How Penny Dreadful Reanimated the Gothic-Horror Genre

The Showtime series serves up frights, action, and big ideas about life and death—sans camp.
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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.

All of that comes through in the show. Vanessa has the facade of the prim and proper Victorian lady, but her dark desires underneath could attract very evil supernatural spirits. Although she isn't based on any specific character from Victorian literature—elements of Lucy Westenra and even Sherlock Holmes come to mind though—she has quickly become the standout of the cast. Eva Green is at her best when Vanessa gets to play host to a number of demons and ghosts at a séance.

She's an amazing partner to Malcolm, who’s more restrained than her but just as fascinating. Sir Malcolm is the renowned explorer, the Great White Hunter going after a new prey, and unleashing his ruthless style of exploration onto the streets of London. Dalton is particularly electrifying, all burning turmoil and rage hidden behind a calm demeanor. His presence on screen rivals that of Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle. Both he and Green give some of the best performances of their careers, and Logan's scripting keeps the characters from seeming like metaphors rather than human beings.

In an age when so many new adaptations must play homage to the shared cultural idea of a famous character, Penny Dreadful deftly uses its source material. There are no painfully aware winks at the audience when a character's name is revealed, nor does the show go out of the way to shout out to some other adaptation at the expense of tone.

It changes some details and plays with archetypes, respecting the canon without being a slave to it. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is still plagued by the Creature he created and abandoned, and he is once again adapted into the Victorian era from the book's late 1700s setting. But in a clever twist, instead of being the Industrial-minded figure in a Romantic age, he's reimagined as a poetry-loving Romantic in the cold industrial London of the 1890s. The Creature isn't the Byronic figure of Mary Shelley's book, nor the mute brute of the Universal films, but reimagined as a Phantom of the Opera-like character obsessed with progress.

Perhaps as an amusing nod to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film's addition of a gunslinging Tom Sawyer to the mix, Penny Dreadful gives us Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a swaggering American sharpshooter. But instead of being the hero of the story, he's constantly left out of the loop, treated mostly as a useful tool by the story’s more cerebral heroes. The only failure in adaptation is Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray. Although he's gotten better over the course of the show, his unkempt, greasy lout is too unlike from the cultured seducer of Oscar Wilde's novel. That fact is especially disappointing in light of Alexander Vlahos's marvelous and recent turn as the hedonist in The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

Although it avoids the sensationalism of the real penny dreadfuls, the show does borrow the serial format, and to great effect. The plot and melodrama feed a more intense adventure, and the story is always moving forward. Cliffhangers, reveals, and dramatic shifts in relationships fill the show, stringing audiences along for the next week just as readers in the 1800s would wait for the next installment of their favorite serial.

Many of today’s best TV series are serials as well, of course, but Penny Dreadful’s use of the format feels more like a continuation of the literary tradition it draws from. The show’s a rare example of how to reimagine classic ideas without losing their spirit. And it’s a reminder of why this genre of horror is so compelling. Everyone need a good scare.

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Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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