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The world doesn’t need another psychosexual horror story, but if John Logan has an idea that revolves around classic characters like Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Van Helsing mixing with entirely new entities in Victorian London, we’ll have to make room.
Penny Dreadful, the very weird, enthralling, scary but mostly intriguing and entertaining new Showtime series from Logan, is an amalgamation that takes a genre and twists it, weaving in plenty of well-known characters from classic literature and subsequent horror films and allowing them to cohabitate in a world that’s curated by someone (Logan, the playwright behind Red and The Last Ship and screenwriter behind Skyfall, Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator and Rango) with a real appreciation for the origin stories and a vividly creative imagination with which to create an entirely new storyline. It’s like a comic book geek turned filmmaker or series creator who lovingly respects a property’s past and fan base but also realizes a reimagining is precisely what is best for all involved.
Penny Dreadful is an entirely new series that has familiar characters walk into the storyline but, thankfully, act in ways that haven’t been seen before. Familiarity should never trump originality. Logan doesn’t want viewers to know what’s coming next, based on what they’ve seen in the past.
The first character we meet in the show is American Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), who uses his marksmanship and exaggerated dramatics to regale the Brits with stories of the Wild West. In the crowd is Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a magnetic and mysterious medium who is clairvoyant, partly no-nonsense and partly, well, very troubled by evil things in her life. She enlists Ethan to assist her and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a noted British explorer, in finding the latter’s daughter, who has been taken by something very, very bad. Sir Malcolm believes he can save her and has worked with Vanessa to make a lot of headway exploring the demimonde — “a place rarely seen but felt” — in an effort to find her.
“To save her I would murder the world,” Sir Malcolm says. It’s a great line and Dalton gives gravitas to a series that, considering its subject matter, could easily be marginalized by viewers.
In many ways, Ethan is the audience’s stand-in. He’s got a secret past, but nothing as dark as what he’s about to discover. He’s just got a particularly handy skill. Once he takes Vanessa and Sir Malcolm up on their offer for a quick job, he’s given only this advice from the latter: “Do not be amazed at anything you see — and don’t hesitate.”
That’s actually sound advice when you’re carrying a gun and about to be freaked the hell out by what is actually beyond amazing. It’s a life-changing — and perhaps scarring — moment for Ethan, but he keeps his food and drink down and soldiers on, curious about the new depths of mystery and malice in the world.
“Who the f— are you people?” he asks, in precisely the same way anyone would after seeing what he does.
“Where are we going?” he asks at one point. The response? “Amongst dead things.”
Penny Dreadful, in the course of two episodes given to critics (the first is already available online), dredges up Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), the street-smart prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Sir Malcolm’s “sentry and confidante” Sembene (Danny Sapani).
Will others pop up? Sure, like Van Helsing. And, according to Logan, whatever character he can bring back in a truthful manner to mix with the new ones he’s created.
A genre series like Penny Dreadful — really a unique amalgamation — could have gone all kinds of wrong. But Logan, who has written each of the eight episodes, and director J.A. Bayona (who cements the overall look and feel of the series) keep things intriguing and fresh, fearful and entertaining. The characters are so vastly different from one another but mix well. For example, Hartnett’s American couldn’t be more in opposition to Treadaway’s very English Dr. Frankenstein, who is thankfully portrayed here as a brilliant and unafraid purist, not a mad scientist. It doesn’t take long before you can imagine these disparate men in a room together, working toward a common goal. And any worry about the future of Penny Dreadful storylines should be assuaged by how it handles Dr. Frankenstein’s fixation with bringing the dead back to life with a sewing kit, some ice and electricity. It’s a very touching, well-rendered examination of character, motivation and result that proves Logan has the creative wherewithal to deliver on his grand idea.
Although there were only two episodes made available, there was more than enough going on in Penny Dreadful to yearn for the final six — something that should do Showtime and Logan proud.
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