Showtime dropped their first episode of their upcoming goth drama Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” all over us for free. So I took a sneak a peek at it, as well as the yet-released second episode “Séance,” to tell you, the reader, if it’s worth watching. It is, so far. But no worries, this is a SPOILER-free overview.
As I was watching Penny Dreadful I found myself hoping that I’d found the place where all the old Universal monsters came to die. I’m partly right, they’re all showing up, Dr. Frankenstein and his creature is doing a Robert Louis Stevenson turn, there is a vampire named Mina, there’s even a gunslinger straight out of the Wild Bill traveling troupe. But they didn’t come to die. They came for a 90s makeover and that’s good enough for me.
I haven’t seen any wolf men yet, but Jack the Ripper was recently in town and he’s welcome in any gothic setting, especially as an ongoing headline. It’s London in 1891, where it all came together, like London in the swinging sixties. I’m sure there’s even some corduroy tucked underneath those overcoats and Derby hats.
The late nineteenth century was a high point in spiritualist history. Madame Helena Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society (which still holds lectures in NYC), who mesmerized New Yorkers by conjuring ectoplasmic goodies from her unmentionables, well, we’ll mention them here, and probably often, died in 1891. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was attending séances and founding the Fortean Society, which also still exists today looking for Madame Blavatsky’s unmentionables. Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson were all busy turning future movie ideas into novels. Inventing science fiction. Inventing horror. Oscar Wilde was reinventing Goth fashion. France had a museum of the grotesque. It would soon house the precursor to the grindhouse film, the Grand Guignol. Everybody who was anybody was getting into the darker side of existence. The 1890s were a lot like the 1990s.
Frankenstein came in on the first wave of horror in the 1800s. It was published in 1813, a time when grave robbing was still rampant and paid better. Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelly to win an after-dinner-and-opium best horror contest with her husband, Percy, Lord Byron, and John Polidori. Penny Dreadful is going to have to do some anachronistic contortions to fit every horror into one story line, but hey, wasn’t that what League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was supposed to teach us?
The London Bobbies are investigating a series of gruesome murders that make them think the Ripper might be back in town. Jack usually checks in with the local tabloids. Sir Malcolm Murray offers advice and yet they don’t suspect him. Or do they? The air and music leaves a question. A simple camera double take. The atmosphere is appropriately spooky throughout and encased in amber.
The cast is led by Timothy Dalton, who used all his voices in A Lion in Winter and dabbed on the debonair as Bond, James Bond. He plays Sir Malcolm Murray. He’s looking for his daughter Mina. Where have I heard that name before? He says he’d kill the world to save his daughter and he says it with such conviction that we wonder if Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler should start looking for easy exits. Chandler is sure to be distracted by a lady in Green.
Eva Green is hypnotic as Vanessa Ives. Literally. She can stop a vampire in its tracks just by staring him down. She tells the sharp-shooter Ethan Chandler to look in her eyes and pick a card and you can feel her channeling Madame Blavatsky’s unmentionables. Green already exhibited entrancing qualities when she one-upped the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Johnny Depp, in the defanged comic reimagining of Dark Shadows.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway, is conducting experiments in the attic, his Proteus is a happy but timid and scared creature, but at least he doesn’t have hieroglyphics tattooed on his chest.
You’d think Egyptologist Sir Ferdinand Lyle, played by Simon Russell Beale, would be too dusty from carrion beetles to know how to throw a party. He neglected to invite Sherlock Holmes, who would have brought the coke, but he displays the morbidly erotic Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). He also digs up Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), a world famous medium, at large, to throw a séance. Vanessa Ives upstages her though. Brona Croft (Billie Piper), plays a young Irish immigrant girl who is facing another kind of horror that was rampant at the end of that century: Jobs lost to machines. Some things never change.
What else can I talk about that won’t spoil anything? Ah, the sex, tres important to all premium cable ventures, is of the standing, thrusting up-against-the-walls of a carney trailer in-out-in-out variety so far. Josh Hartnett shows he’s quick on the draw and is a fast shot too. Maybe a little too fast. Even for England. Dorian Grey’s love scene is head and shoulders above Ethan’s, it’s still up against the wall, but it’s fueled by blood. Consumption be done about it?
I predict the first four episodes of Penny Dreadful will be riveting and then it will get caught in some kind of murky mire because of all the different literary sources smooshed into one outlet. It can be overkill. But overkill can work as long as they keep up the dark atmosphere.