by John Ostrander
I usually don’t watch horror films or TV shows, and that might surprise some people. After all, I’m known to have written some horror stories, such as DC’s Wasteland. My standard response is that I would rather give nightmares than get them. A bit flip perhaps, but largely true. I have an active imagination (from which I make my living) and the concepts and images from a horror story can stick in my head long after I’ve seen the show.
For example, I went to see The Exorcist when it first hit the movie theaters and, oh my, it played heavily on the atavistic fears of my Roman Catholic altar boy choir boy upbringing. I slept that night with the lights on despite being of college age. Actually, I was in bed but I didn’t sleep that much. Part of me was convinced that the ol’ debbil was gonna git me.
This is an explanation of why I didn’t watch Penny Dreadful when it first showed on Showtime. Recently, however, I got a chance to get caught up with the first two seasons. I didn’t binge watch them; the most I could take was two episodes at a sitting. I found them too unsettling.
The show is set in Victorian London and deals with a number of supernatural threats. A team of sorts is drawn together including an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray), his mysterious African servant (Sembene), a witch (Vanessa Ives), an American gunslinger (Ethan Chandler), Dorian Gray (of The Picture offame) and Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his Creature(s).
If that sounds reminiscent of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, well, it is… in concept. It is also extraordinarily well done. The show’s creator is John Logan and, I believe, he has also written all the episodes. You may know Mr. Logan from his work on other movies such as Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre, as well as Hugo, Rango (such an odd and interesting film!), and Gladiator among many others. A very talented writer and that talent is in full display here.
The production values are first rate – the sets, the costumes, all the details. Think Downton Abbey with vampires. The cast is also primo – and you have an odd James Bond connection with Timothy Dalton (Bond at one time) playing Sir Malcolm and Eva Green (who was Vesper Lynn in Casino Royale) joining John Logan. Harry Treadway, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, was also in the TV mini-series about Bond’s creator, Fleming.
Josh Hartnet portrays Ethan Chandler, the American gunslinger with a dark and secret past. Despite that past, the character is one of the most decent persons in the show. Sembene is portrayed by Danny Sapani who shares a Doctor Who connection with Billie Piper (Brona, Lily) who, of course, was Rose Tyler on Doctor Who. (Yes, I’m nerding out.) You see quite a bit more of Ms. Piper here. Quite a bit more.
I don’t know Reeve Carney who appears as Dorian Gray, but he’s very effective in a very unsettling role.
My favorite character, however, is Frankenstein’s Creature, played by Rory Kinnear (another Bond connection – he’s been Tanner in the last few Bond films). He is a monster, yes – he can be brutal and murderous and full of rage. He is also the most heart-breaking character in the show. He knows what he is and, by his very appearance, knows that he has no place where he fits in. He suffers most from ordinary humans (who can be the biggest monsters in the show). His longing, his despair, his rage all make him, as one character says of him late in the second series, the most human of them all.
The reason I like the show so much is the characterization. All the characters have multiple levels and all are flawed. My own theory is that you can’t really experience horror unless, on some level, you sympathize with the characters. If you don’t feel something for them, you won’t feel anything for what happens to them. You can be shocked, yes, but you don’t really feel anything. What is the point if you don’t feel? Horror is something that happens to people that we know. There can be sensation, sure, but if you don’t identify with those going through the horror, it means nothing. It’s just incident.
I should probably also mention that there is violence and sex and nudity (both male and female, although mostly female); this is pay-cable TV, after all. If any of that might bother you, give the show a wide berth. None of it ever seems gratuitous to me. I should also mention that the second season is even more unnerving than the first. A third season is projected for next year and I approach it with both anticipation and dread.
I realize that I’m late coming to the Penny Dreadful party but I think the show can be streamed and certainly it’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray so I feel justified in recommending it which I do most heartily. If I was writing horror for TV, this is the type of story I would like to tell.
John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.