Flesh is everything in Penny Dreadful—a source of sin, suffering, longing, lust, elation, and unspoken evil. Over the course of its first six episodes, Showtime’s Victorian-set monsters-and-murderers series has reveled in the human body’s capacity for both pleasure and pain, fixating on severed limbs, sliced corpses, heaving bosoms, throbbing necks, thrusting hips, and blood-spewing orifices with unabashed relish. Rarely has a program so ardently tapped into horror fiction’s undying interest in the body as nexus of euphoria and anguish, in the process putting to shame the campy pseudo-softcore gore of True Blood, the schizoid shocks of American Horror Story, and the rest of TV’s wannabe-scary output (save, perhaps, for NBC’s equally adept Hannibal).
At once carnal and carnivorous, it’s a show that exploits its chosen genre’s preoccupations to their fullest. Along the way, it’s proven to be not only this year’s most surprising, and satisfying, small-screen debut, but the rare work that thrillingly recognizes how our greatest fears are often hopelessly intertwined with our most uncontrollable desires.
Unified by the vision of creator/writer John Logan (screenwriter of Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who’s scripted the entire eight-episode first season, Penny Dreadful takes as its inspiration Alan Moore’s 1999 comic-book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which collected a host of iconic public-domain characters (including Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Dorian Grey, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man) and teamed them against Professor Moriarty in turn-of-the-20th-century Victorian London. Rather than adapting that source material, which was previously made into an absolutely dreadful 2003 film most notable for being Sean Connery’s ignominious final role, Logan has instead taken Moore’s fundamental idea and run with it in novel directions, all while casting his action in a decidedly more Gothic mold.
Thus, taking its cue from the tawdry 19th century pulp stories that lend it its title, Penny Dreadful concerns big-game hunter Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who, in a London wracked by anxiety over Jack the Ripper’s possible return, aims to rescue his daughter Mina, recently betrothed to Jonathan Harker, from the clutches of a gaunt specter of the night who seemingly feeds on blood. In that quest, he’s aided by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a childhood friend of Mina’s and a seductive woman possessed by a demon, as well as mysterious American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and a certain Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). The fact that the good doctor’s monster (Rory Kinnear) also plays a part in this drama—demanding a bride from his creator, and working at a local theater where he pines for an actress, à la The Phantom of the Opera—is part and parcel of Penny Dreadful’s synthesis of various scary literary figures, which also include vain Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) and wise Van Helsing (David Warner).
Their odyssey takes them through a London marked by plush drawing rooms, smoky opium dens, damp stone corridors, and misty nocturnal streets. With its every locale crafted by ace set designer Philip Murphy with an eye toward intimate and exacting detail, Penny Dreadful is a show of overpoweringly sumptuous mood—and one that, in its every narrative beat, mires itself in imagery of the body in the throes of both ecstasy and agony. Be it the pilot’s scene of Dr. Frankenstein slicing open a dead vampire’s torso to discover ancient hieroglyphics carved into its skeleton, or the last episode’s gorgeously wrought juxtaposition of Sir Malcolm and Ethan brutally slaughtering undead demonesses with Vanessa and Dorian making violent love (a bedroom romp in which Vanessa’s erotic loss of control unleashes her inner Satanic companion), Logan’s series consistently and alluringly comingles corporeal arousal and annihilation.
That marriage is also found in Ethan’s love affair with a whore (Billie Piper) succumbing to consumption, in Dorian’s unholy Faustian bargain for his ageless beauty, and in Frankenstein’s successful attempt to wrestle life from death, a triumph that soon turns tragic for both creator and creation. As such, Penny Dreadful proves not only stitched together from various horror ancestors—be it Frankenstein, Dracula, or more modern efforts from the likes of David Cronenberg, Clive Barker, and Stuart Gordon—but imbued with their fundamental fascination with the relationship between bodily destruction and regeneration.
Even more remarkable, however, is that it tackles such crimson-stained ideas while simultaneously teasing intriguing mysteries about its characters' pasts, or, as in the case of last week’s superlative fifth episode “Closer Than Sisters” (which investigated Vanessa’s tortured history with Mina and Sir Malcolm), by plumbing their dark, dirty secrets and shames. Inviting one to luxuriate in its opulently ominous mood as its protagonists traverse grandly seedy staterooms, sleaze-filled sewers, and private chambers of love and corruption, it’s a Grand Guignol gem of terrifying and titillating body-horror proportions.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.