its gothic sin, salvation, and transgressions together here, and “What Death Can Join Together” moves the action forward as our team learns to forgive themselves. Plague ship battles are congested, intimate, and messy with rats, vampires, and monsters. Dreadful prices, divine gifts, escalating desires, and internal, self referential ironies are not lost on this merry outfit as evil of all shapes and sizes ups the ante.
Minimal but dangerous levitation and flying objects are smartly used in Episode Seven “Possession,” and Penny Dreadful’s motley family huddles in support of the titular victim – not that they always keep it together as they face their inner demons, however. Insects and manifestations mount as hidden truths will out, and things get ugly as people lose control, fight loved ones, and try to reach the lost souls. Foul language, demonic speaking, and symbolic snow add to the great performances all around as the science versus spirit debate rages. Does demonic possession belong in the realm of the religious or will standard doctoring do? These divides unite our players, strengthening their trust in each other against evil without the usual smoke and mirror exorcism spectacles. Penny Dreadful remains personal with excellent agonizing screams, weary witnesses, and sickly pallors as faith, friendships, and romances are tested. In a lengthy 24 episode season, this episode would be a bottle show thanks to its contained nature. However, some lofty material goes down with Penny Dreadful’s five core players without them even leaving the house. Hot damn. “Grand Guignol” puts all the outside factors and interior influences together for the finale’s multilevel theatrical showdown. Stage ropes and trap doors add to the vampire peril as characters come to new truths and surprising bonds are made. Can redemption yet be found? Has everyone done their part in this play? Of course, there are subtle implications left for Season Two, possible future plots culminate, and Penny Dreadful certainly tells us that death isn’t quite so definitive.
I feel like I’m glowing with praise, but Penny Dreadful is not without its fair share of debut problems. While there are no excessive, panorama, look at the monster so cool camera works; cliche, bad ass walking transitions, dark meetings on street corners, and lengthy establishing shots meander when a cut to already being where we need to be would do. There aren’t that many flashy for flashy’s sake moments, but modern shock editing, zooms, and dark vampy battle scenes are iffy at times, and the closed captioning is also sometimes more amusing than atmospheric with its “screams reverb and flow into the night” or how every door simply must “creak” open. Quibbles, yes, but the story lines on Penny Dreadful themselves are unevenly paced and not equally interwoven – something that should be easy to do across only eight episodes. Unnecessary support takes up time from the relatively straight forward, supposedly primary vampire abduction quest, and the ongoing carnivorous murders about town are poorly handled, sprinkled throughout the season along with Egyptian themes. Both are trumped as being of critical importance then disappear before the previouslies introducing the episode or obvious flashbacks and foreshadowing shoehorn them in again. It’s superb to see bisexuality on Penny Dreadful, however, same sex material is bizarrely montaged over – and isn’t as equal opportunity nude or graphic as the other heterosexual kinky scenes, either. Evil and sexual acts or on the nose light and dark symbolism are also linked together, but perhaps these naughty ties are in commentary on hypocritical Victorian ways. Penny Dreadful is a great show upon the first watch, but picking through it with too many fine toothed comb viewings can crack its veneer.
Fortunately, Eva Green (Casino Royale) looks dynamite in period regalia as Vanessa Ives. Lace frocks, wild up dos, and red lips add allure, but Green remains can’t look away stunning when stripped bare, down and dirty, or possessed and spouting wicked incantations. Vanessa shows strength in weakness yet shakes down the men around her, recognizing their similar complications even though the audience hasn’t figured out what’s behind her poise. Over the course of Penny Dreadful, Vanessa goes from a pious and humble beauty to hospital horrors, creepy crawlies, and back again as she struggles between religious beliefs and increasingly nasty evils. Miss Ives is at times the lady, a child, or evil with slightly scandalous hints to her latent naughty – no gloves at a posh Victorian party and such a saucy kinship to Dorian Gray. What is she to Sir Malcolm? What is the source behind her psychic and possessive powers? Green is simply great in “Seance” and “Closer than Sisters” – award worthy in fact. Vanessa is a strong woman facing death daily whilst hiding a hidden internal battle yet remains put together as best she can. Her convalescence is anything but when she must live with the violence and death she has caused. This is a wonderful original character anchoring Penny Dreadful, and Vanessa Ives fits right in with the familiar literary boys.
Then again, when Timothy Dalton’s (The Living Daylight) Sir Malcolm Murray says don’t be amazed by what you see and don’t hesitate, we don’t! The classy waistcoat, top hats, and cane add prominence while the gray in his beard adds gruff to his elder gentleman appeal. This African adventurer has been aged by his shady experiences; he’s a pissed off dad and has the means to do something about getting his daughter back but he hasn’t been a perfect parent by any means. Sir Malcolm’s tug and pull with Vanessa is scene chewing excellence – they’ve both gained a bizarre new family with this dreadful team. Sir Malcolm navigates the Gentleman’s club bright and fancy as swiftly as he handles the down low and dirty. His power and wealth have a long reach, and Sir Malcolm is able to follow inside the police investigations whilst also keeping his own family secrets behind closed doors. Be it arrogance, negligence, or dark forces, he’s running out of people close to him to lose, and this increasingly high price is taking its toll. Fatherly love clouds Sir Malcolm’s judgment, he sees some of his son in the young Victor, and tries to be better man to this motley band than he was to his own family. However, he’s also uses or protects them as necessary in this quest to save his daughter. Sir Malcolm thinks he is above the darkness about him and believes he will do what has to be done. Unfortunately, he is sorely mistaken and must learn to face his regrets, familial mistakes, and grief.
He’s pretentious about his research and the possibility of a greater science, but Harry Treadaway (Honeymoon) has some wild disciplines and bloody medicine to contribute as Victor Frankenstein. He rebuffs the notion that he is just a man with a knife and isn’t afraid to call these shocking circumstances as he sees them despite his glassy stare and small stature compared to paternal steady hand Sir Malcolm or would be big brother Ethan Chandler. Treadaway delivers some wonderfully intelligent wit and ambitious dialogue – Victor wins his battles with a dance of words but also knows when to be silent or in awe of his creations. His work is a mix of genius and barbaric butchery, yet there is a poetic, touching, and human sensitivity amid Frankenstein’s snap, crackle, and pop laboratory. Victor remains gentle in his power of giving life and death – but he isn’t exactly able to control such corrupting opportunities or his so-called children. Indeed his maternal aspects are stunted and cut short, for Victor is so desperately interested in trying to cheat death that he’s missing out on life. The doctor lives through literature, he’s sickly and bloodshot, and unprepared when his creation becomes painfully superior. Naturally, “Dr. F.” looses whatever innocence he may have had along the way, leaving reluctance for complete compliance and monstrous orchestration.
Penny Dreadful unfortunately missteps again in the handling of Josh Harnett’s gun for hire Ethan Chandler. His secret is pretty apparent to start and obvious to the audience in “Resurrection” and “Demimonde” yet his plot is played as though it were some major surprise kicker for the finale. Instead of underestimating the audience, the focus should have been upfront so the viewers could be further inside his may or may not know pain. Thankfully, there’s a built in American reason for Chandler’s kinky, cowboy veneer, and without the need for the usual trite Yank going faux Brit, Hartnett becomes surprisingly impressive for the somber and serious moments. Granted, there is a part of you that can’t stop thinking of the woe that was Pearl Harbor or “It’s hottie of the 90s Josh Hartnett all grown up!” However, Ethan knows his weapons and fearlessly goes after the vampy monsters. He has a would be sibling rivalry with Victor yet provides a wise sounding board to Sir Malcolm when needed and holds fast to a tender sentiment with the ladies. Chandler is running from a lot more than an oppressive father back home, and the bluffing banter with Vanessa on his shadowed possibilities is more interesting than the inevitable love with Brona. Much of Ethan’s relationship with Brona feels unpolished or shoehorned in as set up for the tug and pull plots in Season Two – which would have been a real pity had there been no next year. Fortunately, Hartnett’s “and” billing is fitting, for Ethan adds a relatable American tell it like it is wit and dark humor matching Penny Dreadful‘s twisted cynicism.
Understandably, Reeve Carney (The Tempest) as Dorian Gray is played up to be depraved and assy, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s tough to enjoy the extremes Dorian takes, and for the most part, it’s all too pretentious to care. His chemistry with Vanessa is also too smarmy and not on par with the other characters– Carney feels inferior to Green and she carries their scenes. Dorian is styled as a modern pretty boy – his bathroom is absurdly decadent, the one excessive, intruding set piece here – and he seems hammy and out of place. Dorian sorely miscalculates Vanessa, uses Ethan, and ultimately, his superfluous, slutty twists don’t do much for the main plot. Likewise, it’s obvious who Billie Piper (Doctor Who) will be in Season Two as the original but dead end Brona Croft. Her entire plot is not as sympathetic as it should be thanks to a pitiful accent and redundant support driving Ethan to places he was already headed. I like Piper, but she feels wrong for the part, and Brona’s inevitable should have been paired down to its late season essentials. Rory Kinnear (Othello) as the creature Caliban is also slightly over the top and obnoxious with a pissy entry that the audience won’t like. He can’t get over his sad start, and Caliban goes overboard in complaining about the perceived sins of his father when it’s his own crimes and monstrous actions making him just as villainous. With his smarts and superior attitude he should know better. Caliban learns of hatred and mercy but chooses the former – his own adolescent, emo behavior and violence mars the would be theatre kindness he receives. He isn’t fun to watch, and a late introduction taking up most of the third episode takes away from the other more interesting players we have already met.
Indeed, the alphabetical credits belie the importance of the aforementioned trio – they don’t appear in all the episodes and provide uneven aggravation or fodder for the main stars, again all in future storytelling hopes not needed in the tale at hand. I’d much rather have had the wasted David Warner (Titanic) as Van Helsing, an all too brief but charming hematologist with wise words and a steady, grandfatherly presence beyond the occult matters. Recurring guest stars such as Alex Price (Father Brown) as Proteus also do much more for Penny Dreadful. His nudity, subtext, and a childlike but sensuous, emotional exploration add a far better bittersweet sense of wonder to the Frankenstein plots. Does the new man composed of previous men belong to those past recollections or new human development? The answers are both touching and upsetting. Likewise, we’re immediately curious about Danny Sapani (Trance) and his mysterious manservant Sembene. He’s a soft spoken cool cat, a butler who is the keeper of far more secrets and skills than we realize – which comes in pretty handy to Sir Malcolm. Sembene claims he has no story to tell, but there’s certainly some excellent sophistication and compassion in how smoothly he can do what Sir Malcolm cannot when it comes to the new, if uneven, twists for Olivia Llewellyn (The Lizzie Borden Chronicles) as Mina Harker. I hope we have more intrigue from Sembene in Year Two, for the subtle seeds have been placed for him alongside the perfectly flamboyant Egyptologist Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown) and the wild Madame Kali Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders).
Speaking of items I’d love to see, can these Victorian fashions please come back in full force? Penny Dreadful has the period look as it should but the clothes also have an air of modern streamline – no fru fru frilly is getting in the way of the appropriately bloody bodies, gruesome human parts, or harbored ships with their shady below decks and monster works. Cringe worthy institutions show the old errors juxtaposed against photography, emerging technologies, and more rarities of the time, but the unpleasant, red eyed Nosferatu vamps keep Penny Dreadful old school ugly. The seemingly nondescript courtyard and townhouse hide a dramatic staircase, a dungeon below, the possessed upstairs, and a sweet parlor where all the heavy conversations happen. How did wallpaper then look so good when ours can be so tacky? Cartography, old time explorations, antiques, and fine woodwork add realism while seances, tarot cards, and luscious red interiors shape that 19th century mysticism. Gas lamps, candles, and fire add a period patina as London fog and lamplighters create a near black and white noir scheme; storms, winds, and rain add to the bleak when all is stripped bare. Sound effects or simple tricks of flashing darkness, moving in camera with a character, or cut away shocks do heaps more in building spooky than the more recent in your face horror designs. Small doses of other languages, fancy phrases, and of the time speakeths add to the panache while play within a play under the stage theatre spectacles layer the observations. The angry, frenetic violin theme music establishes the blue, macabre symbolism during the opening credits, and the viewer is more than ready to settle in with the snakes, spiders, bloody tea cups, and all that is afoot on Penny Dreadful.
Currently, Penny Dreadful can be seen via Showtime streaming options, Amazon, DVD and blu-ray releases, or in on air marathons as Season Two looms. Unfortunately, the on Demand and Xfinity interface can be quite cumbersome and nineties laden with sound issues and playback trouble. Episodes also expire or have varying dates, and it doesn’t make much sense to have Year One unavailable to subscribers when the Second series is imminent. These viewing technicalities, however, are but a quibble when considering how Penny Dreadful proves what can be done when a network gives a paranormal drama the care and attention the production needs to match its literary weight and saucy opportunity. I loved NBC’s Dracula, but the Big Three American network didn’t have the inclination or know how to support the series. Universal probably also misfired with its Dracula Untold, leaving its new monster mash up franchise off to a shaky start, but this, this, this is how Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie should have been done. Penny Dreadful is pulpy but witty, and any bemusements or camp don’t interfere with the frightful mood and macabre atmosphere. Their are First Year growing pains, but the series goes where it wants to go and shows all its saucy or gory without dumbing the style, players, or plot down to the bottom denominator. Instead of lowering the bar, Penny Dreadful raises the measure for gothic horror adaptations with lavish looks, intriguing characters, and sophisticated storytelling.