Josh Hartnett and director Juan Antonio Bayona couldn’t have been more welcoming when they introduced “Penny Dreadful,” their new horror program backed by Showtime at SXSW. Bayona, the director of the series’ first two episodes, joked about his height relative to the quite tall Hartnett as the happy duo welcomed a full house to the series’ world premiere. The episode — which still had some color correction and musical work left to be done — was quite chilling. Enough so, even, that fans bolted from the theater the moment the credits rolled, undoubtedly terrified by the eerie antics of Hartnett & Co. on screen.
Okay. Maybe they were just in a hurry to get to their next screening in a packed SXSW lineup, but half the theater emptied despite pleas from the moderator for people to stick around. It’s hard to blame them. As charming and laid back as Hartnett and Bayona were during the session, I, too, was eager to see what else the festival had to offer in the hopes it would be as riveting as “Penny Dreadful,” the tastefully terror-inducing series from Academy Award-nominated writer John Logan and Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes. Let’s just assume that was everyone’s thought process.
Shown as an early cut without completed color correction or musical cues, the first episode of the eight-episode season was nevertheless haunting. Shadows dominated the frame with such consistency a character even commented on it, making a joke about how England had yet to make the strides of America in the department of indoor electricity. Hartnett seemed worried about the presentation, though, telling fans afterward this wasn’t a finished problem and it looked like a really dark cut (he later told Indiewire some of the blacks are intentional, but others will be given more definition to fill out the frame).
Hartnett’s character, Ethan Chandler, is a sharpshooter of the highest degree. He’s sought out by Vanessa Ives, a mysterious observer with a commanding stare who we later learn is clairvoyant. With rave reviews for the otherwise dismissed “300: Rise of an Empire,” it appears Eva Green is staking her claim as an actress to watch after breaking out in “Casino Royale.” Her eyes hold an incredible intensity in “Penny Dreadful,” while her movements are deliberate and smooth. She has an air of knowing, grace, but fear threatens to overwhelm her armored exterior at any moment. It’s too early to praise the role all that highly, but she’s certainly the one to watch in “Penny Dreadful.”
Not that the rest of the cast fails to hold their own — far from it. Hartnett is only given a few moments of personal drama, but he makes the most of them and discussed how his character’s development was part of the longer narrative arc. “The only reason to come back [to TV] for this was that Showtime was going to allow and create space for the creative people like Sam [Mendes], Juan [Antonio Bayona] and John [Logan] to create something special, something unique, and allow me to flesh out a character over a long period of time,” Hartnett said. “That’s the fun of this. I don’t really know where Ethan is going to go. If people stick around and tune in, this could go on for a very long time.”
Timothy Dalton steals a few scenes as Sir Malcolm, a man on the hunt for his lost daughter and the catalyst for action in “Penny Dreadful.” Malcolm is a mysterious and incredibly determined man with an unidentified source of wealth that he uses to employ Vanessa and Ethan to help in his quest. The two experienced hunters are much more earnest than Ethan, most likely because they’ve seen the horrors for years which he’s only just now admitting exist.
The set up should allow for brief moments of levity when Ethan’s sarcastic or direct demeanor takes over. In the pilot, the trio takes on a series of odd creatures — unbeknownst to Ethan, who accepted the job without terms — before killing a vampire in its lair. The distinctive set design grabs attention, as do the ever-present shadows hiding parts of every frame, but the composition is shattered when Ethan exclaims, “Who the fuck are you people?”
We’re all wondering the same thing. Most pilots make extra strides to try to fit in extra amounts of exposition, hoping the audience will latch onto something they can later develop. Not in today’s world where pilots aren’t pilots — they’re just first episodes. Hartnett had just wrapped the eight-episode season on Friday before flying in Sunday to attend the screening. This series is in the books and will sink or swim as the vision of Logan, Mendes and Bayona, who was given credit at the screening for establishing the series’ look. We don’t need all of our questions answered now. We’ve got seven hours left to find out what goes bump in the night in “Penny Dreadful.”