Before we get to the fun stuff, let’s talk a little history. A penny dreadful was a 19th century British pulp magazine, filled with serial fiction, often of the violent crime or adventure variety. A handful of recognizable characters originated in penny dreadfuls, the most famous being Sweeny Todd. (It’s also worth noting that “Varney The Vampire” is said to have been a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) While penny dreadfuls were often looked down upon as inferior literature, they were still widely read. Renowned author G.K. Chesterton (one of my all-time favorites) even touted the merits of penny dreadfuls, stating, “literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.”
There is more to say, however I am not the man to say it. It’s worth your time to dig into the history of the penny dreadful if you have the time. This is a good place to start. (At the bottom of that post, you will find links to download a couple penny dreadfuls, including “Varney The Vampire”.)
Let’s get to the TV show. The first episode is slated to run on Showtime on May 11. For those of us who hate waiting, they have posted the first episode in its entirety to YouTube yesterday. (You can watch it here.) As I stated, the good news is that we don’t have to wait until May 11 to watch the first episode. The bad news is that the second episode is running on May 18. Which means you can watch this first episode, then wait a few weeks until you can watch the second episode. The horror.
The first two episodes are directed by J.A. Bayona, best known for directing The Orphanage. Since I love The Orphanage, I was really excited to watch this episode. He did not disappoint. He is an expert at using space to create atmosphere and drive tension. There’s seems to be something hiding in every mist-filled doorway. Every bootscrape on cobblestone was that of a killer. One character mentioned Jack The Ripper, and I believed he was living in every scene.
The idea was to create a London that housed classic literary characters and monsters, yet still felt grounded in reality. “What would Victorian London look like if these characters actually existed?” Judging by this first episode, they nailed it. It moved along at a slow pace, which is to be expected. Setting the stage for this world is no small task.
Since it’s often easier for me to express my thoughts in a series of disjointed paragraphs, I present to you eight things I loved about the first episode of Penny Dreadful.
1. The cast is terrific. The most notable faces were Josh Hartnett (as Ethan Chandler), Timothy Dalton (as Sir Malcolm Murray) and Eva Green (as Vanessa Ives).
Josh Hartnett’s accent comes and goes, but I’m willing to give him a pass for now. I love his character. Timothy Dalton is his usual dashing, devious self. But it was Eva Green who really stood out here. Her face shows nothing but the secrets that are hiding behind it. She has the devil in her smile. I don’t know that I trust her, but I want to.
2. Big fan of Ethan wearing a fake mustache over a real mustache. “The people want bigger mustaches, and I much give them what they want.” And Ethan is a man who gives them what they want. Wink wink. Nudge nudge.
3. As usual, Dalton is terrific, and has some of the best lines. “Do not be amazed by anything you see. And don’t hesitate.” It sounded like something a sinister carnival barker (Tom Waits?) would say.
4. This exchange between Malcolm and Vanessa:
“Where are we going?”
“Amongst dead things.”
5. I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: this show looks amazing. Beyond the great overall look, there were some tremendous individual visuals. There’s a shot of Eva Green in a red dress standing in a foggy alley that was absolutely gorgeous.
But not all beauty is peaceful. In a scene reminiscent of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, we see an upside-down crucifix crawling with spiders. The beautiful and the terrifying mix perfectly here.
6. There was a really creepy scene involving a contorting vampire. I actually recoiled a bit and made an ugly noise.
7. Loved the guy who played Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). He was played with all the disdain for humanity of Peter Cushing. Well…maybe not quite as much disdain as Cushing. Not yet, anyway.
8. Frankenstein’s laboratory looked great. It wasn’t the large, spark-filled laboratory from Universal. It was small, populated by broken-down machines and bare wires running across the ceiling. It was the laboratory of a mad scientist with the income of a poet. I loved it.
I’m left with some questions. I don’t fully understand the rules of this world for those living in it. There’s a scene in which Malcolm, Vanessa and Ethan enter a lair of vampires. Ethan starts shooting vampires, who appear to die when being shot in the head. There is no mention of the bullets being anything other than regular bullets. Is that all it takes to kill vampires in this world? A bullet to the head? I like to know the rules of the world I’m watching. Hopefully they’ll flesh it out a bit more in future episodes.
I also had a bit of an issue with how they handled Ethan. In this first episode, there was quite a bit of hemming and hawing on his part as to whether he wanted to join Malcolm and Vanessa’s vampire-killing squad. We, the audience, already know that he’s going to join up with them. His indecision just feels like a waste of time. In a season with only 8 episodes, they can’t afford to be bogged down with superfluous storylines. It wasn’t a major misstep, but it’s worth keeping an eye on in the second episode.
Overall, I really loved this. It was a great set-up to the series. Clever writing. Great cast. Fantastic look and feel. And it combines some of my favorite things: Westerns, atmospheric horror and monsters.
I’m extremely excited to see where it goes from here. I just wish I didn’t have to wait until May 18.