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'Penny Dreadful' a real-world take on classic horror

Showtime

By Chloe Gilke, Daily Arts Writer
Published May 8, 2014

I’ll say it right off the bat – I’m not a fan of horror. It’s not that I’m queasy or averse to seeing blood. I can sit through “The Silence of the Lambs” with a straight face, never once covering my eyes to avoid the gore. My main gripe with horror is that it’s based in fantasy. The monsters are unlike anything we know in this world, and characters often react illogically. It’s entertaining, but there’s little that the viewer can connect to.

Showtime’s fantastic “Penny Dreadful” is a wonderful iteration of classic horror. The cinematography is top-notch, acting excellent, 1890s period set design fittingly elaborate and macabre. But the most impressive aspect of “Penny Dreadful” is that it sidesteps the unbelievable and presents the terror as something straight out of our own world. Pseudo-humans with exoskeletons and hieroglyphic tattoos and red-eyed beasts aren’t something we see every day, but they’re just as unfamiliar to scrappy sharp shooter hero Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, “Pearl Harbor”). He’s scouted for his talent with a gun and thrown straight into battle with supernatural creatures. Later, mystic/psychic/probable witch Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, “Casino Royale”) explains the crazy proceedings of Ethan’s trial at “night work” (as she calls it) to both Ethan and viewers. Sure, a creature with pointed fangs and red eyes is unbelievable in this realm. But in the demimonde, the liminal world between the familiar and the supernatural underworld, anything is possible.

And it’s not just the supernatural occurrences that are refreshingly grounded – some of the characters are familiar literary and historical figures. We only meet a handful of characters in the pilot, but in addition to Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, “The Lone Ranger”), expect to see fresh-faced Dorian Gray and poor Mina Harker of Dracula. The show handles these recognizable characters with surprising deft. I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein countless times, but Treadaway plays him with an urgency and passion I never encountered in the novel. And though anyone who’s taken an English class might have preconceptions about these characters, there’s no telling if “Penny Dreadful” will follow the plot (especially when there’s the possibility Dorian Grey might find his way onto Frankenstein’s boat). The possibilities with these figures (and the equally interesting original characters) are endless. It’s like Victorian fan fiction, and I say that as a compliment.

If Victorian literary references aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of gross-out scares to hold your interest. Hordes of insects crawling from Jesus’ figure on a cross, bloody and flayed body parts, botched surgeries galore – and this is only the first episode. It’s hardly gratuitous, though. There’s a thread of reality running through “Penny Dreadful” that transcends above the typical genre show. Ethan’s a penniless alcoholic, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton, “License to Kill”) is desperate to find his kidnapped daughter, and Frankenstein is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge above all. They put on a nice show in belonging to Victorian society, but the demimonde is a fine line. Overstep it and you’re engulfed in darkness, desperation and Jesus bugs.

It’s hard to tell where “Penny Dreadful” is headed, and the plot was frustratingly slow and hard to follow at times. But the final scene, in which Frankenstein inadvertently gives life to his monster, was an exhilarating cap to an altogether fine episode. If the pilot is any indication, the following seven episodes are sure to bring a good balance of thought-provoking story and solid scares. Dreadful it isn’t – “Penny Dreadful” is dark, gripping horror, and is certainly worth a watch.


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