Penny Dreadful is an award-winning British-American horror drama, spawned from the fevered mind of John Logan.
Mostly set in Victorian London, the series follows a group of characters as they deal with all sorts of supernatural threats ranging from the traditional horror staples of vampires and werewolves right through to darker themes surrounding demonic possession and witchcraft. This is not what we would ever call a cheerful series.
Despite all of fantastical elements the series remains grounded in the humanity of its characters, spending a lot of time to explore their history and motivations, which are more often than not steeped in loss and tragedy, sometimes with the addition of immense guilt if the aforementioned were a product of their own action or inaction.
This is most evident in the leader of the group, veteran explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (played by the superb Timothy Dalton). It is the kidnapping of his daughter, Mina Harker (yes, that one), at the hands of a cabal of vampires that kicks off the series in the first place, prompting him and Mina’s childhood friend, enigmatic witch Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), to recruit American gunslinger/showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and the death-obsessed young doctor, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), to help him.
Wait… Victor Frankenstein? That name sounds familiar…
As you may have noticed the series takes a lot of inspiration, or otherwise directly references, many themes from classic horror and gothic literature, the most famous thus far being Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In fact, we see a brief appearance from Professor Van Helsing in season 1 and up to three of Frankenstein’s monsters over the course of the two seasons (a whole different story entirely).
We also see frequent appearances from Dorian Gray, from Oscar Wilde’s tale, in all his narcissistic glory. This happens most often in events separate from the main plot but also in direct interactions with Miss Ives, whom he developed an infatuation for. His mysterious nature prevails until the end of season 2 when we see him for what he really is.
Returning to the aforementioned monster we find that, for a reanimated corpse, his is one of the most bizarrely sympathetic characters of the lot. Rather than the tragedy of his life being his own fault, the Creature, or John Clare as he prefers to be known, was thrust into the world against his will by an uncaring creator and struggled to learn and grow without any help at all.
Clare is soft-spoken with a love of literature and poetry, and though he harbours great resentment and anger towards Victor, he is very timid around most other people, acutely aware of his unusual visage and the revulsion it seems to trigger. All he wants is somewhere to fit in, and someone to love and be loved by, but instead he finds himself cast adrift in a world in which he doesn’t belong.
Though a significant amount of runtime is spent following him, as with Mr Gray, the only direct interaction he has with any of Sir Malcolm’s company is a brief friendship with Miss Ives, who as a fellow misfit sees past his scarred face and yellow eyes to the soul of the man beneath.
Clare’s twin aspects of violence and timidity are just a single part of the overall theme of duality that features in creative design of the show. We see this also reflected between Miss Ives and Mina, the former predisposed to dark, austere clothing, whilst the latter is almost always shown to be wearing white. Miss Ives herself contains a wonderful duality in that though she is often naturally dour (you’d be a bit mopey too after everything she went through) she is shown to be capable of love and laughter in abundance.
This sense of duality is reflected constantly through recurring thoughts on the nature of life and death, with the two states often blurring as embodied by Mr Clare, and to a lesser extent Dorian Gray. It could be said that the theme continues with the introduction of a werewolf (in the form of a classic wolfman) and the obvious man/beast duality that it represents.
As a whole the cinematography engineered by cinematographer Xavi Giménez is dark and broody, emphasising the macabre subject matter, with a clever use of light and shadow rendering even the large London townhouse of Sir Malcolm to a claustrophobic collection of rooms and corridors. Much of the action happens at night, further emphasising this gloominess, and when scenes are shot during the day they are inevitably toned down by a quintessentially English overcast sky.
The designs of the monsters are kept deliberately simple in homage to the horror movies of old, with the bulk of the effects being achieved by prosthetics and make-up, and all of the magic shown has a defined physicality that dispenses with gaudy sparks and colourful flashes to go straight to the effect it has on the afflicted. This grounds the show even further, preventing from become a campy supernatural romp in keeping with the general austere tone, keeping the pull of the show anchored to the characters rather than an SFX budget.
Probably the strongest quality of the show is the acting. As the cast encounter situations that could be rendered silly quite easily they manage to hold themselves together to maintain the macabre atmosphere and sense of impending threat to their bodies and souls. Their relationships with each other are awkward, hesitant, comfortable, or flirtatious as needed and they react to the events of the show in a manner you would expect from normal people. Emotion and the tortured psyche are displayed very well among people who have stared the devil in the face (almost literally at points) and dragged themselves away intact (well, mostly).
With the start of season three not scheduled until around May 2016 we still have a while to wait until we get to witness the further misadventures of Sir Malcolm and co, but from the way things have gone so far I expect it will be certainly worth the wait. In the meantime I would definitely recommend watching this series from start to finish to get a feel for the overarching plot that has been slowly developing, and once you have done that… well, just watch out for things that go bump in the night.