The monster mash-up dates back as far as 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which revived the fortunes of the flagging Universal monster cycle. House Of Frankenstein and House Of Dracula soon followed, and the inevitable descent into self-parody culminated with Abbott and Costello meeting Frankenstein and friends in every conceivable combination. More recently, Van Helsing reunited the old Universal gang to generally disastrous effect, while Alan Moore masterminded the Victorian-era team-up The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, whose members included Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man. All of which is to say that, no, this new Showtime series from creator/writer John Logan and producer Sam Mendes does not have the freshest possible premise. Combining monsters and other legendary characters from Gothic literature is not a new idea, but it’s still potentially a good idea, depending on the execution. With its premiere episode “Night Work,” Penny Dreadful is off to a promising start.
Set in 1891 London, the series posits a creepy Victorian underworld populated by characters from Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture Of Dorian Gray. (Mary Shelley’s creation predates this era by some 70 years, but that precedent’s been set by countless prior screen incarnations of Frankenstein. The odd one out here is Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would have been the more obvious choice, but the parallels with Extraordinary Gentlemen are already too close for comfort.) The stranger in this strange land, and our identification figure, is Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a sharpshooter with a Wild West show passing through London. Chandler plans to move on with the show to Paris after enjoying a quickie behind his wagon with an admirer, but mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has other plans for him.
Ives recruits Chandler for the titular night work, and along with explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), they descend into a subterranean chamber of horrors beneath an opium den. It turns out to be a vampire nest piled high with victims in various stages of decay, but while Murray is able to stake one of the bloodsuckers, the object of his search has already fled the scene. (His identity is easily guessed; whether Dracula himself actually turns up this season is harder to predict since Logan has promised only “characters” from Bram Stoker’s novel.)
It would be a hard-hearted horror fan whose pulse didn’t quicken when Murray and company bring their vampire corpse to be studied by a young anatomist who can be none other than Victor Frankenstein. (The show plays it coy until the episode’s final line, but come on; anyone who couldn’t guess his identity by then probably isn’t watching Penny Dreadful in the first place.) By episode’s end, Frankenstein’s monster is alive (and surprisingly vulnerable), the vampire corpse’s hieroglyphic tattoos have been identified as a curse from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (a mummy vampire?), and Jack the Ripper may be on the loose again (but probably not).
It sounds like a lot, but never feels like too much. (Series regulars Billie Piper as Brona Croft and Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray aren’t even introduced in the premiere.) In my worst case scenario, Penny Dreadful would be an overstuffed package dripping with cheesy digital effects, but it never comes close to that. Compared to the baroque stylization of Hannibal or the lurid, often campy excess of American Horror Story, there’s a classical element to the show’s pacing and atmosphere. With its cobblestone streets, fog-shrouded alleys, and sumptuously appointed halls of power, it draws most heavily on the Hammer films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but what’s fun about the show is how it mixes and matches different eras of horror. There’s a touch of ’70s grindhouse in the crime scene of the family slaughter, and J-horror in our introduction to Vanessa Ives, first seen kneeling in whispery prayer, framed in such a way as to appear headless.
Hartnett hits the expected reluctant-hero beats as Chandler (although the episode hints at secrets yet to be exposed.), and he’s got the look and demeanor of the displaced Western gunslinger down pat. Dalton fits snugly into the time-honored horror tradition of the older, respectable British actor lending a touch of gravitas to the proceedings. Green is appropriately enigmatic in the early going, but her eyes are big and expressive enough to draw you in every time she’s onscreen. If Penny Dreadful is to succeed as an emotionally-engaging narrative and not just a clever collection of classic horror references, much of the burden will fall to this cast, and the early returns are promising. When we’ve forgotten all about comparisons to Alan Moore and House of Frankenstein, we’ll know Penny Dreadful has taken on a life of its own.
- I’m sure I’m not the first to note this, but what the hell: Penny Dreadful’s cast includes both a James Bond (Dalton) and a Bond girl (Green). Different eras, sure, but amusing nonetheless.
- Murray’s daughter is Mina, as in Mina Harker from Dracula, who also happens to be the leader of Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Moore also wrote From Hell, a dark Victorian saga about Jack the Ripper. Then again, Moore was influenced by, among others, Philip Jose Farmer, who mashed up literary characters in books like The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. All of these characters are fair game, but here’s hoping Sherlock Holmes doesn’t join the crowd. Television is already Sherlock-ed out. (Besides, Vanessa displays a Holmesian touch in her initial read of Chandler.)