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.