Penny Dreadful: A horror show of hidden depths
James R | On 29, Apr 2015
This contains mild spoilers.
“Do you really want to be normal?”
That’s the question left hanging by Season 1 of Penny Dreadful. The show, which returns to Sky Atlantic – and NOW – next week, was one of the best (and most surprising) series to hit UK screens in 2014.
On the surface, it’s your bog-standard B-movie set-up: a mixing together of literary figures from the corridors of horror history. There’s Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster (Rory Kinnear). There’s Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and his painting. There are vampires galore – led, presumably, by Dracula – and his prey, a missing Mina Harker. In the middle of it all stands Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). With Van Helsing (David Warner) making a brief appearance too, it comes across like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on the small screen. Dalton even has a hat and a moustache.
But what begins as a piece of Gothic pastiche – within an hour, there’s a shoot-out with some vamps – develops into something far more complex. Camp trash fuses with high art; shock with sadness.
At the heart of that balance is Mina’s friend, Vanessa Ives, a tarot-reading, demon-channeling enigma. Eva Green is astonishing as the beautiful woman, capable of dispatching cool one-liners sitting down one minute and chanting in Latin while contorted backwards on a table the next. It’s a performance of eye-popping intensity, both physically and emotionally, as she discovers that she just might be the target of Satan himself.
“I’ve always felt you have to name a thing before it comes to life,” she says at one point to Mina’s fiancée, “like a witch’s spell.”
That notion of naming feeds into the show’s central theme of identity: as soon as Victor reanimates a bunch of dead body parts, the first thing he does is give it a name. How else can it live? Within a couple of episodes, we experience the stomach-shredding realisation that there is more than one creation of his out there, which only adds more complexity to that concept. Does it make Victor is even more of a monster?
It’s typical of Skyfall writer John Logan’s intertextual wit that Frankenstein uses Shakespeare to pick his creature’s monikers: Proteas and, more curiously, Caliban. Kinnear even talks in Shakespearean language, as that is the main source of English the creature has to learn from. “Quit your temporising, demon!” he spits at his maker with all the rage of The Tempest’s beast, demanding that he have a mate to love.
“I could never love you,” offers Victor.
They all, inevitably, have something to hide, as Logan weaves a tapestry of dark surfaces and darker depths. The Orphanage’s Juan Antonio Bayona directs the opening episodes, his camera constantly moving through London’s streets, always picking out new shadows to explore.
It’s the kind of material that helps Josh Hartnett deliver the best performance of his career as American gun-slinger Ethan Chandler. He’s recruited as an outsider with a good aim by Vanessa, but his own back-story threatens to claw its way out, as he gets close with local prostitute Brona (a superb Billie Piper).
“Oh, you like things back alley?” she flirts with him, as they attend a werewolf-themed show at a local Grand Guignol theatre. “I like things to be what they are,” he retorts, standing on the doorstep of this church of artifice and fake blood.
Similar questions echo across the episodes. “You ever wish you could be someone else?” he asks Mr. Gray later. “All the time,” the nymph-like Dorian replies. But Miss Ives? “She doesn’t want to be anyone else.”
The two are naturally attracted to each other, one embracing his inner depravity, the other scared to unleash it. If the power of Oscar Wilde’s protagonist seems to be translated from immortality to the ability to shag anything that moves, though, Logan retains Dorian’s air of mystery: it’s telling that, throughout the whole season, we never see his infamous portrait.
As these familiar strands of old stories collide, they form an increasingly unpredictable drama – one that, thanks to the impact of each narrative’s formula upon the others, surprises as well as scares. Simon Russell Beale steals scenes as a lisping Egyptologist, the brilliantly-named Ferdinand Lyle, bringing unexpected laughs to the fray. David Warner’s Van Helsing steps up to deliver some serious exposition, only to be brushed aside by other, more pressing plots.
Throughout, the one constant is that Logan has sympathy for his characters: he cares about the monsters as much as the humans, about the thin divide between their civilised exteriors and what’s concealed beneath.
An interview with AdWeek last year suggests that the origina of this strikingly sincere empathy lies in his own youth.
“Growing up as a gay man, before it was as socially acceptable as it might be now, I knew what it was to feel different from other people,” he said, “to have a secret and to be frightened of it — even as I knew that the very thing that made me different made me who I was.”
That struggle to embrace one’s true self plagues everyone on screen, from Ethan – who has fled his father in the US – to Frankenstein – who must hide his private medical practices, even from his friends. Our band of characters seem to recognise that same dilemma in each other.
“With me you will behold terrible wonders,” Sir Malcolm tells Victor in Episode 1, after a disturbing autopsy. “Why me?” he asks. “Because you were unafraid to pull back the skin and look beneath.”
“If you have been touched by the demon, it’s like being touched by the back hand of God,” one Welsh priest tells Vanessa. “Makes you sacred in a way, doesn’t it?”
Far from the Gothic trash on the surface, Penny Dreadful emerges over its surprising, scary and sad first season as an atmospheric exploration of what it means to be different. The series doesn’t just show that monsters exist: it asks why they do.
Penny Dreadful Season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 5th May, when it will be available to watch on NOW. Season 1 is already available on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
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All photos: ©SHOWTIME