Sunday, October 30, 2016

October Scares TV Series: Penny Dreadful

Have you heard of or watched Penny Dreadful? Game of Thrones & The Walking Dead garner much love from critics and fans, and rightly so; both are excellent series that have redefined the rules for genre TV. Creator John (Gladiator) Logan’s Victorian era horror saga, which ended its run last season on Showtime after three years, is a show that flew under the radar for most viewers, despite praise from critics. It's one of the best genre series to air in recent years. The series is a feast for horror fans, giving us a meta-fiction style gathering of characters from classic novels such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde & The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the centerpiece of the story is Vanessa Ives, a tormented medium magnificently played by Eva Green (Casino Royale), a character created for the series by Logan, who also penned The Last Samurai.

Green fully inhabits the role of Ives, who’s first introduced as a friend of Mina Murray, one of Dracula’s victims in Bram Stoker's original novel. She has a complicated relationship with Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm, who’s portrayed by former James Bond Timothy Dalton. The first season follows the hunt for the missing Mina, who’s been taken captive by Dracula. Throughout the show's run, Vanessa & Sir Malcolm find themselves interacting with Victor Frankenstein & his monstrous creation, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, and a mysterious American gunfighter named Ethan Chandler, who's hiding a dark secret that should be very familiar to Universal horror fans when they see it revealed late in the first season. There are also some additional original characters created by Logan, including some memorable female villains in the second season.

As the series moves forward, themes that are introduced in the earlier episodes are expanded, including the nature of good & evil, and how no one person can be all good or all bad, but is really just a small step away from moving into the darkness. It’s a literate, well-written & expertly directed show. Fans of the original stories, and classic terror sagas such as Hammer’s horror films of the 1960s will find much to delight them in the series; you'll be treated to some truly creepy moments and spine-chilling sequences. The look of the show is visually arresting, with lush production values that really make you feel like you’re in the 1890s. The imaginative plots cleverly intertwine themes and familiar figures from the original Victorian terror tales with new stories & ideas. As always with a show like this, there are Easter eggs and nods to the tales that inspired it scattered throughout the series' three seasons. 

The performances are all excellent, with Green taking the acting honors in a multi-layered turn as Vanessa that’s equal parts dark, sensual, eerie and captivating; Dalton is very effective as Sir Malcolm, and the rest of the fine cast includes Josh Hartnett as Ethan, Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Billie (Dr. Who) Piper as Brona, the amazing Patti Lupone, who shows up in two inter-connected & important roles in Seasons Two & Three, and Rory Kinnear, who's a standout as Frankenstein’s monster. Kinnear really hits it out of the park in a third year episode entitled “A Blade of Grass,” which is a superb two-character acting duet between him & Ms. Green’s Vanessa that should have snared them both Emmys. There are strong moments for the entire cast during the series.

The show builds its story slowly, and less patient viewers may balk at the pace, but if you stick with it, this is a rewarding experience. There are haunting and chilling scenes throughout, and some truly powerful episodes, culminating in a third season showdown with Count Dracula himself. The show finished its run after three seasons and 27 episodes, reportedly at creator Logan’s request. It had started to gain in the ratings and build a following, but Showtime executives contend it was indeed Logan’s choice to end the show. While I feel that some of the threads carefully introduced throughout the series are not fully dealt with by its conclusion, the main story, the journey of Vanessa Ives, is completed by the end of the run. There are so many fantastic performances and compelling storylines, that the show is truly worth watching for fans. Highly recommended. Penny Dreadful is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and the entire series is currently streaming on Netflix. Here’s a link to a trailer for the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOM0rziqEY4.

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