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I do love me some science fiction and fantasy, indeed, I even studied it at university. It’s a genre that is free to extrapolate on social, ideological and moral ideas and display them in an arena where a suspension of disbelief allows for an easier access into otherwise weighty conundrums. I also happen to love me some gory horror where the sole purpose is to titillate and shock, and Penny Dreadful delivers on all of this. Created and penned by Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall, Any Given Sunday) the show is a British-American production created by Sky Atlantic and Showtime and derives its name from the sensational and trashy novels of the 19th Century (think Mills and Boon only with less boom and more molars).

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Set in London during the time of Jack the Ripper, Penny Dreadful follows a group of rather interesting individuals pulled from classic literature a la Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the fantastic comics, not the horrible movie). Now firstly, you might notice some familiar faces in the picture above, faces that are, or should I say were, rather damn famous. Yes, that is indeed James Bond, I mean Timothy Dalton, an actor who in this role has finally shed that ‘almost worst bond eva’ stigma (a label I think unjustly applied) as he plays adventurer Sir Malcolm Murray, on a mission to find his kidnapped daughter Mina (very strongly hinted to be Mina Harker of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” fame).

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We have heart-throb Josh Heartnet (Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, 30 Days of Night) who plays, well hell, I’m not sure. On the surface he’s a charming gun slinger from America named Ethan Chandler, but who, as we later learn, has more secrets than the average NSA safe house. Mr Chandler is also smitten with Brona Croft, an ailing lady of men’s pleasure played by Doctor Who‘s Billy Piper, who ends up in a key role. We also have the enigmatic Danny Sapani as Sembene, a character who is linked to Sir Malcolm Murray in a way we are not sure of yet –  what he does with twin blades is pretty awesome. Then we have Dorian Gray played by Reeve Carney (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Snow Falling on Cedars). His immortal character is of course from the classic novel “A Portrait of Dorian Grey” by Oscar Wilde and offers more eye candy than the editing floor of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

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Of course no horror/gothic thriller would be complete without Dr Victor von Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway (City of Ember) and his very eloquent and tragic monster, now named Caliban (played by Rory Kinnear). I particularly like this element of the story, as they pull direct quotes from Mary Shelly’s famous novel “Frankenstein”. Also, this portrayal of Frankenstein, as a real arrogant, self obsessed lunatic, is the version of the character I’ve always wanted to see.

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This leaves just one other main character, the stunning and very intense Eva Green. She plays medium Vanessa Ives who is central to the plot of the story and has some serious mojo going on – not all of it good. Let’s put it this way, when Dexter blathered on about his ‘dark passenger’ he knew nothing compared to Miss Ives. Green has always been a fantastic actress, but here she keeps upping the game as she repeatedly steals the show in several incredibly gripping scenes.

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A rather motley crew of fictional characters – with a few new ones peppered in for good measure – if I ever did see, who all (sometimes reluctantly) band together under the direction of Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray who will do just about anything and use just about anybody to get his daughter back from the clutches of what appears to be great vampire “Master” (there are also werewolves ladies, for those of you with a lycanthropic affinity).

The strength in Penny Dreadful certainly lies in the horror, and there are some scenes that will have you speechless. Not only from fear, but also from the acting (I am looking at you, as always, Eva Green). The cast support each other very well with some other notable mentions. In particular I enjoy the screen time with Kinnear as the monstrous Caliban. One moment you really feel for the sadness of Frankenstein’s monster, the next you are thinking about what a douche he is! Timothy Dalton also delivers on the acting, as does Dr Frankenstein himself.

But again I come back to Eva Green. Her performance in each episode is truly fantastic with a few standing out. If she isn’t at the very least nominated for an Emmy, I will be extremely surprised.

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Where the show does suffer however, is in its inconsistency. Out of season one’s eight episodes, four different directors were used, and it can at times be painfully obvious. For me the first two episodes, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage), and the last two under James Hawes were brilliant. Yes, as directors they were afforded the respective fun of starting with the ‘origin story’ of the series and the climax at the tail end, but the ebb and flow in the middle was rather noticeable and at times I’d even say boring (though luckily never for very long). I am not sure what their plans are for the second season but I hope the producers note the scores given to each episode and act accordingly.

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To me Penny Dreadful is a classier version of True Blood mixed with Sleepy Hollow with side orders of Supernatural and Ripper Street. Note that Penny Dreadful is graphic, not only in the gore sense but in the over-the-top use of nudity (yes, Eva Green once again finds it difficult to keep her corset on) and sex. It does sometimes feel a little forced, a little too Game of Thrones, but I can appreciate what they are trying to do – create an adult horror show – and they do it rather well, even with a few bumps in the road. The show has already been picked up for a second season and if you are into horror and enjoy being thrilled, I recommend Penny Dreadful, even if only to see Eva Green go postal.

Last Updated: August 5, 2014

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Nick De Bruyne

Video games writer, editor and critic since '08. Living and breathing video games, movies and cars since the 80s. Follow me on Twitter if you love tons of gaming talk, and @pennyworthrevs for fun stuff and links.

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