[Over the past year, Film Dispenser has provided recurring in-depth analysis of television series like The Killing, True Detective, Justified, Homeland, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. With so many new platforms offering original content (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) in addition to the networks we have already come to rely upon for quality programming (HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX), Film Dispenser has created a new column called Pass the Remote that will appear several times a month to provide reviews and analysis of television series that we will not be following on a week-to-week basis. Our goal is to help you make more efficient use of your viewing time. Let us watch the bad shows so that you don’t have to and allow us to pass along some suggestions for content we think you will enjoy.]
Kids these days have it so good. The children of the ‘80s lived in a television world devoid of any horror programming. Sure, there were the occasional re-runs of the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, and I remember one creepy episode of Fantasy Island where some guy playing a concert grand piano unexpectedly turns into a werewolf. But, you get the idea. Scary was not a staple of network or cable television thirty years ago.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the lay of the horror landscape on the small screen is drastically different. Viewers during the 2013-14 season could choose from The Walking Dead (AMC), American Horror Story (F/X), Dracula (recently cancelled by NBC), Hannibal (recently renewed by NBC) and other creepy fare. Violence, gore and adult themes abound for audiences who like to walk on the dark side for forty-five minutes each week.
In this somewhat horror-saturated environment, Showtime unveils its entry in the fright genre, Penny Dreadful, an eight-episode series featuring a paranormal League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In our politically-correct society, the League of Extraordinary Persons might be more accurate since Eva Green, who gives a take-no-prisoners performance as Vanessa Ives, a medium and exorcist of sorts, must not be overlooked. Set in 1891, Penny Dreadful presents us with a Victorian London where Dr. Frankenstein, his monstrous creation, Dorian Gray, and vampires breathe the same air. It’s a place where opium dens give way to rooms filled with eviscerated corpses that serve as vampire feeding grounds.
The London air is thick with tension. The city is recovering from Jack the Ripper’s recent murder spree. When vampire-mangled corpses are found, the citizens are abuzz with rumors that the infamous serial killer who was never apprehended or identified has returned to stalk their streets once again. Viewers may know that Jack the Ripper’s final victim, Mary Kelly, was murdered on November 9, 1888, but that is a historical perspective that the characters on Penny Dreadful do not have.
Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) is a scholar of the paranormal and an adventurer who has spent years in the shadows with things that go bump in the night. His interest in the supernatural is not born of academic curiosity or thrill-seeking. His daughter was abducted by a vampire as a child, and Sir Malcolm continues to search the darkest corners of London for her. With the assistance of Vanessa Ives and newly-recruited gunslinger, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), Sir Malcolm is a man on a mission, and nothing from this world or the underworld will deter him.
Elsewhere in London, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is experimenting with the reanimation of dead flesh. When he performs an unusual autopsy for Sir Malcolm, the kindred spirits seem to be a perfect match. However, Victor needs no distractions from his efforts bringing his “Creature” to life and rejects Sir Malcolm’s overtures to join his band of investigators.
Penny Dreadful is over-baked pulpy fun, much like the lurid paperback stories that give the show its title. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of a drama like Hannibal, but it doesn’t aspire to. The performances are uniformly excellent and take the genre material seriously, infusing the proceedings with more gravitas than you might expect. Even Josh Hartnett who frequently suffers from a kind of handsome blandness finds an interesting tone for his American mercenary who leaves his Wild West variety show to join forces with these British experts of the paranormal.
Penny Dreadful may be another show like HBO’s True Detective that benefits from a short mini-series style season. Earnest, self-important genre exercises can wear thin over time and border on camp over the course of a 20-plus episode season. Hit hard and don’t overstay your welcome seems to be the approach being taken by Penny Dreadful. And that approach just might work.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.