As the momentum of the vampire craze shows no signs of slowing on our screens, Penny Dreadful – the new Showtime horror series – takes a Victorian approach, merging the period drama, the gothic horror and the vampire fantasy. The result is.. well, pretty damn good.
This is what we thought at the Eighty Sixth Floor…
‘Night Work’ – the first episode in the Penny Dreadful series – is the name given to a request from mysterious lady in black Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a performing marksman who has travelled from America with his dazzling shooting target show, as they sit across from each other in a gloomy pub.
‘Would it matter?’
And so it begins.
Set in 1891, a few years after the murders by Jack The Ripper, Penny Dreadful takes us on a gory journey into the ‘demi-monde’, half-world between the living and the dead in Victorian London. Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Timothy Dalton, has just lost his daughter Mina to a species of evil vampires and now he wants her back. Together with his ruthless psychic colleague Vanessa Ives, and with the help of nifty gunman Ethan Chandler and a young Victor Frankenstein, the group attempts to defeat the evil force that is behind the kidnappings and grotesque murders of women and children throughout the city.
The title of the series refers to cheap 1 penny publications printed on pulp paper and popular in Victorian England. Their lurid, sensational and often gory plots made them popular amongst working class adolescents looking for a quick literary thrill.
In the same way, the TV series totally indulges in fantasy and gore, however the big budget, sterling cast and beautiful direction ensures Penny Dreadful is a far cry from its Victorian ancestor.
The title derivative is not the only reference to Victorian British literature in the series; the entire narrative is littered with references. Frankenstein and hints of Dracula form key moments in ‘Night Work’, and the second episode ‘Séance’ looks set to introduce the Oscar Wilde character, Dorian Gray. It is exciting to see a TV series that celebrates and samples so much British Literature – and not just as a pure adaption, but with the freedom to incorporate different works of literature into a rich, narrative montage.
Viewers may of course see parallels between Penny Dreadful and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic series, however it’s clear that writer John Logan has worked hard to create something unlike anything else on TV at the moment.
As for Logan, he seems to be developing a niché for Victorian Horror, having previously written the 2007 screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Ironically, the character of Sweeney Todd was in fact one of the more memorable murderers of one of the original Penny Dreadfuls, The String of Pearls.
In terms of casting, Penny Dreadful has been successful across the board – although good performances are often overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Eva Green.
Her character, Vanessa Ives, is a brilliantly complex creature; on the one hand she is a ruthless psychic, consulting tarot cards, reading people’s minds and being completely unfazed by flesh eating vampires. One the other, we see two sequences of her knelt before a cross, praying in Latin and shaking with fear. It’s hard to imagine how both sides of this persona are related, and the viewer is left eager to see how her character progresses throughout the series.
Another fantastic character in Penny Dreadful is the young Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway. The ultimate scene in ‘Night Work’ – the portrayal of the birth of Frankenstein’s monster (played faultlessly by Rory Kinnear) – is a perfect amalgamation of the exploration of ‘life and death; the flicker that separates one from the other’ that has consumed the characters throughout the episode.
Josh Hartnett, too, is perfectly comfortable in his role as Ethan Chandler. A few years out of mainstream cinema seem to have given him a newfound maturity and the ability to embody a much darker character than the good looking tough guys we tend to associate his career with.
Penny Dreadful pairs the beautiful with the repulsive. Beautiful costumes and sets share the screen with dismembered body parts and piles of corpse. ‘Night Work’ is rich with imagery – insects in particular pay a key role in the mise-en-scene. A spider crawling over a crucifix reminds us of the link between religion, spirituality and death. The same crucifix later swings upside down a-la The Amityville Horror and becomes infested with a swarm of wasps. Flies hover above the massacred corpses of the murder victims and a spider crawls up the arm of Vanessa as she prays, reminding her that even she cannot escape her own impending mortality.
The focus on insects also echoes Dracula’s assistant R.M. Renfield, suggesting that Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel will soon make an appearance in the narrative alongside Frankenstein.
Penny Dreadful combines the period Victorian drama, the vampire fantasy and the gothic horror, so fans of these genres are no doubt likely to enjoy this new series. Could it be the next True Blood or Game Of Thrones? It’s too early to say yet but it’s looking positive.
Bringing beauty and refinement to the much-loved vampire fantasy, with a fantastic cast and gore galore, we certainly like the look of Penny Dreadful at the Eighty Sixth Floor.
But what do you think? Let us know in your comments. And if there’s anything YOU think we should be reviewing, please tell us.