Thoughts on Penny Dreadful Season 1: More Unsettling Than Dreadful

Note: This piece is more an analysis than a review, so it might have a few spoilers…

Penny Dreadful is a gorgeous new horror drama from Showtime that is set in the late 19th century London. I say gorgeous, because in spite of some really frightening, unnerving and gruesome scenes, it somehow manages to look utterly beautiful. It is not so much as an authentic rendering of Victorian London – or the costumes – as it is the art direction that is absolutely breathtaking, but more on that later.

I began watching Penny Dreadful a week ago and the first few minutes of the pilot episode were enough to get me hooked. And you know what? It only gets better from there. I finished the first season (eight episodes) in a single day and had to watch it again for the sake of this review. It was almost as profoundly thrilling and unsettling as it had been on the first go.

There are a great many TV shows being broadcast these days that fall under the ‘horror’ genre, but only a precious few can even come close to the tension, atmosphere and visuals of Penny Dreadful. It derives its name from penny dreadfuls – a kind of serial supernatural literature that used to be published in Victorian England, with each edition costing one penny (thus the name).

The series brings together many well-known Victorian-era literary characters, including Mina Harker (Jonathan Harker’s wife in Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula), Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein and his monster and Dorian Gray. This does not turn out to be the hotchpotch you would expect, but actually a delectably entertaining supernatural blend. Only Dorian Gray, I thought, had no business here, and had a feeling of being added to the mix as an afterthought. His plotline was seemingly pointless, serving no purpose other than captivating or screwing – or both – almost everybody he met throughout the season. Perhaps he will be more relevant in the second season?

The central plotline of Penny Dreadful revolves around the duo of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) slinking through the dark London alleys to save someone close to both of them – who is later revealed to be Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter and Vanessa’s childhood friend, Mina Harker – from the clutches of someone she calls “master”. Mina was apparently wronged by both Sir Malcolm and Vanessa, and it is that guilt that arises from those wrongs that motivates them to rescue her. I’m still in the dark as to who the “master” is – Satan or Dracula or something else altogether? To aid in their quest, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm enlist the help of Ethan Chandler, an American showman and gunslinger, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (you do know him, don’t you?)

Apart from the main plotline, every main character has a well-developed subplot which helps give more depth to them. For instance, Ethan has his own inner-demons which he desperately tries to bury and a secret that isn’t revealed until the finale; Dr. Frankenstein, you would probably know, is more than the simple anatomist he would like everyone to believe. And Sir Malcolm and Vanessa, as stated earlier, have something to be guilty which propels their mission. That something is revealed in an out-and-out cracker of an episode mid season – Closer than Sisters – which reveals the backstory of Sir Malcolm and Vanessa and is an absolute hypnotic watch throughout.

The performances are consistently fantastic by the whole cast, but nobody holds a candle to the work done by Eva Green in the show. Her acting is so good that I found really hard to avert my attention from the show whenever she was on the screen.  Timothy Dalton comes a close second and I particularly liked the way he minces his words (literally) whilst speaking about something of importance, a bit like Kulbhushan Kharbanda. As for Josh Hartnett (Ethan Chandler), here I saw him for the second time after 30 Days of Night and it appears that vampires can’t get enough of him. Or he can’t get enough of vampires. His character is the weakest of the main cast, but gets a real boost-up in the last scene of the finale. I won’t spoil it to you, as it is well worth the build-up of suspense because there are clues strewn in earlier episodes that hint you about what Ethan will turn out to be…

Now, a few words on Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). Treadaway has done some stellar work in portraying the character on-screen, though I did not expect the character to be so young. I haven’t read the original novel, or any spin-offs, so I don’t know how old the original character was, but I envisioned him as a gray haired old-man, tired and jaded of his life, wanting to have some fun by trying to animate corpses. Harry Treadaway’s Dr. Frankenstein, though, is young and full of enthusiasm, and his character is pretty richly fleshed out. His past that he thought safely laid to rest comes back to bite him in the most heartbreaking scenes in the show so far. His new creation, a sweet and innocent chap who names himself Proteus whilst reading Shakespeare with Dr. Victor and who actually becomes friends with his creator is viciously torn apart by Victor’s earlier and more imperfect creation, Caliban, by shoving a bare hand into Proteus’s torso. The scene is so shocking in its abruptness and brutality that I kept staring at my laptop display for a minute to fully digest what had just happened.

Apart from characterisation, another area where Penny Dreadful scores top points is the art direction. It is one of the most beautifully shot TV shows around currently, though I may be a little biased in its favour without intending to, as I’ve always loved novels, movies and TV shows set in the Victorian England. But no matter what is your opinion on the quaint setting, you are going to love Penny Dreadful’s visual style.

The soundtrack is very good. This is my first experience with any music written by polish composer Abel Korzeniowski and I look forward to more of his work. Perhaps that’s to do with the similar setting, but I found Penny Dreadful’s background score a bit similar to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Dark, atmospheric tunes help a lot in reproducing the stunning Gothic setting and there are some really nice character specific pieces that convey the beauty (or the lack of it in Caliban’s case) of every character very effectively.

That’s it. Penny Dreadful is absolutely superb. Its reliance on a character driven story and carefully doled out scares and shocks work in its favour, as do its beautiful art-design and music.  Pretty much a must watch for any Gothic/Horror fan…

Rating: 4.5/5


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