The title of Showtime’s John Logan-created horror show refers to penny dreadfuls, 19th-century fiction publications with grisly and exciting subject matter. The show’s hook is an interesting one: the series borrows well-known and often infamous characters from the public domain and puts its own spin on these men and women. Among many others the Murrays from Bram Stoker’s Dracula show up, as does Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s famous The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and Mary Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays a key part too. As a result Penny Dreadful puts itself in the tradition of the Universal monster mash-up movies from the 1940s, but it adds a more elegant and dark type of suspense to the pulp often associated with those films because of its reliance on Gothic horror. What’s even more important to note is that, crucially, Penny Dreadful‘s main character Vanessa Ives didn’t originate in the horror fiction the show’s inspired by: she’s an original creation and Logan’s show, in many ways, is her story.
Vanessa, portrayed by a terrific Eva Green, is a mysterious woman who lives with Sir Malcolm Murray, a man looking for his daughter Mina, who got taken by a shadowy and malevolent force. Murray’s rescue mission is at the core of Showtime’s series, but it’s more of a jumping-off point for character interaction and development than it is what the show’s actually focused on or interested in. The search for Mina is what brings Penny Dreadful‘s characters together and, during the first season’s eight-episode run, the first two episodes are definitely dedicated to setting up the stakes and bringing the team together. But from episode 3 on, the story gets really interesting: everyone gets fleshed out in interesting ways and, as we soon find out, few of the characters are really who they seem. Logan’s creation is not only a dark and suspenseful homage to classic horror fiction, it’s also a genuinely creative and intelligent original creation, an example of how one can take the familiar and do an interesting and fresh take on it. Penny Dreadful‘s characters are layered, flawed and, most of all, human, which makes the show’s larger-than-life narrative very compelling and horrifically beautiful.
Beautiful is also the only way to describe the show’s esthetic. From set design to costume design, from score to cinematography, everything about Penny Dreadful is masterfully created, which makes it such a joy to behold. Right off the bat it’s clear that no expenses have been spared creating the series’ Victorian London locales, varying from underground tunnels to lush gardens, and from extravagant mansions to the city’s shady back alleys. As a result the show’s setting feels as much as a character as the creatures that populate this version of England’s capital, which lends a heavy dose of atmosphere to the proceedings. There’s just so much attention to detail, and how that detail is being registered by the cameras is astounding, which also goes for the way the camera captures the show’s characters: there are close-ups that allow you to see every little twitch in someone’s facade, but also eerie tilts and slow pans that make you both marvel and fear what’s happening on-screen. The only time the camera work falters is during the show’s action moments, when the otherwise elegant cinematography gets replaced with shaky cam. Fortunately the reliance on that particular method of filming action scenes isn’t too intrusive and these sparse moments do work because of the way they are implemented in the story and because of the music that accompanies the action. Composer Abel Korzeniowski has imbued the series with a score that’s at times pulse-poundingly intense, but hauntingly tender at other moments, which heightens the atmosphere some more.
While the overall quality of Penny Dreadful is astounding, a show like this wouldn’t work without a cast of wonderful actors giving good performances; it can get quite campy if not anchored by strong acting turns. Fortunately the series also delivers on that front, and then some. Especially Eva Green gives a powerhouse performance that makes her work on this show some of her best of her entire career, which is really saying something. Green’s Miss Ives is a complicated character who carries with her a great burden, and Green makes Vanessa a strong woman, but also a fragile and haunted human being. Whenever she shows up, Green is a mesmerizing presence, and she makes it abundantly clear why she was cast as the series’ lead. The rest of the actors aren’t slouches either: Timothy Dalton gets to show off his versatility and range as Sir Malcolm, Harry Treadaway portrays Victor Frankenstein with exactly the right blend of sympathetic, obsessed and cruel, and Josh Hartnett injects a warmth and coolness to the proceeding whenever he’s in the frame. Reeve Carney is also incredibly enigmatic and mysterious as Dorian Gray, while Rory Kinnear is sometimes vicious and sometimes incredibly endearing as character with close ties to one of Penny Dreadful‘s central players. While watching the show it’s glaringly obvious that all these performers work off each other incredibly well, and it’s this ensemble cast that is the warm beating heart of Penny Dreadful and keeps you coming back for more.
Penny Dreadful is an incredible new show that fires on all cylinders: quality writing, acting, directing, cinematography, design and music. Essential viewing for horror fans. 9/10