Gothic horror hits the pay channel airwaves in a big way.
Nineteenth century England: the streets of London are crawling with vicious, unseen forces that prey on the innocent. One of those innocents is the daughter of a wealthy explorer named Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill), who turns out to be absolutely the wrong guy to mess with. Sir Malcolm cranks up the machismo and recruits a crack team including supernatural medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Casino Royale), American gunfighter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, Black Hawk Down) and a doctor by the name of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who may or may not be up to some unholy science projects in his attic.
Together, this Monster Squad embarks on a dangerous voyage into the heart of the dark side of the supernatural and only one thing is assured: Eva Green’s eye are going to roll around in the back of her head. A lot.
Great show. I had heard the scuttlebutt, but never really paid attention, not having Showtime myself. So what a sublime experience it was to go in with almost no idea what to expect and completely get lost in the world that writer and creation John Logan has built. What’s even more impressive is that this world is forged on the bedrock of instantly recognizable, public domain characters like Frankenstein and Dorian Gray and features vampires and demons and other manner of beast that we’ve all seen ad nauseum throughout the years — yet, Penny Dreadful feels breathtakingly original.
It all starts with the atmosphere. Typically, “atmosphere” is a noun I throw out when I’m trying to find the silver lining to a movie or TV show that I found to be mediocre but don’t want my review to come across as a gripe session. You know: “The dialogue was terrible and the characters were one-dimensional, but the atmosphere was palpable.” With that piece of Hack Writing for the Internet 101 out of the way, I’ll say that the atmosphere in Penny Dreadful is a legit accolade; the way this world was so believably and magnetically built is a testament to the vision and skill of the production’s movers and shakers and this, more than anything, was responsible for sucking me in.
Of course, after I’m through the gate it falls to the stories and characters to keep me hooked and both are up to the task. The cast is deeply impressive. Dalton is, obviously, The Man — stern, overbearing and sort of a dick, but exactly the kind of Victorian Alpha Male that anyone would fallow into a vampire nest; Hartnett, who’s never really blown me away, brings unexpected depth and a welcome dose of bad-assness to his role; and Eva Green deserves no less than a Purple Heart for the torment she’s put through in this series. These are the core players, but the supporters are just as excellent, especially Rory Kinnear as Victor Frankenstein’s, er, “science fair project.”
The story is all about finding Malcolm’s daughter, but there is good stuff peripheral to this, especially Frankenstein’s struggle with the fallout of his experimentations and Dorian Gray’s bizarre lifestyle. In the end, however, the set-up is there for an even grander mythology, one involving a fearsome Big Bad and new surprises involving the main characters that are revealed in the final ten minutes of the finale.
Even when the main narrative took a departure for some flashbacks (usually a momentum buster), I continued to be enthralled. Simply put, this is a series that is all aces, from production design to writing to acting to pacing. Best of all it embraces the pulp horror roots it’s based on, diving straight into the deep end of gothic mythology.
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) looks and sounds stellar, pushing out an elegant 1.78:1/1080p transfer, rich with color and adept at rendering London in all its grimy glory. Backing up the beautiful visuals is a clean, haunting TrueHD 5.1 surround mix. Extras, however, could have been better; you’ll have to make due with nine, brief video production diaries that are more or less promo spots and two episodes of Ray Donovan. Ho-hum.