The show has already succeeded in making vampires scary again.
If one was to judge Penny Dreadful on its premise alone, it would appear to be generic in the extreme. Since the days of The Twilight Zone, the genre of supernatural horror has served as the basis for many popular television dramas. Supernatural and True Blood continue to be successful programmes, despite the cultural craze for vampire-related fiction having somewhat died down in recent years. The premise of Penny Dreadful seems almost blasé, a latecomer to genre TV. After the lukewarm reception of NBC’s Dracula TV series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it could even be seen as something of a risk on the part of Showtime Television. Set in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, Penny Dreadful focuses on a small cadre of societal outsiders brought together by the mysterious explorer known only as Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton). Sir Malcolm’s goal is to find and cure his daughter; a young woman who has been transformed into a monstrous creature of the night. Night Work, the pilot episode, introduces Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler; a Buffalo Bill-style American entertainer touring Victorian London. Being a man of considerable gun-slinging ability, he is quickly offered bodyguard work by an enigmatic spiritualist named Vanessa Ives (a perfectly-cast Eva Green). Curious about the unusual Ms Ives, Chandler agrees to escort her into the dark underbelly of London. Inside a blood-drenched charnel house, Chandler, Ives and Sir Malcolm are brought face to face with a terrifying being. The episodes’ subplot concerns Sir Malcolm attempting to recruit a young doctor (Harry Treadaway) to his crusade. Though the doctor’s name is kept a secret until the final scene of the episode, any viewer even slightly familiar with horror fiction will guess immediately which famous mad scientist Treadaway is playing.
Perhaps what is most appealing about Penny Dreadful’s pilot episode is its sincerity. There is no hint of irony or satire about the proceedings. Unlike NBC’s Dracula, which seemed uncomfortable with its Victorian setting and almost embarrassed of its source material, Penny Dreadful embraces its namesake. The show’s creators have unashamedly striven to capture the gothic melodrama of Victorian horror fiction, blending it with the hammy kitsch of 70s British horror movies. What results is a programme that revels in its own silliness. A programme that embraces the gothic horror narrative, tone and aesthetic with little concern for whether or not it is “relevant” to modern audiences. In NBC’s Dracula, the Nineteenth Century setting was part of the trappings, barely relevant beyond the costumes and sets. A no point did the setting of Dracula feel like the Victorian London described by Bram Stoker. Thanks in no small part to high production values and an impressive attention to detail, the London of Penny Dreadful feels both historically accurate and remarkably atmospheric.
Similarly impressive are the performances from each of the main players, though each actor has a certain unfair advantage. There is no casting against type afoot here: Timothy Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm with the cold intensity that is expected of a Timothy Dalton character. Eva Green is in equally familiar territory as the snarky yet deeply tragic Vanessa (identical to many of her film roles from the last decade). Josh Hartnett is the perfect brave but not-terribly-bright everyman that can serve the role of “audience surrogate”; asking the questions and probing the mysteries that the viewers themselves want resolved. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the show’s creators selected the cast and then conceived of the characters they’d be playing. Even Danny Sapani completely excels in his small but memorable role as Sembene, Sir Malcolm’s African companion and a piercing reminder of Britain’s colonial past (it seems very likely that Penny Dreadful will often compare Victorian British society’s sins with those of the bloodsucking villains). Harry Treadaway is maybe a little too histrionic at times: a speech his character gives about the futility of science is delivered with such melodramatic gusto that is comes close to being a little too absurd. But even this over-the-top proselytising does not detract from the enjoyment of the episode because it is perfectly in keeping with the established tone.
Praise should also be handed to the shows’ special effects dept. for managing to create one of the most terrifying and interesting depictions of a vampire ever shown on television. After a short combat sequence with Buffy-esque humanoid vampires (with distractingly anachronistic haircuts), the viewer is put into a false sense of ease; the vampires of Penny Dreadful seem disappointingly human and non-threatening. At which point, that which can only be described as a proper vampire lurches onto the screen. Created entirely with prosthetic makeup and forced perspective camera techniques, the vampire monster is only on screen for a few seconds and yet is the most memorable visual in the pilot. One can only hope that all of the show’s monsters are as effective.
There is little to discuss about what doesn’t work in this episode. It can’t be criticised for its bombastic dialogue or unnecessary gore because these elements are intentional on the part of the show’s creators. There is a brief sex scene that feels somewhat unneeded and out of place, especially when the show’s intention seems to be to capture the essence of a gothic horror story. Sex in such source material appears only metaphorically (such as vampirism itself). Also, the final scene of the episode is very disappointing. It is supposed to be the culmination of all that the episode has burned into the audiences’ mind; a dark and graphic sequence to set the tone for future episodes. The scene is also an adaptation of one of the most famous sequences in the history of British Literature (indeed, in the history of fiction). Yet it feels rushed and very underwhelming. Not helped is the fact that it is in this scene that Treadaway reveals his character’s name as if it is meant to still be a shocking surprise – this is insulting to the intelligence of the audience. These are, however, small imperfections in what is arguably one of the strongest pilot episodes for any genre show in recent years. Whether or not future episodes will be able to match its promise is yet to be seen.
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