A good fright is hard to find. That’s not for lack of effort, though. The horror market remains strong, producing plenty films with jump-scares and gore. But good, rich, gothic horror, where the frights elevate the drama and vice versa, is rare.
That's what makes Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, whose first season finale airs Sunday, such a delight. It's scary, and it has managed to put a new spin on classic horror tales without betraying them. If the literature were a song, Penny Dreadful is an addictive remix instead of a cover that loses the potency and point.
Penny Dreadful takes its name from the cheap sensationalist fiction of 1800s Britain, but its characters and story owes more to the great gothic literature of the Victorian era. John Logan, who created and wrote the entire show, strings together Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and elements from other works into one shared narrative.
Throwing a bunch of literary characters together in a story isn't new. The monster mash goes back to the Universal Monster movies starting in the ‘20s. At the turn of the recent century, Alan Moore brought Victorian heroes together in his comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, that series quickly turned into an exercise of deconstruction, while the film adaptation went for un-nuanced camp. The Van Helsing movie mixed genre homage with an action film and disappointed in both efforts. But Penny Dreadful assembles its cast of literary characters and icons to stage an entirely straight-faced horror show.
The show's main plot is quite simple: Obliquely it's a Dracula adaptation, with psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) recruiting a band of literary archetypes to rescue Malcolm's daughter Mina from vampires. But then it throws in the experiments of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a manipulative demon, the Grand Guignol theater, and a heavy dose of Egyptian mythology. The Dracula plot is still the anchor—and still closer to Bram Stoker's novel than NBC's recent, campy miniseries—but the overall story is quite new, and weaved together in such a way that even moments from the books surprise.
That story works because the show embraces its genre unapologetically. Instead of trying to change or downplay the tone or signal self-awareness about it, Penny Dreadful gives the audience actual dark and stormy nights, and makes them actually scary and foreboding.
Unlike the publications it’s named for, the show focuses not on the lurid but on existential ideas and atmosphere. More than anything, Penny Dreadful is a mediation on the naturalness of death. Stuffed animals, corpses, and run-down buildings fill the backgrounds and often the foregrounds of the show, with the living, breathing protagonists are the oddity, not the norm. Any attempt at cheating or manipulating death—reanimation, Egyptian blood curses, or deals with the devil in the form of portraits—has a malevolent nature and might ultimately be futile. In Penny Dreadful, death is the only answer. How intensely and delightfully gothic.
The gothic genre started as an offshoot of Romanticism, weaving stories rife with ancient horrors, dark passions, and doom. It was bloody, but the focus was never on the gore. Nor was it the seeping unease and otherworldly cosmic horror that defined HP Lovecraft’s work. Rather, it was about atmosphere—oppressive, lush settings where the drama and horror was intimate. Surprisingly, the Industrial Age didn't kill the genre, but gave it new life. Technological advances created even more dark shadows in urban areas, and in literature, the townhouses of the city replaced the haunted castles of the countryside.
The cultural norms and standards of the Victorian era added complexity to the genre. Immigrants brought new folklore into the English-speaking culture, and popular interest in Ancient Egypt and other realms of “the exotic” rose. Widespread disease came to symbolize some cultural malady, while vampires and other creatures were used as metaphors for everything from sexuality to greed. In the age of the expanding British empire and a prudish society, the gothic literature of the Victorian era offered great, if sometimes over-the-top, commentary. Even the cheaper penny dreadfuls got into the mix.