Penny Dreadful proves that the British can do period production better than anyone in the world and this pulling together of literary horror icons results in a dreadfully good time for all concerned. It was tempting to give this particular show a miss despite its somewhat sterling cast. Categorizing it as “somewhat” is down mainly to the presence of Josh Hartnett in a leading role. Hartnett has been off screens much more than on recently, but it was a delight to see that he has lost none of that charm and talent that made him an actor to watch back in his hey day.
Going back to the statement that the Brits produce superior period drama, or period horror in this instance, can be verified by the American’s attempt at same. AMC’s Turn which promised to tell the little known story of the colonies’ first spy gang is a slow, yawn-fest which hopefully will not go past season one. Perhaps because the production is not English, the compulsion to pick and pry at set dressings, costumes, and dialogue leaps to the fore and drowns out any possible enjoyment of the show.
Still, this article is about Penny Dreadful and not about Turn, so this avenue will be, mercifully, dropped. Set in the days of Queen Victoria and the “We are not amused” period, Showtime’s program pulls out all stops to bring in either references to or characters from Victorian horror. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dorian Grey, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes all figure in this first pilot episode alone. The only one missing from this gallery of a Victorian literary who’s who in horror is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. While this may be an oversight, it cannot be denied that this dreadfully good show is harmed by this exclusion although, in time, he may yet turn up.
That Bram Stoker’s Dracula is used most heavily is evident with Timothy Dalton’s character Sir Malcolm being a clear reference to Professor Van Helsing, even including Malcolm’s sighting of a vampirous “Mina.” Apparently Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, is another nod to the Stoker novel; Chandler must be a reference to the rich Texas gentleman who was one of Mina’s suitors. Eva Green plays Vanessa Ives who appears to be a female Sherlock Holmes, the only non-horror reference. Although to be fair to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who brought Holmes to life, some of his stories were pretty darned scary.
Dr Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway, may not be Colin Clive, but he does a splendid job as the dangerously fixated scientist who would be God. Rory Kinnear plays the creature, boldly showing the world what his “equipment” looks like, and while he is not Boris Karloff, his creature looks more like De Niro’s version, he does a great job. That Kinnear does such a fine job should not be surprising. His father was the beloved character actor Roy Kinnear who died “in the saddle” both literally and figuratively on a useless remake of the Three Musketeers. Rory brings an authenticity to his once dead character that feels just right.
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful premieres tonight on that channel and viewers should take heart before switching the new series on that they will have a dreadfully good time watching this victoriana horror show. Viewing the premiere early, available on Hulu Plus, it is apparent that the British do have the edge when it comes to period drama. Not once during the show did the compulsion arise to “pick” at anything on screen which makes it a much more immersive experience. Penny Dreadful May 11 on Showtime, watch it and be entertained.
By Michael Smith