May 7, 2014


A penny dreadful was a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one (old) penny. The term, however, soon came to encompass a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction, such as story papers and booklet "libraries". The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed primarily at working class adolescents.

So I have now watched the first episode of Penny Dreadful, which has been released to the Internet by Showtime weeks before the official premiere date. The premise is very simple: a bunch of scary literature characters are put to London, to the year 1891 (surely, the audience is already exhausted from Victorian London, but any other place and time would hardly work just as well). If American Horror Story citated various horror movies, Penny Dreadful is referring to English literature, although the creators of the latter seem to interpret the classical characters quite freely, for example, I felt some strong gay vibes between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.

Many of the newer series are loosely based on well known books, characters or movies, like Hannibal, Once Upon A Time or Fargo, so I guess the idea of creating a weird fanfic about Dracula, Dorian Gray and Dr. Frankenstein was on the surface. 

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about this show, so I'll break my review into two parts.

Firstly, here are the things that I did like:

Visuals and audio. The series is very beautifully shot, the picture is mesmerizing at times, there don't seem to be any cheesy special effects, such as oozy substance coming out of trees, like in Salem. There is extreme amount of fake blood everywhere, of course, but that is to be expected. The soundtrack is also awesomely dark and intense, the music definitely suits whatever's on the screen and helps creating the proper mood.

It is actually quite scary. A great deal of tension is created by making you anticipate something bad happening long before it actually happens. Although only about 10-15% of the episode is devoted to frightening stuff, in the aftermath you do feel a little scared.

The acting. This is one of the series where the cast does save the day. Eva Green, who's playing one of the key roles - a psychic Vanessa Ives -  is definitely the star of Penny Dreadful, and on top of being absolutely gorgeous, she shows how one reveals great passion and suffering underneath the cold surface. Some of the other actors (the cast is predominantly male, of course) have enunciation issues, so I really had to listen carefully to what they were saying, but in general, all are strong, and they do get everything they can from the mediocre material.

Sex scenes, though surely present (otherwise Showtime wouldn't go for it, I gather), are not particularly graphic or overwhelming. The series wouldn't be any worse if they weren't there, but luckily, it doesn't suffer from them being present either, like some of the other TV shows.

Now about the things that I did not enjoy.

After having watched the first episode, I can say that Penny Dreadful has a hectic storyline, although, to be fair, it is a very widespread issue with pilots. It requires great deal of talent to properly introduce complicated characters and a mystery that would make the viewer want to watch the second episode within just one hour. So there's a good chance the narration might improve as the series goes along. However, the fact that they don't mention anything related to the actual plot on the official page of the show, makes me suspect that it is because they have nothing to say about it.

The dialogues that tend to turn into monologues are rather weak and sort of pathetical. Mainly they remind of the painful lines from cheap novels. This may be because the creators are going for resemblance with the penny dreadful genre, which requires long painful dialogues, although in this case I would prefer a bit more elegance in execution of this idea. 

I don't think I am going to watch this show, 'cause I'm not into scary movies in general and there's not much in it for me to compensate for all the time that needs to be spent on  looking away whenever something is about to jump out of darkness. But overall it is definitely a solid piece of work and I'm sure many people with brave hearts would actually find it very enjoyable, especially if they improve the plot.

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