PENNY DREADFUL (2014): Episodes 1 -3 Review
For the people who are followers of this site, you both know that I am not a fan of horror. I have my reasons, but mostly the genre just doesn’t appeal to me much, despite some very good horror innovations in film lately, or so I’m told. Recently though, a new Showtime series combines hearty elements of the horror genre, with supernatural concepts, but best of all… mashes them all up with iconic Literary characters from Victorian England. Imagine a LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN in a weekly Series format, with better performances, but still a former Bond leading the pack.
3 Episodes in and PENNY DREADFUL still remains a mystery regarding what the show is truly about. What we know so far, is that renowned explorer Sir Malcolm’s daughter has gone missing. Last Sunday’s episode revealed that she was involved with a mysterious man / creature, who has now made her his slave. To rescue her, Malcolm must delve knee deep into the supernatural world of terrors in order to get his daughter back. As a means to this end, Malcolm recruits a hired mercenary, played by Josh Hartnett along with his daughter’s friend, and his gateway into the supernatural world, Miss Vanessa Ives, played to perfection by Eva Green. The most interesting of characters though, is the recruitment of a young doctor, an anatomy expert, who doesn’t even blink when the above mentioned team brings him the body of a vampire-like creature with Egyptian hieroglyphics imprinted inside his skin. Later it is immediately revealed why his reaction is less surprise and more intrigue. This young doctor is none other than Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the legendary monster itself. The inclusion of the younger version of this literary doctor, is really what focuses the interest in this show, as one of its sub plots thus far is the origin tale of the good doctor… and his works.
The cast is remarkable, which makes PENNY DREADFUL, that much more exciting to watch. Timothy Dalton is Sir Malcolm, who exhibits immense grief at losing his daughter to an unknown fate, and his passions to retrieve her captures the audience right away in the first Episode. Dalton is remarkable so far in every delivery, every line of dialogue uttered with such gravitas that leaves one in awe of his presence. Accompanying him is the just as intense Eva Green, whose connection to the supernatural world, as well as the outburst and possession by spirits that come with it, are stunning to watch. Green is able to pull you in with one look, never quite revealing anything about how she can see what she sees, not that Sir Malcolm cares at all. Josh Hartnett is one of my favorite underrated actors, so it’s great to see him as the American of the bunch, and just as rough around the edges too. Playing a no-good mercenary with amazing aim, Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler is baffled by the supernatural goings on, but agrees to stay with the group due to the need of finances.
Unlike other shows, which introduce the characters individually, then has them and their separate storylines converge together, PENNY DREADFUL is working the other way. After meeting everyone as part of a supernatural showdown, Episode 2 splits the characters up and shows us their separate stories. Sir Malcolm & Vanessa attend a party where a self-proclaimed psychic is present as a party favor for the guests. However, due to Vanessa’s connection to the otherworldly, she becomes possessed and displays an amazing scene of hysteric freaky-ness. It becomes revealed that the creature they are hunting, may be none other than Amun-Ra, an Egyptian God looking to destroy the world, or something. Together with his mate, Amotep, the two will bring carnage and destruction to the human world. A colleague of Malcolm’s even suggests that Vanessa may be the reincarnated form of Amotep herself, causing Malcolm to use her as bait in Episode 3 while trying to rescue his daughter. This pair is the most mysterious of the bunch. We assume that Vanessa is a friend of Mina, Malcolm’s daughter, but we know nothing else beyond that. During the possessed freak out, there are mentions of a dead son, some inappropriate sexual conduct, and other vague rumblings that have yet to be explained.
In the meantime, Dr. Frankenstein has given birth to his legendary creature, aptly named Proteus, who he is teaching the ways of life slowly. It’s an amazingly well done and almost sweet experience to see what we thought of as a monster, take on a childlike avatar, while connecting to Frankenstein in a loving manner. Episode 2 revels in this emotional bond, and is another example of the show’s amazing storytelling capabilities thus far. In one episode, we connect to, sympathize for and end up truly feeling for Proteus, as he learns to speak, emote and connect to his ‘father’. Making it that much more devastating when he is brutally murdered by another creature, who then proclaims to Frankenstein that ‘your first born has returned’.
Episode 3 further awesomizes an already awesome concept, as we learn of Frankenstein’s first monster, creating a true origin story for both father and son. Being Frankenstein’s first attempt at re-animating life, the creature tells his story of abandonment as flashbacks show how Victor left him writhing in pain moments after the creature achieved consciousness, due to fear and astonishment at his achievement. Having to survive and learn of the world for himself, on his own, the creature has experiences that shape his outlook on the world, all the while resenting his creator. Catching up to him now, the brutality the creature had for his father is evident, and he knows of only one way for Frankenstein to make it up to him; by creating an immortal mate for him to love and be with. Even Victor Frankenstein is given an introductory origin, to further humanize the demon-creating Doctor. Being close to his mother, and loving life, the young boy is faced with death as his mother becomes ill and slowly dies in front of him. Thereby invoking an intrigue in the young Frankenstein to research death, and find a way to undo it. It’s naive and cliché, but it’s straight to the point and effective. Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s creature is a gorgeous actor, who is able to invoke fear, pity and sympathy the entire time he is on screen in his debut on this show. It’s brilliant.
This mashup of horror, supernatural and literature works beautifully as it goes full tilt with the gore, creature features and over all mystery of story… but holds back on the novelty elements, like introducing too many well known characters or revealing their connections too soon. The genius behind the show is the experiment of crude and gory horror and supernatural elements, juxtaposed with the flowery romantic setting of Victorian England with the novelty of these ironically fictional character, being fleshed out, and in through the course of the show.