Right now horror is big business in television. American paid-for cable channels such as HBO, Showcase and Cinemax are always keen to distance themselves from the family-friendly offerings of networks, and do so by splashing buckets of blood, nudity and other morally dubious actions across our screens with the likes of Hannibal and Game of Thrones.
Yet this is by no means a saturated market and last night Sky Atlantic welcomed a new addition to the genre with Penny Dreadful, a savage gothic romp that’s fantastically ghoulish.
Created by John Logan and executive produced by his Skyfall director Sam Mendes, this eight-part series hovers between American Horror Story and Ripper Street in its Victorian London setting. In 1891, the gloomy, cumbersome streets are strewn with bloody entrails and dismembered body parts as the police investigate a series of gruesome murders.
Yet intrepid explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and his boggle-eyed companion Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) see something darker at work and embark on a recruitment drive for a man of “great violence and hidden depths” to explore the demi-monde – “a half world between what we know and what we fear” – or, put another way, to fight-off hordes of immortal ghouls.
They find such a man working as a gunslinger in a Wild West-themed travelling show, and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) acts as the audience’s eyes in this opening episode as he is lured into an unfamiliar world of terrible wonders.
All three main characters are well-cast with former Bond-girl Eva Green, fresh from her film stealing turn in 300: Rise of an Empire, once again the most beguiling character on screen as Ives, using her piercing stare to easily get the measure of Chandler: “Your eye is steady buy your left hand tremors. That’s the drink.”
Each character comes with their own murky past and with no one truly who they appear to be there’s a fair amount of antagonism amongst the team. Logan deftly uses this to layer their exchanges with an uneasy tension, as if the characters are constantly sizing each other up, which makes the dialogue scenes often more gripping than the monster-slaying action.
Penny Dreadful is filmed in Dracula writer Bram Stoker’s home-town of Dublin, but that’s far from the only literary reference here with each plot weaving in many of gothic fiction’s most frightening creations.
This week it’s Victor Frankenstein, a jittery young anatomist who helps Murray uncover the mysterious hieroglyphs hidden beneath a dead vampire’s skin and has a corpse wired-up to one of those new-fangled electricity generators he was so excited about.
The emergence of Frankenstein’s monster at the end of this episode works as a neat parallel for the state of the main characters: like the monster they’re broken creatures in an unfamiliar world, crudely stitched back together to resemble a barely functioning human. Their mission to take-on the demi-monde can be seen as the first step in confronting their darkest fears and overcoming the troubles of their past.
While the gore, creepy monsters and tense dialogue are all well and good, this first episode does lack a compelling narrative to really grab the audience. Too much time is spent setting up the characters and teasing potential mysteries rather than getting to the point, and it’s almost half an hour in before we’re told about Murray’s mission to find his daughter.
In all, though, Penny Dreadful delivers plenty of intriguing mysteries and beguiling performances for its stellar cast, and offers simple escapism with its gory, violent setting and fantastical characters. And that’s exactly what a show like Penny Dreadful should do.
Click here to watch the trailer for Penny Dreadful – Episode One