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PENNY DREADFUL… please don’t be the next HEMLOCK GROVE

Posted on July 16th, 2014
Posted on July 16th, 2014

by Coop Cooper

Not since “Dexter” has Showtime taken a stab at another ambitious cable horror series. Now, with “Penny Dreadful”, the premium network attempts to capture lightning in a bottle again by putting famous horror literary figures in a weekly show. ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ were cheap pulp fiction novellas produced during the turn of the century. If Showtime does this show justice, they have a shot at emulating the tone and atmosphere of those namesake novels.

In Victorian London, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is roped into an underworld where vampires hunt freely, scientists resurrect the dead and the supernatural is commonplace. Hired as muscle by the mysterious psychic, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Chandler aids Ives and a famous explorer named Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in a rescue attempt to save Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina from a vampire nest. Intrigued by this dark world he has discovered, Chandler is drawn in by Ives but seems to have his own dark agenda. Meanwhile, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) helps dissect vampires for Sir Malcolm and accidentally creates new life.

The series sets up some interesting run-ins with both fictional characters and real-life people from the time period. Mina Murray Harker from the “Dracula” novel makes an appearance, as well does Jack The Ripper (in name-only). It is hinted from previews that Dorian Gray will become a major character in upcoming episodes. If this sounds familiar, that’s because this matching of gothic horror novel characters has been done before. The comic book “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” which was adapted into a very lousy movie in 2003 also featured Dorian Gray and Mina Murray Harker as characters. While “League” was possibly an inspiration for “Penny Dreadful”, this new show is attempting to go in a more serious and scary direction but still runs the risk of becoming corny.

Green is as alluring as ever. I’m not sure where they are going with her character, but she is already the most interesting thing about the show. Hartnett seems miscast. Much like Leonardo DiCaprio, Hartnett is too baby-faced and seems to be forced into roles they don’t seem suited for. Despite that, I still like him and I think he can pull this off. Dalton plays his role so dire and serious, it almost feels like he could become something of a villain in the show. The real find in the cast may turn out to be Treadaway with his eccentric portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein, even though the reveal of his monster was a major letdown in the pilot.

One of my largest complaints about ‘adult’ horror series is that they don’t know how to scare the audience. They feel like they are handled by creators who don’t really know what horror is or want to appeal to a non-horror audience. I see this trend in shows like the “American Horror Story” series and “Hemlock Grove”. Other series like “The Walking Dead”, “True Detective” and “Dexter” did it right because they kept things rooted further in reality and based around strong characters who had to make exceedingly difficult choices. However, when you have vampires fighting werewolves or try to mix ghosts in with aliens, the formula is in danger of falling into a sillier realm.

Unlike Showtime’s 2006 premiere of “Dexter” It’s far to soon to tell if this show has potential to be anything special. It treads a lot of familiar territory but doing the original source material any justice will be a tall order. Although it delivers a lot of gore and a few scares, the pilot doesn’t allow for much in the way of character development. “Dexter” felt like a hit from the first episode but if the “Penny Dreadful” pilot is any indication, it’s going to take awhile for the gothic show to spread its wings. ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” took over ten episodes for it to find its footing and prove itself exceptional. Let’s hope “Dreadful” picks up the pace.

Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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