Thanks to The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, network executives are more obsessed with horror than ever before, green-lighting an endless stream of new scare-driven shows that vary in actual quality. For every Hannibal, there’s a clunker like ABC’s rightfully cancelled 666 Park Avenue, or The CW’s promising but horribly executed Cult.
The suits at Showtime are hoping they’ve got a scary-good hit on their hands with Penny Dreadful, the 19th-century-set monster mash premiering tonight at 10 P.M. EST. Think Scooby Doo in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman’s universe. Josh Hartnett, back from a self-imposed sabbatical away from Hollywood, stars as American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, a conning showman who’s recruited by enigmatic Englishwoman Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to help she and her boss, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), take down the kinda-sorta vampires with Egyptian ties terrorizing the streets of London. Also down with their clique: Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), taken right out of Mary Shelley’s classic horror fiction novel and secretly creating his Frankenstein’s monster (Rory Kinnear) at home.
Sounds like a monster-ific hoot, right? Well, as it turns out, Penny Dreadful (created by Hugo and Skyfall screenwriter John Logan) is as self-serious as it is gorgeously designed and strongly acted. But is that dry, stone-faced tone a deal-breaker? Here, Complex senior staff writer Matt Barone and deputy editor Justin Monroe discuss Penny Dreadful’s premiere episode and its fresh take on old-fashioned horror.
Justin Monroe: I had concerns about Penny Dreadful going in. I heard from [Complex senior video director] Jonathan Lees that many people told him it was campy, then you contradicted that and said the pilot took itself too seriously. I was pleased to discover that it's not campy much at all, and I feel like the seriousness of it works. If it were a campy mash-up of Victorian monsters, it might feel like True Blood as period drama. Which I didn't need in my life.
Matt Barone: Yeah, that was my reaction out of SXSW, but when I watched the pilot for a second time, I liked it much more. It helps that I'd just watched Salem’s pilot, which is ineffectively campy, rather cheesy, and horribly miscast. Penny Dreadful, though, bothered me because, initially, the pilot seemed like too much world-building and not enough indication about what kind of genre show it'd become. As in, will it play fast and loose with its classic monsters and characters, or reinvent them creatively? The second time, though, I settled into the rhythm of it and picked up on more of the mythology it's trying to develop.
It's not unlike True Detective so far, in how it's being patient and setting things up for what will hopefully be the crazy horror extravaganza those early previews hinted at.
Justin: I especially like that the period feels accurate. One of the things that bothers me most about Salem, now that you mention it, is that the protagonist has the verbiage and snark of a modern-day show like Sons of Anarchy. It seems intended to make him a badass but derails the whole show for me. The characters on Penny Dreadful fit the aesthetic well.
Matt: Definitely. If there's one thing Penny Dreadful really nails, it's the details and vibes of its 19th-century setting. It really feels lived-in and authentic, and the characters, save for Josh Hartnett's American, feel real to this world.
Justin: The first episode didn't completely win me over but it did enough to intrigue me. Episode two blew me away. We can discuss specifics of that another time but I will say that the Frankenstein plot line is one of the best, in my opinion, as is the introduction of Dorian Gray.
I connected with the pilot’s Frankenstein moment far more than I did the vampiric element of the pilot, so it worked for me. And where John Logan takes that Frankenstein relationship in the next episode is quite impactful. Is there a more tragic story than Frankenstein? I felt all sorts of sympathy and dread right from the introduction.
Matt: Yeah, it's definitely the pilot's most effective moment. The big fight scene with Hartnett/Dalton vs. the vampires (or whatever they are) in the pilot, though, doesn't work for me at all. It reminds me of NBC's Dracula, where Dracula's kung-fu fighting people on rooftops and going against the Victorian, Gothic aesthetic. Penny Dreadful works best when it's going for a mixture of emotion and the creep factor; I hope it stays away from underground brawls throughout the rest of the season.
Justin: Thus far, Logan's weaving together of these Victorian horror stories appears to be headed down a very enjoyable path. Again, with all the shitty mash-ups out there, this could have been a nightmare for entirely different reasons. But I am concerned about Hartnett...
Matt: Hartnett's naturally not that charismatic, and so far he's basically just being Josh Hartnett in older clothing. And he's also surrounded by some great actors giving excellent performances, namely my girl Eva Green. No actress does "mounting hysteria" quite like her.
Justin: My gut tells me he's [Harnett] going to wind up being a certain famous monstrosity and I'm concerned because his inner turmoil hasn't touched me the ways other characters' have, likely because, as you say, he lacks the charisma of his cast mates. (This very same issue is what prevents 30 Days of Night from being a flawless horror movie, to me.) Speaking of his talented co-stars, it's pleasing to see Timothy Dalton again, and in a role with gravitas. His search for his daughter soon takes on some marvelously fucked up elements, and you know that, like the vampire creature with the hieroglyph skin, there is much darkness lurking underneath all these characters.
Matt: As the poster's tagline says, "There is some THING in us all." I think my initial problem with the show came from reading its concept and thinking, "Wow, this could be a really fun Monster Squad kind of thing, horror's own The Avengers." But it's not that. It's not going for popcorn entertainment, and now that I've seen two episodes, I really appreciate that.
Justin: Yeah, totally. That's what I meant by the True Blood quality I feared. Monster Squad is tremendous but I don't think this should have attempted to be that, especially given the period. We've gotten some of that from the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes flicks anyway, and I'd much rather this series be something like the better version of From Hell but with more monsters than just Jack the Ripper. (If you haven't watched Monster Squad, stop what you're doing—now that you've given us your page view—and go peep it. Classic “nard” humor.)
Sidenote: I mentioned Alan Moore's Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell, which the Hughes Bros. made into a less-than-perfect movie, and it occurs to me that Penny Dreadful feels a bit like the spirit of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was also ruined in film version, gotten right.
I'm pleased with Logan's atmospheric and tonal choices. You may have read more on this than I to say, but as far as the plot and there being something to look forward to, I get the sense that all of these Victorian horror elements ultimately add up to something new, so you won't feel like watching Penny Dreadful is akin to having all those classic monster movies you know by heart playing on five different TV sets at the same time. What is the evil that creates all of these monsters? I'd like to know. And I think we will.
Matt: From what I've read, Logan plans on bringing more recognizable genre fiction characters into the mix, but, as he says, finding ways for them to make sense within the world he's created. We can see that sensibility in Frankenstein's monster so far; he looks nothing like what we're used to (i.e., the Boris Karloff version), nor is he just a grunting brute with growing vulnerability. It's the most interesting take on Frankenstein's monster I've seen in a long time. (Be gone from my memory for good, I, Frankenstein.)
Justin: So glad I never watched that.
Matt: Because of that, I hope that Logan does introduce characters like the Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll, and/or the Invisible Man into this show.
Justin: Wolf Man is coming for sure, based on the opening montage alone.
Matt: Yeah, and I wouldn't be surprised if Van Helsing eventually joins the squad and does for Van Helsing what the show's Frankenstein's monster has already done for I, Frankenstein.
Justin: Completely agree about Frankenstein's creation. Especially with all the zombie rot in horror these days, I'm pleased his character is more human, just somewhat developmentally retarded by death. It's a less dramatic version of Evan Peters' Kyle Spencer on American Horror Story: Coven; he's not the Karloff monster and he also seems to have greater control over himself. He's not just raging. He's actually quite scared and in awe of the world he once knew.
Also regarding Frankenstein, it appears as though he's simply reanimating, not making a body out of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. Why the fuck would anyone expect that stitching together pieces of humans would turn out well, even from a strictly curious scientific POV? We're in 2014 and such an operation would still be perilous.
Matt: It's a smart move by Logan to treat Frankenstein's monster that way. Because, really, if the monster is a compendium of various body parts, how will it start remembering things about its former human life? And be anything more than just an imposing cipher that accidentally kills a little girl while playing with flowers? Audiences are too savvy nowadays to ride with that on a TV show, where you're expected to invest into a world and really believe in it.
It bodes well for the show, as a whole. Logan's clearly a fan of horror but he's also a first-class screenwriter, having written movies like Hugo and Skyfall. It's really cool to see someone of his mentality tackling a genre that doesn't often receive this kind of care and treatment in a mainstream setting.
Justin: Says the guy who'll watch mindless zombies chomp on the cast of The Walking Dead for seasons on end!
Matt: [Laughs.] Hey, what can I say... Zombies are my weakness. Blame it on obsessively watching George Romero movies while in the 3rd grade.
Justin: But I agree wholeheartedly. Logan is bringing something that feels fresh to characters most of us know well. It's a welcome respite from the variety of zombies, vampires, and werewolves that have dominated pop culture recently.