If you grew up in the century before boy wizards, magical wardrobes and CGI effects, you may have been into movie monsters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster, not to mention invisible men and creatures from black lagoons.
Hollywood – and especially Universal Studios – made a fortune pumping out these black-and-white gems and, in the process, making stars out of bit players like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.
Universal couldn’t keep telling the same story over and over again, so eventually, it started putting various monsters together in the same films, something that John Logan replicates in his new Showtime series, Penny Dreadful, premiering Sunday night.
Just as Universal gave us Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, Logan gives us vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, allusions to the return of Jack the Ripper and heaven knows what else beyond the two Penny Dreadful episodes sent to critics for review.
Make that “hell only knows,” because the captivating series, set in London in 1891, is giddily awash with blood and gore, not to mention steamy sex.
The original penny dreadfuls were pulp fiction magazines printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny each in Victorian London. But the idea of credibility-defying melodrama wasn’t unique to London or to the time period, for that matter. In one form or another, tall tales have always been a staple of popular literature.
Cheap melodrama is gloriously intact in Penny Dreadful, as a rich London nobleman, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill), and his icy, mysterious companion, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire), recruit a hard-drinking American sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, The Virgin Suicides) to help them rescue Murray’s daughter from the clutches of a group of vampires living underground. Chandler, who ekes out a living as a Buffalo Bill wannabe, has nothing else to do, so he signs up.
After a bloody confrontation with the vamps, Murray and company wind up with the body of a kind of vampire king and enlist the aid of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, The Lone Ranger) to find out what makes the guy tick. Slicing him open like a ripe casaba melon, they find Egyptian hieroglyphics scratched into a kind of insect-like exoskeleton.
What Murray, Ives and Chandler don’t know is that Dr. F. has a little hobby going on in a back room, assembling various body parts into a reanimated human being. Sort of like a flesh and blood fixer-upper. He comes up with a rather sweet-natured, timid man named Proteus (Alex Price, Doctor Who) who is instantly devoted to his new “master” as a puppy would be to a new owner. In other words, no one’s idea of a “monster.”
The second episode ends with a total shocker, but before it does, we meet Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and Mrs. Ives displays truly frightening skills at communing with the spirit world.
Melodrama and tall tales may seem antithetical to the cynicism of our modern age, but perhaps that’s the very reason we seek it out, in film and on TV. From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, our minds are actively open to believing in the unbelievable.
That said, even a TV take on the classic Victorian-era penny dreadful has to work to suspend our disbelief, and Showtime’s series does that through solid performances by most of the cast, appropriately lurid special effects and a competent, albeit humorless, script.
The only significant misstep is in the casting of Hartnett as the American. He’s obviously a competent actor, but often, he can be a rather vague presence in films. We don’t quite connect with him, and it’s especially noticeable against the florid setting and melodramatic performances of the rest of the cast. Rather than providing a credibly calm center, Hartnett seems to have wandered in from another series by accident.
Green, on the other hand, all but devours the scenery, and that’s very much in the spirit of the series – pun intended, especially in her grotesquely magnetic seance scene in the second episode.
As excessive as the show is in places, it does take itself too seriously. Fact is, over-the-top horror often works more effectively when leavened by humor, macabre or otherwise. That’s why Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story is so good. For that matter, it’s one of the many reasons Showtime’s Dexter was so brilliant.
But what about that gore? Is it ever too much? Actually, not at all. There are any number of shows on TV – The Following, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, to name three – that are more gruesome. But Penny Dreadful proves that sometimes at least, nothing succeeds like excess.
9 p.m. Sunday