SXSW TV Review – Showtime’s Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is Showtime’s newest original series. Episode 1 had its world premiere at SXSW for a crowd at the Vimeo Theater. Having seen the show’s trailer, I was intrigued enough to take a break from the many films I had seen for an hour with Penny Dreadful.
The show is from the mind of John Logan (Skyfall, Gladiator) who wrote all eight episodes of Season 1. He draws from the classic tales of Frankenstein, Dracula, and others to construct a new Victorian world filled with horror and mystery. J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) directed the first episode. The cast includes Eva Green (Vanessa Ives), Timothy Dalton (Sir Malcolm), Josh Hartnett (Ethan Chandler), and Harry Treadaway (Victor *last name is a potential spoiler*). Other cast members are not seen in the first episode.
The episode starts out with a mother rousing from bed to take her morning constitutional, but something is waiting for her there. We do not see what it is, but it is enough to get a jump out of you only a few minutes into the episode. We then meet our main character, Vanessa Ives, furiously praying to God with tears in her eyes. A spider appears on the cross and makes its way to her hand. This is clearly not just a random spider, but may be an omen of sorts for the task at hand.
We meet Ethan Chandler, an American, travelling with a Wild West show to entertain the people of London in 1891. He is talented gunman and Vanessa can see that through his costume, wig, and fake mustache, even though he has a real one underneath. She recruits him for some “night work” and their relationship begins.
Sir Malcolm joins Vanessa and Ethan that night. They enter an opium house, but go much further. It is in the depths of this place that we meet face to face with the first supernatural characters of Penny Dreadful. Pale, agile, and not easily killed, three men try to take down our trio of characters. The first creepy moment is when a man stands back up by essentially rolling up from the back, bones cracking as he does this. The scene is even more dark and disturbing as the trio move into the lair beyond these men. Lots of blood, body parts, and bodies greet them. Vanessa examines a detached head to discover the fang marks of a vampire. Only then do the viewers know what this scene really is.
The trio meets a fully-fledged vampire, pale and alien-like with red eyes. These are not the vampires from Twilight or Interview with the Vampire, but more like what is seen in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sir Malcolm is able to dispatch this vampire, but we learn that this is not the one he is looking for. His daughter was taken, or perhaps turned, by vampires, and he is determined to find her with Vanessa’s help.
We then meet Victor who has a special interest in cadavers, but is more invested in research. This vampire body peaks his interest and he does not shy away from its horror or uniqueness. At the end of the episode, we learn how invested Victor is in the dead.
The episode as a whole is satisfyingly dark, mysterious, bloody, and horrific. There is an air of mystery that is only increased at the end of the Episode 1. We do not really know who Vanessa Ives is or her connection to what might lie beyond our world or in the shadows. From the ending scene, it teases that it may involve Satan. I hope her story is teased throughout the first season.
The production design and value of this series is so far top notch. Shot in Dublin, Ireland, the streets easily recall the Victorian London setting. Makeup is key in creating creatures that we have read about in classic stories, and thus far, they have done a wonderful, realistic job.
Before the screening, director J.A. Bayona pointed out that the episode was not finished. Not all of the music is incorporated yet and I am sure some tweaking of issues may still occur. Unfortunately, the transfer of the episode was too dark, making it hard to see the detail of the destruction of bodies and blood of the vampires’ lair. Josh Hartnett admitted to it being too dark during the Q and A afterwards. Hopefully, issues like this will be fixed before the series premieres.
The SXSW screening of Episode 1 of Penny Dreadful shows a very promising start to the series. A premium channel like Showtime also gives the show the ability to take the extra step in vulgarity and gore, but thus far all is tastefully done. The historical context of Victorian London mixed in with supernatural elements, classic tales like Dracula, and real-life events makes for a series that will undoubtedly have twists and turns and grotesque imagery that will pull in fans. This series will be on my watch list come May 11, 2014.