Review: ‘Penny Dreadful’ does the monster mashup

San Francisco ChronicleMay 7, 2014 

PENNY DREADFUL

Timothy Dalton is a London nobleman, with Eva Green as his mysterious companion in “Penny Dreadful.”

JONATHAN HESSION — JONATHAN HESSION - SHOWTIME

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    ‘Penny Dreadful’ airs Sunday night at 10 on Showtime.

If you grew up in the century before boy wizards, magical wardrobes and CGI effects, you may have been into movie monsters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster, not to mention invisible men and creatures from black lagoons.

Hollywood – and especially Universal Studios – made a fortune pumping out these black-and-white gems. They couldn’t keep telling the same story over and over again, so eventually they started putting various monsters together in the same films, something that John Logan replicates in his new Showtime series, “Penny Dreadful,” premiering Sunday night.

Just as Universal gave us “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” in 1943, Logan gives us vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, allusions to the return of Jack the Ripper and heaven knows what else beyond the two “Penny Dreadful” episodes sent to critics for review.

Make that “hell only knows,” because the captivating series, set in London in 1891, is giddily awash with blood and gore, not to mention steamy sex.

The original penny dreadfuls were pulp fiction magazines printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny each in Victorian London. Cheap melodrama is gloriously intact in “Penny Dreadful,” as a rich London nobleman, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), and his icy, mysterious companion, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), recruit a hard-drinking American sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to help them rescue Murray’s daughter from the clutches of a group of vampires living underground.

Believing the unbelievable

After a bloody confrontation with the vamps, Murray and company wind up with the body of a kind of vampire king and enlist the aid of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) to find out what makes the guy tick. Slicing him open like a ripe casaba melon, they find Egyptian hieroglyphics scratched into a kind of insect-like exoskeleton.

What Murray, Ives and Chandler don’t know is that Dr. F. has a little hobby going on in a back room, assembling various body parts into a reanimated human being. He comes up with a rather sweet-natured, timid man named Proteus (Alex Price) who is instantly devoted to his new “master” as a puppy would be to a new owner. In other words, no one’s idea of a “monster.”

The second episode ends with a total shocker, but before it does, we meet Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and Mrs. Ives displays truly frightening skills at communing with the spirit world.

Melodrama and tall tales may seem antithetical to the cynicism of our modern age, but perhaps that’s the very reason we seek them out, in film and on TV. From “Harry Potter” to “Game of Thrones,” our minds are actively open to believing in the unbelievable.

That said, even a TV take on the classic Victorian-era penny dreadful has to work to suspend our disbelief, and Showtime’s series does that through solid performances by most of the cast, appropriately lurid special effects and a competent, albeit humorless, script.

The only significant misstep is in the casting of Hartnett as the American. He’s obviously a competent actor, but often he can be a rather vague presence in films. We don’t quite connect with him, and it’s especially noticeable against the florid setting and melodramatic performances of the rest of the cast.

Chewing up the scenery

Green, on the other hand, all but devours the scenery, and that’s very much in the spirit of the series – pun intended, especially in her grotesquely magnetic seance scene in the second episode.

As excessive as the show is in places, it does take itself too seriously. Fact is, over-the-top horror often works more effectively when leavened by humor, macabre or otherwise. That’s why Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” is so good. For that matter, it’s one of the many reasons Showtime’s “Dexter” was so brilliant.

But what about that gore? Is it ever too much? Actually, not at all. There are any number of shows on TV – “The Following,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” to name three – that are more gruesome. But “Penny Dreadful” proves that sometimes at least, nothing succeeds like excess.

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