Rise of the House of Dread
An Appreciation of the Showtime Original Series Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is the Saturday Creature Feature television series you didn’t even know you were craving. Combining the tales of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman and Dorian Grey, Showtime and Sky hid out in their laboratory and cobbled together this shiny new creature from the pages of the greatest characters the world has ever known. It is Monster Squad for adults…or A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for the binge watching crowd. Either way, the series is probably one of the best things on television, with high production values and stellar acting you just don’t find in a genre series, especially a horror series.
On paper, the idea of revisiting these familiar characters seems a little dreary; we’ve definitely had our fill of Dracula and Frankenstein films over the years. Both characters top the lists of most remakes and sequels ever, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Hell, filmmakers are even remaking the porno versions of the remakes of the films, and when that happens, you know you’ve hit that saturation point. And now, there’s another series about these characters?
“Again?” you may ask yourself. “Are you serious?” Yes, they’re serious, and that’s why you really need to watch it.
Timothy Dalton stars as Sir Malcolm Murray, father of the doomed Mina Murray of Dracula fame. Mina’s friend, Vanessa Ives, played by the always stunning Eva Green, is the heroine of the series. Joined by Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadway), and an American gunslinger named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), this motley crew of monster hunters do just that; they hunt monsters, demons, vampires, witches and other things that go bump in the night.
It’s very easy to see how this just shouldn’t work. On paper, it sounds so familiar. Except, in the hands of scribe John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis, Skyfall, Spectre), these familiar characters, when combined with some fresh and exciting new characters, come to life in ways you just can’t imagine. We all know the stories of these famous monsters, we’ve seen and read these tales time and time again, but when these iconic characters take a backseat in the world of characters that are fresh and new to us, the story changes. And no, the monsters aren’t mere window dressing here, it’s just that we get to see them in a somewhat different light within the world of these new characters, and the story becomes organic. It evolves from the familiar into something that we really haven’t seen before.
Vanessa Ives leads these stories. She is the most haunted of characters, played with subtle scene-stealing charm by the incomparable Eva Green. Vanessa’s best friend, Mina, is missing and presumed dead. Taken in as a ward by Mina’s father, Vanessa relies on her faith to guide her in world that grows more dangerous with every passing day. Vanessa’s own heritage and back-story brings a new threat every time she interacts with the world. Miss Green, who could simply just stand there looking as beautiful as ever and never utter a word, instills Vanessa with a life rarely seen in a television series; a victim but never victimized, a reluctant heroine who protects the ones she loves because she has to. She insists on sharing the suffering of those she cares about, and for that, viewers just can’t help but to love her.
As strong as Eva Green is in this series, her supporting cast is equally adept. Timothy Dalton is seen here in rare form as Sir Malcolm Murray, a man driven by this work, and now, by his need to stop the very same forces that attacked his daughter Mina. Rory Kinnear (Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre) is Frankenstein’s creation, or at least one of them, and captures the pathos and anger of the creature in a way that is usually skimmed over in other productions. Contrast that performance against Harry Treadway’s (Honeymoon) narcissistic, self-destructive Victor Frankenstein and we find it very easy to sympathize with the creature’s struggles for acceptance and normalcy. Rounding out the main cast is American actors Reeve Carney and Josh Hartnett as Dorian Gray and Ethan Chandler respectively. Carney plays Gray perfectly, oozing sophisticated decadence smooth like melted butter while Hartnett’s performance has never been stronger, displaying an intelligent tough guy with heart who is as haunted as the woman he’s sworn to protect. Add Simon Russell Beale as a flamboyant Egyptologist and the ravishing Billie Piper (Doctor Who) as a damaged prostitute who becomes the obsession of both Victor Frankenstein and his creation, and you have one of the best and exciting ensemble casts for a television series dealing with monsters that’s ever been created.
So what makes this show dealing with these monsters so damn good? The story, for starters. It’s personal, and the stakes are high. When people get hurt, they are seriously hurt, they even die. The plotline is unpredictable yet logical, and no matter how far-fetched the concepts may be, you’ll always sit back in wonder at the devious things these characters do to one another. The attention to detail is so high, and the acting so top-notch, there is no way you can dismiss this as a fluke, or a one-hit wonder. The people involved with this show actually care about what they’ve created, and it shows.
Considering the recent news that Universal Studios is planning on reinventing their famous monsters in a shared universe where they interact with one another on a regular basis through several remake films, Penny Dreadful sets the benchmark very high. It is very doubtful Universal Studio’s return to their horror roots in some kind of quasi-shared universe roster of future projects will be able to capture any of the magic Showtime and Sky have done with this exceptional television series.
Viewers looking for such an interaction with the famous monsters they love so much can find their heart’s desire currently preparing for a third season. Showtime is easy to get now without a cable provider, and of course there are DVD and Blu-ray box-sets of seasons one and two to tide you over until the monsters reconvene to face one another, and evil, once again. If you’re looking for something fresh and inventive in a horror television series, you can do no wrong with Penny Dreadful, it’s the Monster Mash you didn’t even know you needed.