With shows like ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Hannibal’ and ‘True Blood’ leading the pack, it’s arguable that horror on TV is at an all-time peak of popularity. The growing reputation of channels such as HBO, Showtime and AMC have meant that these names have become synonymous with high quality, edgy adult drama – a far cry from the days when a show making its debut on cable meant to most people that it simply wasn’t good enough for network broadcast. In the aftermath of these successes, dozens of new horror, sci-fi and fantasy shows seem to be springing up every season in the hope of cashing in on the trend and earning some of the fierce loyalty associated with genre programming.
The swift cancellation of highly anticipated shows such as the recent ‘Dracula’ and ‘Almost Human’ however, suggests that audiences may have finally reached overkill. Nevertheless, Showtime and Sky Atlantic’s recently premiered high budget co-production ‘Penny Dreadful’ will be hoping to gain a foothold and distinguish itself from the pack.
Taking its name and style from the tawdry 19th century novels of scandalous content and dubious morality, the series revolves around a variety of characters, both original and borrowed, in Victorian London. The pre-title sequence depicts the abduction and murder of a woman and her daughter in an apparent vampire attack, before we switch to the site of a travelling Wild West show starring our first series regular, American sharp-shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Via this devil-may-care heartthrob/tedious swaggering berk (delete where applicable) the show wastes no time in establishing that the content requirements that telegraph ‘adult’ TV will be well accounted for here – and that (gasp!) Victorians were just as depraved as people are today.
He soon encounters Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) who upon meeting him immediately assesses and relays his strengths, flaws and other pertinent character information, cannily eliminating the need to show the audience these things in action and establishing herself as a no-nonsense, icily efficient heroine in one fell swoop. She wishes to enlist his expert trigger finger in eliminating unspecified targets, taking him to meet her associate Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). A world-weary but fiercely intelligent explorer, Murray is in search of his kidnapped daughter Mina.
In a well shot and impressively suspenseful action sequence the three head to a vampire den, killing one attacker and taking its body for further inspection by an initially reluctant young scientist, none other than Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, giving perhaps the best and most nuanced performance of these first two episodes). After discovering hieroglyphs etched beneath the skin of the corpse, Victor is sufficiently interested to continue his association with the group, while for his part Malcolm consults with eccentric Egyptologist (and judging from his appearance, refugee from ‘The Hunger Games’ Capitol) Ferdinand Lyle. Ethan meanwhile, is naturally perturbed by the bizarre circumstances he finds himself thrust into, and seeks to extricate himself (we can presume temporarily) from them as quickly as possible, taking his payment and hunkering down in a nearby inn. By the episodes end, the mysteries that will unfold over the first season’s 8 episode run are well established – along with the fact that Dr. Frankenstein’s most well known experiments are as much an ongoing theme of this incarnation as all others.
The second episode largely revolves around a seance at a party held by Lyle during which Vanessa, who despite acting suitably unhinged is eye-rollingly cheesy as she channels a demon who is seemingly intent on making Pazuzu blush. Elsewhere Ethan befriends a down at heel Irish woman suffering from consumption, Brona Croft (Billie Piper), who in turn has a close encounter with enigmatic, and self-confident Dorian (in this case, 50 Shades Of) Gray played here by Reeve Carney, while Frankenstein spends a brief and quite affecting time with his creation Proteus (Alex Price).
There’s no denying the talent on display in ‘Penny Dreadful’ – even when the cast are hampered by terrible dialogue they give it their all (“I’ve never [slept with] a dying creature before”, Gray tells Brona. Titillating stuff?) and after all terrible dialogue has rarely affected the standing of a horror movie. The pacing however, could use work and all too often it is presumed that being slow and ponderous is a sufficient substitute for crafting suspense – if it will take the better part of a minute for a character to silently cross a room, then we will see every second. The cinematography is generally good but lacks any unique touch or visual grit, though this is a wider problem I have with the uniform look of TV these days rather than a specific gripe with ‘Penny Dreadful’. Less forgivable is the show’s reliance upon the modern cliches of genre TV – shock tactics that will shock nobody, unappealing and lazy sex scenes and hazy half-formed mysteries that its easy to suspect only have the vaguest notion of where they’re heading. While there are some legitimately good ideas on display, the first two episodes seem happy to be one more show in the horror crowd and viewers long term interest is likely to be determined by their patience and DVR space.