I grew up on the horror comics of the 1970’s. Eerie and Creepy were two of my favorites. My father would buy them and pass them down to me when he finished reading them. They were black and white so that they could take advantage of a loophole in the Comics Code and often featured lurid and gory stories of horror and depravity. Probably not the most appropriate reading for a young boy, but I ate them up. Before those comics there were the EC horror comics from Bill Gaines in the 1950’s. Titles like Tales From The Crypt and The Vault Of Horror called out to readers with gory and hideous covers. But it didn’t really start there. It all goes back to 19th century England and the publication of weekly pamphlets that featured the same kind of ghoulish entertainment for the masses. They were called “penny dreadfuls”, describing the price and the material they contained. That tradition has evolved over the last century or so, and television has taken the place of that kind of literature. It was only a matter of time before that 19th century tradition would be reborn as a Showtime series called, appropriately enough, Penny Dreadful.
The series has used three popular horror novels as its foundation. You’ll find characters and situations from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray. John Logan, who brought us the thrilling Roman adventure Gladiator, takes these basic works of literature and weaves a complicated story that sprinkles in a few other horror elements to bring us something deliciously new. He whips them together in a period piece that is thick with atmosphere. He populates them with incredibly animated characters played by actors that are, for the most part, quite solid in their roles. We were introduced to them in the first season, but we hadn’t been given that season to review. So let me give you a rundown of the characters you’ll encounter.
Sir Malcolm Murray is played by one of my favorite James Bond actors, Timothy Dalton. He’s a tortured nobleman who spent most of his years exploring Africa in hopes of finding the elusive source of the Nile River. The expeditions cost him his son and made his marriage a loveless one. The first season found him searching for his daughter, Mina Harker, who was taken by a vampire. Now he’s lost her. But he’s no longer alone. He’s formed a company, a gathering of people to fight the supernatural monsters he knows exists.
Vanessa Ives is played by Eva Green. She was Mina’s childhood friend but betrayed Mina with Mina’s fiancée. She had been almost like a daughter to Sir Malcolm and now she is. She has a background in witchcraft that is explored quite thoroughly this season. She is also the desire of Satan himself as his bride. So this season we’re introduced to a coven of witch-like creatures that attempt to deliver Vanessa to their master.
Ethan Chandler is played by Josh Hartnett. He was once an American soldier in the Indian Wars. He was touring Europe in a Wild West show when he was recruited to join Sir Malcolm’s company. He is being pursued by American detectives who work for his father in an attempt to bring him home. He also happens to be a werewolf and with a nice nod to the Universal horror films his real name is Ethan Lawrence Talbott. He and Vanessa are getting closer and if not for the circumstances would likely be together.
Victor Frankenstein is played by Harry Treadway. He lives a double life. He serves as medical consultant to the Sir Malcolm gathering, but he’s hiding another life from his friends. He has created two animated corpses. His first born has returned and killed his latest creation. As in the novel by Shelley, this monster demands a mate and murders anyone who appears to be interfering with Victor’s task. In the first season he has hurried along the demise of Chandler’s lover to gain a body to fulfill his creature’s demands.
Lily is that reanimated mate, and she’s played by Dr. Who companion Billie Piper. This is not the Bride of Frankenstein in the guise of Elsa Lancaster. She’s a manipulating creature with plans of domination of humans in her newly alive brain. Of course, she has no plans to become the mate of another creature. Instead she turns to another immortal creature.
Dorian Gray is that immortal creature. He’s played by Reeve Carney. I find him to be the absolutely least interesting character in the series. It appears his presence is mostly there to shock us with his various sexual exploits. Men or women or transvestites, it really doesn’t matter to Dorian. I find Carney’s performance to be entirely flat, and every time I see him the story is jarred from its path and I feel the show lets me down.
The Creature / Caliban / John Clare is played brilliantly by Rory Kinnear. I will always love Boris Karloff as the Monster in his appearances for Universal. There will always be a special place in my heart for him and those amazing performances. I find Kinnear to be just as amazing for different reasons. He is the closest to the Shelley character I believe I’ve seen portrayed on screen. Kinnear has a wonderful ability to play subtle emotion. He can sell the creature’s short span of years with a certain counter-intuitive worldliness and intellect that was very much the evolution of Shelley’s creation. He’s compelling and somewhat underused. Perhaps not really, but I find myself wanting more before a season ends.
The second season deals mostly with the coven attempting to deliver Vanessa to Satan. They are a creepy bunch who enchant souls through dolls. You want to talk unsettling? Those dolls do it for me. The series also deals with the Creature attempting to obtain a mate and Chandler coming to grips with what he is and avoiding the law both in London and America. The Creature also has an under-developed B story where he seeks work at a Waxworks only to find that the family that owns the place has nefarious plans for him.
If the series has a flaw at all, it can be found in the pacing. There are times that the story moves dreadfully slow and doesn’t always get to a point. Of course, these problems are usually tolerable because of the wonderful performances and terrific atmosphere. It only makes me think of what Logan could do if he tightened that a bit. This could be as close to a perfect show as I’ve seen if not for the pace issues and the Dorian Gray story. As it is they both take away from a show that is short as it is with only 10 episodes. You only had eight in Season 1, and it did feel a little tighter.
Classic horror fans will find many hidden and not-so-hidden tributes to the Universal and Hammer films. Frankenstein’s lab harks back quite a bit to the production design of James Whale. The local inspector sports a fake arm much as Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh from Son Of Frankenstein and of course spoofed in Mel Brooks’s own Young Frankenstein. The blind girl in the Waxworks could well be an homage to the good hermit in Bride Of Frankenstein.
There’s no question that with such solid performances, wonderful writing and excellent production design that this is one of the superior cable shows of the day. The only way to see it all is in high definition, so you’ll want to snatch up this Blu-ray release.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. Most of the time this is a solid high-definition image presentation. Colors are mostly muted, and the cold color temperature is almost monochromatic at times. Still there’s a tremendous amount of detail in this sharp image. The production design deserves that attention to detail, because there is a ton of detail to take in here. The problem is that there are moments when the image suddenly falls into distortion as if some kind of digital interference were at work. I suspect a fly in the ointment somewhere that needs terribly to be addressed.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is actually quite subtle. The dialog comes through perfectly. The score is actually a highlight of the show and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere. It’s the slight ambient sounds that give the show a hauntingly creepy sensation which is just perfect for the material.
The extras are a huge disappointment. The longest is only seven minutes, and the rest of the Production Logs and Character Profiles are often under two minutes. They make you work for every 90-second chunk, too. I don’t like having to have my remote constantly at hand just to get through 30 minutes of extras. A play-all is absolutely essential to make this worth my time.
We know many of these characters from either literature or the various Hollywood incarnations over the years. I’m fortunate enough to be a fan of both the films and the novels. It’s nice to see the two worlds brought so nicely together. There’s also the draw of the lurid comics that sprang from the pamphlets of the day. They sold quite well although few would admit to reading them. Perhaps that much hasn’t changed in over a century. “The thrill of the forbidden. There is nothing to match that.”