It’s the 1800’s and the search for scientific truth keeps triggering social angst about the unknown, about dabbling the affairs of God, and is often overtaken by the public’s delight in the awful, the macabre and the sensational. It’s no coincidence that at The British Royal Academy, the foundations of the modern scientific era are being discovered while simultaneously criminals like Burke and Hare, the precursors of Jack the Ripper, are gaining infamy as violent sexual predators in the dark alleys of London.
Books such as Mary Shelley‘s ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus’ are the talk of the town and the newsagent is selling papers that are far more akin to ‘The National Enquirer’ than ‘The London Times’. Those slim 16-page newspapers feature stories designed to shock and titillate the public, episodic serials known as Penny Dreadfuls. In later years, stories such as Sherlock Holmes would find their first audiences through a similar serial publishing approach, but not yet. Not yet. In the 1800s it’s seemingly all about death and torture.
That’s the inspiration for the terrific, creepy and most assuredly child unfriendly new Showtime series ‘Penny Dreadful.’ Splattered with gore and set in opium parlors and private men’s clubs, the series brings us a moody London that’s not for the faint of heart. The prim and proper Victorians stayed in their parlors and had tea, but below their homes was a swirling maelstrom of danger, a cesspool of the worst that society had to offer, a great evil lurking.
The show focuses on American cowboy and ne’er-do-well entertainer Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), who is hired by the beautiful, but forbidding and mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to help with something “most unagreeable”. They meet up in the basement of an opium den with renowned explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who tells Chandler “do not be amazed by anything you see, and do not hesitate” just before they travel further down and encounter a terrifying pack of vampires, surrounded by piles of dead bodies.
Sir Murray, we learn, seeks to rescue his daughter, who he believes has vanished into the clutches of a vampire. When they kill a particularly gruesome monster, they drag the body to a local mortuary for closer examination. The resurrection men prep ill-gotten corpses for medical schools, but they’re too busy to do the autopsy so Murray is directed to a young medical student known for his unorthodox methods. The student is convinced that by studying death he can learn the secret to life.
He is dismissive of Murray and his body until noticing the strange markings on the corpse’s skin, at which point he becomes quite interested as it’s clearly not human. Most assuredly not human, he finds as he begins his post-mortem analysis. Overtaken by curiosity, the doctor becomes part of the group seeking to find Murray’s daughter, though for his own reasons entirely. His name is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).
Further into the series other famous Victorian horror characters will also show up, including Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Brona Croft (Billie Piper) and a character whose name isn’t even disclosed in the production notes, but will be played by Rory Kinnear. Who could it be?
With evocative sets and splendid production design, ‘Penny Dreadful’ is off to a great start. It’s definitely scary. There are some scenes that are quite gruesome but in at least one case the production team resorts to an awkward horror film trope of quickly playing a frightening scene multiple times from different camera angles.
The overall feel of the show is spot-on and if you’re a fan of the macabre, you’re in for a treat with the new ‘Penny Dreadful’. I know I’ll be watching as it progresses…
Tip: You can watch the first episode in its entirety below!