SXSW 2014: PENNY DREADFUL 1.01 Pilot Review

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR “Penny Dreadful!” You may want to skip this review if you don’t want to know anything going into the series.


Showtime has gathered up a superb group of actors, directors, and writers to bring to life a new series mixing all kinds of iconic old-school horror creatures in “Penny Dreadful.” The series’ name may strike you as odd, but it refers back to old British publications featuring garish horror serial stories that would only cost – you guessed it! – one penny. While this phrase may have originally represented a form of cheap entertainment, but “Penny Dreadful” is no such thing.

Those looking for the dark, the twisted and the macabre, look no further than the pilot to “Penny Dreadful”, which features some of the most grizzly sights and sequences I’ve ever seen on television. This London-based series opens in the late 1800s with a young mother getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night- her only light being the oil lamp in hand- and, while she’s got her pants down and goodies exposed, some thing bursts through the wall and kidnaps her. We later find out that there have been other, similar attacks to this one and they usually end in a sea of red paint and intestines. Therein lies the beauty of having this show on a premium channel; you can get as violent or as profane as the story requires, and, as Hartnett simply put it, “You can have the characters say f**k.”

The bulk of “Penny Dreadful” focuses on three investigators trying to prevent the violent and the profane. First is Vanessa (Eva Green), whom we don’t learn much about other than she’s got some sort of precognitive/fortune-telling abilities, she also knows how to psych out a vampire with just a look, and prays often (and intensely) to keep a horde of spiders at bay. Josh Hartnett plays Ethan Chandler, the lone American of the cast and a sharp-shooter trying to keep memories of his past buried. After being impressed with his iron nerves and shooting skills, Vanessa invites Ethan to join her and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) in their investigations.

They don’t really tell Ethan what that will entail, though. It’s smart, as he probably wouldn’t have believed them, but it’s also kind of a dick move since they quickly end up beneath an opium den fighting tons of vampires, wading through three-inch pools of blood with piles of mangled corpses stacked from floorboards to rafters. The battle against the bloodsuckers is a well-choreographed smackdown, leading me to hope that we’ll see plenty more swashbuckling, creature-slaying action in episodes to come.

From there we find that Sir Malcolm’s daughter is the woman who was snatched up in the beginning of the episode. He believes that the vampires have kidnapped her, and would “murder the world” to get her back, so he turns to London’s most elite – and unhinged – coroner (Harry Treadway) for his expert opinion on the vampire corpses, hoping to find some clue as to their master’s whereabouts. Treadway’s performance here is intense and nuanced; every moment he’s on the screen you can’t take your eyes off of him.

There also seems to be something dangerous about this brilliantly dangerous coroner, and, if your spidey-senses were tingling about him early on, they’re spot-on, as we find out at the end of the episode that he’s none other than Victor Frankenstein, and he’s just managed to get his science fair project- animating a creature made of cobbled-together corpses- to work. Since we’re seeing Frankenstein and his monster in episode one, those with pennies to spare should bet on “Penny Dreadful” featuring the fearsome visage of Dracula as the leader of the vampires ripping their way through London. 

“Penny Dreadful” has a great look, a great setting in 1800s London, and an incredibly strong cast– one with a curiously strong connection to the “James Bond” franchise. John Logan, the writer of Skyfall, created the series, Skyfall’s director Sam Mendes produces, Eva Green was the Bond Girl of Casino Royale, and, let’s not forget, Timothy Dalton donned Bond’s tuxedo not-too-long ago. At the Q&A after the SXSW screening, star Josh Hartnett commented on this saying, “There’s a lot of James Bond on this show. I said to someone, ‘I think I’m being groomed for the next Bond movie’.”

That could be a possibility, Josh, but if “Penny Dreadful” can keep up the quality seen in the pilot episode, this project’s going to keep you busy for many years to come. The only real complaint to be had about this fast-paced, imaginative horror series is that it could probably stand to present more horror without relying so heavily on gore. The sequence at the beginning of the show had some good, creepy stuff to it, but, for the most part, “Penny Dreadful” relies on stacks of blood and bits to horrify rather than being more clever about it.

Still, this impressively-crafted series promises loads of dark adventures involving some of literature’s most memorable characters, so if you have an itch to go galumphing through the shadows, make sure to catch “Penny Dreadful” when it premieres May 11, 2014, on Showtime.