Penny Dreadful is fantastic serial story telling at its best.
Long before cable and network TV, before affordable paperback books, comic books, and pulp fiction, when Victoria Regina reigned over a worldwide British empire, kids (and adults) found escapist entertainment in the pages of the “penny dreadful.” The first word—penny—referred to the cover price. Educated and cultured folks used the second word—dreadful—to describe and demean their content—fantastic stories—popular tales of action and adventure, humor and horror. The two most popular genres were American Westerns and tales of the supernatural, largely from European folklore—ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and undead Egyptian mummies.
The late lamented TV series PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) encompasses both genres—horrific fantasy and guns-ablaze Western adventure in one sweeping wonderful three-season story. It’s true to its 19th-century roots, its spin on old genres is wonderfully fresh and original, its storylines are familiar but different, its characters and settings bizarre and exotic. The art design and music perfectly complement everything else. Kudos first of all to series creator John Logan.
It’s billed as “drama fantasy horror,” and delivers on all three genres. For drama, it presents an unforgettable protagonist (see more below) on her dramatic journey from selfish orphan through progressive loss and heartbreak to tragic destiny as “Queen of Darkness.” I loved her and wept for her— and tears shed are one of my criteria for effective drama. It provides enough fright, shock, and revulsion to earn its horror tag, but not so much as to overwhelm the dramatic (and romantic) fantasy at its heart.
Like all good drama, Penny Dreadful is character-driven—and it’s cast of characters touch virtually every horror fantasy of the era, including:
- Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and his Creature
- An American Werewolf in London (couldn’t resist using that expression)
- Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, portrait and all
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll (but not alas Mr. Hyde),
- Several characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the Prince of Darkness himself
- An assortment of witches (one benign and others diabolical), demons, vampires, and memorable prostitutes (it wouldn’t be true to the dark side of Victorian London without prostitutes).
Their stories (artfully spun in new ways) are interwoven into the series-through-line in unexpected and intriguing ways.
Speaking of prostitutes, and just to give a sense of how these varied tales intersect—one of the downtrodden streetwalkers is Lily—the doomed (by TB) love of our American Werewolf hero. After Lily’s death, Doctor Frankenstein resurrects her as the intended bride of his Creature, only to fall for her himself, and whom she spurns in favor of the dazzlingly decadent Dorian Gray, whom she nearly destroys. Got all that? That’s only one part of just one subplot! If it sounds soap-opera ish, fear not, it isn’t.
The dramatic heart of PENNY DREADFUL, the main character—to whom all other major characters and in whom all subplots connect—is Vanessa Ives, unforgettably portrayed by Eva Green. Vanessa is a psychically gifted woman drawn to the dark side despite her essentially spiritual nature. Beset by guilt for betraying a friend of her youth, she suffers greatly—from demonic possession, madness, what passes for psychiatric care in Victorian England, physical and psychic assault by demons and witches, and seduction by a charming cultured Dracula—on the path to her fate. Good writing and great acting transform what could have been a jumbled melodrama into something elevated.
Vanessa has a cadre of loyal friends and supporters:
- The American sharpshooter, Ethan (our werewolf, played poignantly by Josh Hartnett) whom she recruits from a touring wild west show, who comes to love her and ultimately saves her soul
- Sir Malcolm Murray (Timoth Dalton) who takes her into his heart and household after his daughter disappears
- Sembene (Danny Sapani), a formidable warrior, Sir Malcolm’s loyal friend and servant
- Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)
- Frankenstein’s Creature, aka John Clare (heartbreakingly portrayed by Rory Kinnear)
- Dr Seward/Joan Clayton (both played by Patty Lupone), two mentors, witch and psychiatrist, who aid Vanessa at critical junctures on her journey
It would take detailed notation and organization while studying all episodes to do justice to all the characters and interwoven storylines. I’ve only watched the full series twice and was too rapt to make notes. It’s worthy of a book—idea noted.
My strong recommendation is to watch this series, the best horror fantasy I have ever seen on any screen, large or small.