Re:View – ‘Penny Dreadful’



The title is everything; it gives this series license to be trashy, and God knows all the ingredients are in place. Sky’s cod-Victorian potboiler has immense cheek, a filthy mouth, cauliflower-ear dialogue, endless bouts of de rigeur boring sex, lashings of gore and the odd sublime moment. But we’ll get to that.

The idea of the series is simple – it’s ‘House of Frankenstein’ – that late-entry Universal movie which realised the only way to milk more money from the dying cash-cow of horror movie monsters was to squeeze them all into one feature. So fact and fiction get chucked together with abandon – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Werewolf, Jack the Ripper and er, Dorian Gray (a bit left-field, that one). Eva Green stares wildly at everyone, gets possessed and has sex with strangers. Timothy Dalton struts about as a whispering, staring lord looking to reclaim his vampire-bitten daughter, and in one uncomfortable moment not to be played back at teatime, Billie Piper coughs up blood into Dorian’s face while having sex with him (standing, before a photographer – don’t ask).

As is usual with this kind of stuff, it’s a cheap gift that comes wrapped in some very expensive paper. The stunning CGI work accurately conjures London in the late 19th century; filthy, grim, dank and dark (it’s miles ahead of say, Tim Burton’s lame-looking visuals for ‘Sweeney Todd’), but having established the mood we then cut to gothic interiors filled with drivel-spouting British thesps and the obligatory American Plank (Josh Hartnett with nothing much to do). Can a supernatural show stitch together so many elements and make it work?

Well, writer John Logan and exec producer Sam Mendes bring more class to the material than it really deserves, although Logan’s dialogue is club-footed and entirely lacking the grace of ‘Ripper Street’. He seems to be working on the assumption that you can chuck in any old rubbish so long as it’s said with a straight face.

So, having gone to the expense of getting the look right, the language offers poke-in-the-eye neologisms all over the place (‘exoskeleton’?) and newspapers that look like yesterday’s Daily Mirror, but there are unexpected sublimities, notably the moment when Frankenstein’s monster awakes and meets his maker, a scene that places it among the finest of all resurrections (Unsurprisingly, Variety didn’t like this subtle scene). The moment is only spoiled by Victor needing to introduce himself – and then we remember that this is TV and some people out there may think he’s Bruce Wayne or Joey Essex.

Eva Green manages to nuke the fridge in her standout spine-breaking Linda Blair moment, giving some indication of where the series is going (scenery-chewing, lurid but nothing too frightening, it turns out) and one can’t help feeling that by the time the Invisible Man, the Mummy and oh, I don’t know, Aquaman, all make their entrance, the show won’t have anywhere left to go. It matters not one whit that in Episode 3 the Grand Guignol theatre turns up 30 years too early and in the wrong country – we’re playing so fast and loose with everything that you half expect James Bond to wander in.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if I was Kim Newman, who does this sort of thing far better but lacks the slutty touch of cable TV, I’d still be tempted to sue.

11 comments on “Re:View – ‘Penny Dreadful’”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I was disappointed — I was hoping for a ‘British Sanctuary

  2. J. Folgard says:

    For all its faults, I really enjoyed this season. I completely agree with Kim Newman’s novels being vastly superior, but it got a lot of my friends interested in all those old monsters again, whereas so many (non-horror reading or watching) audiences today like to label them as boring or washed-out, because we’re so much more sophisticated and genre-savvy nowadays, innit? Logan stated in an interview that he wished to rekindle new interest in those old beasts he personally likes, and if literature and comics have already done that with much more quality and coherence, as far as screen adaptations go it’s still miles better than, say, ‘Van Helsing’ or the Sean Connery version of the ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’.
    Other things I personally liked, too: the occasional bits of humour, the fact that (as you justly pointed out) the usual mysterious and tortured stranger hero with a dark past is not the central tennet of the story for once, the wonderfully ham-fisted performances and one last thing: doing away with Van Helsing so soon. For all their lofty declarations, too many “reimaginings” (blech) fall back to the usual Dracula-Van Helsing climax, won’t be the case here.
    The show’s still being promoted with some psycho-sexual babble to reassure poor impressionable viewers about the worthiness of it, so I was really happy to see some genuine fangs, faux-blood and supernatural cheap thrills onscreen, instead of the tired chestnut “The monster’s really in our head! In our head! WE’RE THE MONSTER!!”
    Sorry, rant over. Thanks for this great post, now you’ve made me want to watch ‘Ripper Street’ again! Cheers!

  3. Ian Mason says:

    ” neologisms all over the place (‘exoskeleton’?)”

    Possibly a poor example as my suspicion is that exoskeleton was in use as scientifc terminology a long time ago.

    Yup! My Cassell’s Dictionary of Word Histories has exoskeleton as originating in the 19th century.

  4. admin says:

    I just knew some fu – uh, I mean some kind reader, would run a check on that! 1847, apparently.
    But it certainly sounded awkward in the mouth of the character. I don’t mind modernities, but the casual, constant swearing in mixed company felt very wrong. It matters not – we are, after all, dealing with werewolves, vampires and fictional characters, so why should there be verisimilitude? Period dialogue is too strange for our ears – read Chap.2 of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ for dinner party conversation that’s very hard to follow!

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    I really must get round to watching this, as for the swearing, having just read some of the Earl of Rochester’s poetry from the 1600’s, (especially Signior Dildo & A Satyr on Charles II) I not that surprised by the swearing.


  6. Roger says:

    ” drivel-spouting British thesis”

    “we are, after all, dealing with werewolves, vampires and fictional characters, so why should there be verisimilitude?”
    That is precisely why we need verisimilitude. If you are going to feature the impossible, you can’t expect people to accept the preposterous too.

  7. snowy says:

    Roger, I think it’s a typo and should be ‘thesps’, [for those not quite au-fait with English slang: ‘thesps’ cf. thespians:- theactrical players. So also ‘Luvvies’.]

    PD is piched for a young audience, their reference points will not be the Universal films, nor either those of Hammer, [though Hammer wasn’t shy of mixing up storylines, shifting periods and even playing with genders: Doctor Jeckell and Sister Hyde ring any bells?]

    The target audience will have had thier expectations filtered through the films mention by J.F, [Van H. is a huge camp thing and rather fun, providing you had never ever seen the source material, TLXG is a bit of a mess, despite some interesting individual performances. It was never going to work once they started deleting characters and crowbarring in new ones.]

    John Logan has an very eclectic range of credits, not all ‘fabulous’ what sticks out is how in ‘Skyfall’ he turned ‘M’ from a woman with a will of iron and an acid tongue into a doddery old lady with a penchant for ‘vile oaths’.

  8. admin says:

    Snowy, thanks for correcting my mis-spell – I do a lot of this blog with a laptop balanced on my knees in cafes – and I agree with Roger; I was being ironic, because of course you need realism to make it work.

  9. snowy says:

    I wasn’t going to, esp. given my own history of typographical fluffs, but if it managed to ‘fox’ Roger then I reasoned others would also be scratching their heads, [as I was with ‘Nuke the Fridge’, had to look that up.]

    I’m not quite sure a story has to have ‘exact’ versimilitude, more that it has to ‘stay within the lines’ of the viewers/readers expectations. Taking V H as an example; It opens dead straight with the windmill/angry villagers scene from ‘Frankenstien’, [and introduces the ‘Big Bad’]. Credit roll, and sets up the Hero as he faces off against a minor protagonist, this provokes the ‘necessary existential crisis’ that will be later resolved in act 3. But this also compels the Hero to return to his ‘home’.

    It is here [after some more exposition and being given ‘The Mission’], that the film draws those lines. Once we are taken down to the cellar and go through what is a pastiche of every Bond-Q scene, full of unlikely gadgets, it becomes clear that this is going to be just a romp, ticking off as many references as it possibly squeeze in, in the remaining 60 minutes.

    [J F. if you thought that version was bad, wait till you see the re-boot starring Stumpy Munchkin, I can see it now, two foot of actor under four feet of hat.]

  10. Roger says:

    I convinced myself “thesis” must be right and thought the typo had to be somewhere else.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Wondered at “nuke the fridge” but I didn’t see Crystal Skull. Have now looked it up.

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