As the line between film and TV continues to disappear, more and more filmmakers are turning to the more accessible consumer medium to tell stories. Lucky for them, networks are easing the transition with shorter seasons (that also lure major stars). Enter John Logan, Sam Mendes, and the first season of the effectively chilling eight-episode horror series, “Penny Dreadful,” a tale told with such cinematic grandeur its meticulousness alone would entrance any film fan even if the judiciously rationed scares and tasteful gore somehow did not.
As noted in Indiewire’s review of the premiere episode from SXSW, the premise of the show rang first as a procedural, especially considering the source material of the title. Penny Dreadfuls, Penny Awfuls, or Penny Bloods were basically Victorian era comic books filled with frightful tales of fancy. It would have been easy (and rather boring) to create a TV show with a central character who faced new monsters, demons, and spirits every week, making Logan’s decision to do the exact opposite — delivering a consequence-filled central plot line — all the more appealing through two episodes. It’s not that Logan and Mendes, the writer-director team behind “Skyfall” as well as their Oscar-winning endeavors “Gladiator” and “American Beauty,” respectively, have simply made a lengthy film — that would imply they’ve abandoned the much-needed conceits of television like cliffhangers (they’ve got doozies) and multiple story lines (cleverly, not forcibly intertwined).
No, they’ve crafted (or at least started to craft) a vision unique to its medium with only one writer (a very filmic quality) and four directors. The tale they tell is specific and focused with grand sets, elegant art direction, and a constant tone of pragmatic unease. Rather remarkably, the team has struck the delicate balance between stylized fantasy and grounded realism, creating a world simultaneously inhabitable by monsters and flesh and blood human beings. Production comparisons are bound to be made between “Penny Dreadful” and “True Detective,” and they won’t stop there: John Logan’s horror show is damn good television, and while not as groundbreaking in philosophical scope, it has at least one landmark scene already.
But more on that in a moment. First, let’s introduce Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a traveling entertainer who can shoot the lights out of a monastery from the bell tower two blocks down. He’s using his talents mainly to pick up women, an easy and thoughtless task for the charming boozehound, before Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) scouts him for an assignment of great danger. Without any promise other than a hefty payday, Ives signs Chandler to her three-person hunting party. What are they hunting? While many of you may already know thanks to Showtime’s hefty promotional push, including releasing the premiere episode online for all to see, the secrets in “Penny Dreadful” are plentiful and half the fun of watching. There will be no spoilers here, only advice: if you haven’t read the character list online or learned of Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) heart-breaking scheme, don’t. All is revealed, and done so with a particularly enticing flair.
Many secrets are exposed in the first two episodes — including a kicker to close out the second episode rivaling any to air this year — but one character remains in the shadows, her mysteries hidden in the deep blacks of “Penny Dreadful’s” rich visual palette. Noted in the response to the SXSW screening was lead actress Eva Green’s turn. “It’s too early to praise the role all that highly, but she’s certainly the one to watch.” It is now no longer too late. Though two episodes may still seem a tad premature to doll out judgement for the series (though it is only eight episodes all in), it’s simply not the case for Green. She has already given an award-worthy turn in under two hours time. Much like viewers knew they were in store for something special after only an hour or two with Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective,” so, too, does the hair on your neck stand up as Green works her magic, in character and out.
Ives is a clairvoyant medium, a gift used by Sir Malcolm to help in his quest, but at times an uncontrollable curse for the possessor. One of these untimely scenarios occurs at a dinner party held by Ferdinand Lyle, played with hilarious vigor by Simon Russell Beale. Lyle is an expert in hieroglyphics while also an ardent socialite eager to entertain more than he is to inform. Malcolm and Vanessa attend his party in the hopes of obtaining a translation only to be roped into a parlor game where another medium tries to communicate with the dead. Seeing an opportunity to have some fun, the spirits instead take control of Vanessa, forcing her into a dialogue with herself. Two very different voices emerge from the same throat, both mocking Malcolm as he sits watching in tortured fury as his partner’s body is manipulated into mocking him relentlessly in front of many confused and terrified guests.
Though the scene’s content is crucial, and tells us quite a bit about Vanessa as well as Malcolm, its Green whose talents are on fully display. The way she contorts not just her body — in gruesome, if traditional movements — but her lips, as they spit out vile voices not her own, is positively haunting. Her eyes, too, are magnetic and unnerving. Green owns the scene with such command it’s easy to forget the moment isn’t entirely her own. This is Malcolm’s pain we’re watching, even as we’re transfixed by the person causing it. The more than five-minute monologue (!) is one of the more riveting scenes on television this year, and an incredible showcase for Green, especially considering the trust involved between writer and actress when penning such a complex and lengthy speech without planning to cut away once.
Some early critics have decried the horror series for not being horrific enough. Granted, “Penny Dreadful” may seem tame when compared to the torture porn we’ve been forced to watch in theaters or the soapy gratuity of “American Horror Story” — and thankfully so. Logan, Mendes, and director J.A. Bayona, who helmed the first two episodes, have made a conscious choice to scare you with the tactics of old: what you can’t see is much scarier than what you can. Flashes of gore pop up from time to time as a reminder of what’s facing our heroes, but it’s tastefully laid out instead of affixed in front of your eyes. This is not Frankenstein’s monster: this is horror for the dramatically inclined.