A new twisted horror series by Showtime, network of bloody crime-drama Dexter, shows no mercy for a modern audience now acquainted with the profane themes of recent hit TV shows such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
Penny Dreadful is indeed a dreadful new production, but dreadful in the sense of it being completely creepy, shocking and therefore successful in what it sets out to do: scare 21st Century, desensitised television viewers.
From the outset Skyfall writer John Logan accomplishes his motive for creating the series–to bring horror into the living rooms of television audiences. With cinematography so dark it would impress Wally Pfister, and a quiet diegetic soundtrack to go with it, the tone is set for an ominous 50 minute-long premiere.
After a chilling 2-minute opening in which we adapt ourselves to the grisly 1890’s setting of backstreet Victorian London, Logan lets loose his first jumpy set-piece, and as the title-sequence roles he allows us the opportunity to brace ourselves for more surprises, or to go retrieve a paper bag to stop you hyperventilating.
We then meet Vanessa Ives, the female lead played by Eva Green who you’ll recognise as the Bond girl from Casino Royale. Vanessa is strange but seductive, and also very decisive. She’s a much hotter, creepier Sherlock Holmes and also happens to be a medium.
Vanessa approaches the charming 1800’s jock-type equivalent, Ethan Chandler, for some night work she needs fulfilled. Ethan tours the world as a famous gunslinger performing in shows and running from an unlawful past. He’s intrigued by the work Vanessa has to offer, but all he knows at this point is that he must be an effective sharpshooter quick to draw his weapon, and to not hesitate at anything frightful. Anything!
That night Ethan accompanies Vanessa into the sort of shady establishment in which even Jack the Ripper would become subject to abuse, and they meet Sir Malcolm Murray, an African explorer who we learn has lost his daughter to the ghoulish creatures that live in the depths of this mysterious, tarnished London.
The three Victorian avengers sink even deeper into the eeriness of the night by travelling underground into a den of these red-eyed sharp-toothed half-human contortionists. These are the type of vampiric monsters horror stories were originally based around before the new-age of beautiful, androgynous immortals that could audition for the latest Nivea face wash advert. These proper vampires were seriously creepy, and the sort that had taken Murray’s daughter from him.
After gunning each of these Nosferatu doppelgängers down, the protagonists head back to a secret lab with one of the corpses; a lab seemingly well-funded and one at which we realise a covert London is perhaps starting to learn the horror this city is home to.
A young, weedy doctor – paler than the vampire itself – teaches us that these creatures are ancient and foreign, which is confirmed by a French specialist who says they’re from the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, and suffer immortality and malédiction – a blood curse.
Malcolm, who is impressed by the work of the young doctor, asks him to join Vanessa and Ethan on a quest to uncover the mysteries of the dingy city. At first, he doesn’t oblige, but once Sir Malcolm assures that his investigation is not a game but of genuine sentimental nature to try and find his kidnapped daughter, the doctor is convinced into pursuing a career and life-long ambition of learning about the supernatural, under Malcolm’s employment.
The premiere concludes with an interesting turn of events hardly surprising if you pay close attention to the doctor’s character, but still as developmental and gripping to entice viewers to get their cushions and paper bags at the ready again for episode 2.
From start to finish, the pilot episode of Penny Dreadful delivered a thoughtful story full of terrifying ideas that indicates exactly where this show wants to go. It’s an innovative take on the horror genre, which relies on character development and story-telling to build up the drama. This is a welcoming approach now that gratuitous gore and violence seem to be more difficult for horror filmmakers to steer away from in the unimaginative 18-certificate movies that are now the unfortunate standard of Hollywood.
Although the show may rely on the timeless gothic tales of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, it does more than enough with these classics to construe and render a whole new vision appealing to a modern day television audience looking for the next big thrill.