This Penny Dreadful review contains some spoilers.
The Penny Dreadful was an early pulp fiction kind of magazine that appealed to popularly emerging sordid tastes. In England in the 1800s they churned out dreadful horror stories for a penny apiece. Varney the Vampire was published as a penny dreadful. That’s also where Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, came to be. Stories filled with dread printed on cheap pulp paper, throwaways. Not meant to last. Born to die. But they haven’t.
I love what I call “dread” movies: Films that creep up on you and give you a real sense of unease. They don’t have to be shot darkly. They don’t have to be creepy. You can dread things in celluloid that are happy and seemingly joyful. Alex in Clockwork Orange good-naturedly thumping out a rousing rendition of “Singing in the Rain,” happy children dancing in the rainy streets of New Orleans in Angel Heart are good examples of dread that comes brightly lit. Penny Dreadful is atmospheric and you can tell that they know their way around suspense. But they have not yet filled me with dread. Fear and gothic horror comes on a tad stylish. Though I’m sure I will have my horrific giggles.
Penny Dreadful introduces a veritable who’s who of monsters and monstrous characters. An explorer far removed from Captain Spaulding, who would destroy the world if only to save his daughter; A gunslinger who is just in town for a quick nip and tickle at Piccadilly Circus; A seemingly body snatching surgeon who turns out to be Dr. Frankenstein in the flesh. But this is only the beginning. It’s London in 1891, the year Helen Blavatsky, of New York’s occult Theosophic Society, died. Modern spiritualism is in its infancy. London Bobbies are investigating a series of gruesome murders. Beastly killings, the kind that remind them of Jack the Ripper, wrack the back alleys of the city. The Twentieth Century is being born.
Penny Dreadful opens on a mystical child, who loses her mother to supernatural creatures. We get the sense that these are bloodthirsty and cruel. They rip the child’s mother through a bathroom wall into menacing darkness. We hear frightened inquiries and sad silence. Seconds later we see that mystic child all grown up, as she enters into a spiritual trance. Spiders spill from the walls of the church. My conclusion is that these bloodsuckers are drawn to her and that she somehow can bend them to her will. This is borne out when Vanessa Ives stops a vampire in its tracks just by looking into its eyes. Kinda like Max in Where The Wild Things Are, taming monsters with a stare.
Eva Green conjures Vanessa Ives wonderfully. She has authority, she never seems to flinch and she looks like she’s used to being master of all she purveys. Ives can cower gunslingers, vampires and recalcitrant surgeons. The power that is in her draws dark things and she pulls them over her like a blanket, keeping her warm and safe away from the light. I was actually surprised, after seeing her incanting in Latin, barefoot on the floor of the church, eyes rolled up into her head in religious ecstasy, that Ives was British. Green is French. Brava for her.
Timothy Dalton comes from a special class of acting. Forget James Bond and his other suave incarnations. This man was anointed by true acting royalty: King Peter O’Toole and Queen Katherine Hepburn in A Lion in Winter. He was the King of Spain and Anthony Hopkins’ lover. He simmered and waited. One of the best actors Britain has offered up. Dalton isn’t playing it close to the vest here. As Sir Malcolm Murray, he wears his anguish like a cloak. It protects him from the elements, natural and unnatural. Once again, he is a man of privilege. Dalton can project wealth and taste through characters out of every age. He is a good man who will do very bad things because he can afford to. He’s already lost the one thing he values, his daughter Mina Murray.
Josh Hartnett is having fun as Ethan Chandler. And why shouldn’t he? He gets to live out every actor’s Wild West dream. He gets to shoot and screw all through England, and be a secret deep thinker in the middle of it. He is also the recipient of one of the sexiest pickup lines in the history of television. Don’t know how he walked away from that one with his trousers straight and his pistol holstered.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway, is a man of two faces. He is a calculating scientist and a caring, doting father to his scientific creation. This is a man who loves his works. He is so proud and so tender when he’s with a monster of his own making, but too lost in his studies to care about what surrounds him. Treadaway brings depth to Victor, lost in the universe of perverse anatomy, lost in the possibilities of life everlasting. Regardless of the cost, he knows that he is on the only true and righteous path that science has to offer. Treadaway doesn’t really give him the arrogance as much as he gives Frankenstein a passion. Good on ya, Harry.
Rory Kinnear, who plays Frankenstein’s creature, is so endearing you never imagine he could terrorize a village. Kinnear is the son of the great muse of Richard Lester, Roy Kinnear, and he has his father’s charm. You can even see the little bit of wit that the monster musters under the surface. I know I always root for the monsters, but this one is a little too sweet for the world of Penny Dreadful. I’m not saying he’s going to break bad, but Frankenstein’s creatures have a history of surprising turns.
Vampires’ blood taints Penny Dreadful, in a good way. You can tell director J. A. Bayona and writer/creator John Logan watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula marathons together for fun, not profit. The subtlety of the camera as it captures the emerging darkness is a love letter written in amber to Coppola and especially the cinematographer of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Michael Ballhaus.
“Night Work” is a great appetizer. I’m already licking my lips.
I covered more of this in a pre-release non-spoiler review, not that I’m giving out too many surprises here.