There are horror films and shows that make you cringe because they’re so predictably bad, roll your eyes at their reliance on cheap “boo” moments, laugh because they’re campy, and make even the most hardcore horror fan squee with delight at their sophisticated creepiness. “Penny Dreadful” falls into the latter category. In spades.
(Here come the spoilers.)
Where does one begin with such delicious and stylish horror? Well, style I suppose. You can’t go wrong with Victorian London for a time frame loaded with lush wardrobe and sets, although thankfully they keep it pretty raw here and not too pretty. But there is definitely plenty of substance to this exercise in style, as well.
First of all, to be able to weave together so many elements of classic horror stories — and some Jack the Ripper for good measure — is a feat in itself. Yet, most of the pilot retained a refreshing originality in the writing, except I did sense a bit of homage to “The Last Samurai” in the introduction of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) as a drunken performer putting on wild west sideshows. And you can see where the vampire styling references “Nosferatu,” although these vampires are a hell of a lot scarier — one has to wonder if the creators were inspired by “30 Days of Night,” which starred Hartnett.
Do not expect anything sexy here. Or glittery, thank god.
But the real treat are the wonderful performances. Many previous films and shows seem to go for over the top dialogue in Victorian London- based stories (see the dreadful “Dracula” series which this show crushes under it’s pointy Victorian boot), but the actors maintain a wonderful subtlety here. With Hartnett, this is no surprise as it’s kind of his calling card — some have called his acting leaden, but regardless of what camp you’re in on that count, his approach serves the role well here. But the rest of the cast follows suit in some degree or another in keeping it real, as they say, including an absolutely stunning, moving scene at the end of the pilot as Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his newly born creation (Rory Kinnear) discover each other, with almost no dialogue.
And oh, by the way, Kinnear performs in full frontal nudity, the only nudity in the pilot of what has promised to be a very erotic, sexy series. So for once, someone decided to take care of us ladies first.
But anyway, while those performances are all good to stellar, it was Eva Green as Vanessa Ives who really knocked it out of the park. She can go from darkly beautiful to very scary in a heartbeat, particularly when she goes into one of her medium trances. And she makes prayer and giving a tarot card reading far more sinister than most could.
And let me tell you, she may be all dolled up in the prim fashions of the era, but when she steps between Ethan and the Master Vampire, she makes you believe she can stop him dead in his tracks. Miss Green can turn on the scary, for reals.
“Penny Dreadful” is off to a great start, weaving the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula and Jack the Ripper together, with Dorian Gray to come, as well has a hint of Mummy legends, and do I detect a Wolfman mythology coming?
If you love your horror camp-free and salty, with a healthy serving of bloody and sexy, and actually, you know, scary, “Penny Dreadful” is anything but dreadful, and worth a pretty penny indeed.
“Penny Dreadful” airs Sunday nights on Showtime at 10 p.m. Check out a preview clip of Episode 2 below.