“PENNY DREADFUL” (TV Pilot Review)
In Showtime’s long-running efforts to bring horror to premium cable, they’ve often mistaken what works so well about horror: actually being scary. While DEXTER brought bountiful blood and MASTERS OF HORROR occasionally lived up to its title, Showtime traded suspense for presumed intensity while exploiting the freedoms outside of the limits of broadcast television restrictions. The atmospheric PENNY DREADFUL however, just may be the series to pull Showtime into more serious horror territory, as long as future episodes make good on the potential of the impressively creepy pilot.The brainchild of SKYFALL writer John Logan, PENNY DREADFUL risks much of its narrative impact in its slow-paced boiling of subplots, many of which are still obscured in the shadows by the pilot’s end. In fact, by the end of the first episode, several critical faces have yet to be revealed and their mechanism in the narrative are satisfyingly unpredictable at this point. But in the crawl to the end of the pilot, “Night Work,” the line between reality and fantasy merges into one, and the resulting world is both scary and unsettling.
For those looking for blood, PENNY DREADFUL is likely to deliver, especially in the dark crime scene shots from “Night Work” that insinuate a supernatural bend to one of London’s most notorious criminals. Blood is merely physical collateral in John Logan’s Gothic universe however, which follows an enigmatic team of supernatural investigators as they hire a skilled American gunman to help them track a missing woman in Victorian London. As expected, the story of the missing woman intersects with that of man-made monsters, undead creatures and many, many spiders. But the creatures in the light aren’t nearly as terrifying as those still lying in the shadows of PENNY DREADFUL’s pilot. Luckily for Logan, the dramatic need comes before the monsters of PENNY DREADFUL, therefore engaging the audience with the humans of the piece as we await for the demons to show face.
Aside from Logan’s classy, captivating dialogue, PENNY DREADFUL also profits from the influence of producer Sam Mendes and director Juan Antonio Bayona. Bayona’s visually powerful filmmaking and understanding of horror benefit “Night Work” greatly, letting the incredible production design suck you into the universe, while providing just enough action and terror to keep you engaged throughout the brooding story. Mendes, however, appears much more in the way of realization, helping Logan maintain the freedom and focus to develop the series through a watchful eye of supervision. Special acknowledgement should also go to Abel Korzeniowski, who provides an exceptionally fitting and wondrous score for the series.
PENNY DREADFUL also has a magnificent cast, all inhabiting unique characters who energize the story during its slow-paced narrative. Eva Green appears to be the heart of the series, creating an alluring mystique in every frame of her performance. Timothy Dalton and Josh Hartnett are colorful and committed in their particular roles, each clearly having fun playing these unpredictable, tormented souls. “Night Work” also presents a surprise in Harry Treadaway’s performance as Victor Frankenstein, as he hypnotically plays the neurotic and reserved fascination with the supernatural.
With a promising introduction, there’s hope PENNY DREADFUL follows a wicked path to truly deviate from its myriad inspirations. Brooding with a touch of brutality thanks to Logan’s frightening framework, PENNY DREADFUL has a great appeal in its gorgeous production design and basic intrigue. Even with the likes of Sam Mendes and J.A. Bayona behind the camera, PENNY DREADFUL still has the novelty of reinterpreting Victorian Gothic horror, so only time will tell if the pilot’s potential is fulfilled. Still, the series is surprisingly sharp and confident in its opening hour, spinning a web of macabre mystery that’s impossible to resist.