Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Penny Dreadful Series One


Penny Dreadful Series One
2014 USA

Paramount Home Entertainment
Blu Ray Zone B

I’ve been wanting to see Penny Dreadful for a while now. Been patiently waiting for it to show up on some normal channel on television over here but, alas, none of the proper channels without adverts - aka BBC1 and BBC2 - or even their two advert filled rivals, ITV and Channel 4, have screened it. Forget the other channels too... they also run adverts. Luckily, a Christmas gift in the form of a Blu Ray of Series One turned up... so here we go.

I didn’t know much about this show from the start. Two things really. One was the title, which obviously recalls the one penny priced, blood and guts sensational fiction of the Victorian era, the Penny Dreadfuls being perhaps best defined by famous poster boy yarns such as Varney The Vampire and Sweeny Todd. So I knew it would be a ‘mash up’, in modern parlance, of various gothic horror tropes and tales all thrown in together and, this is indeed what it is... the first series incorporating elements of Dracula, Frankenstein and A Portrait Of Dorian Gray... among others.

The other thing I knew was that it had a bloody good cast, including the four main draws for me... Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper and Josh Hartnett. Their co-stars, who I am less familiar with, also, as it happens, give great performances too. So even if an episode is maybe less enthralling than another... you can always count on the quality of the acting to steer you through.

This first series suffers a little, perhaps, from being a touch uneven in places and I wonder if that’s to do with the direction in each episode. Some are full on gems of horror with blood and sex in equal measure and some are more sedate, toned down and perhaps lacking the more prominent ingredients of their Victorian namesakes, it seems to me. The lengths of the episodes tend to vary a little too... some clocking in around 45 minutes while others seem to run almost ten minutes longer. That being said, the atmosphere in each one is quite startlingly intriguing and even the more tamer episodes can be mightily entertaining... athough I thought the initial set up episode was something less than what was being achieved in certain others of the series.

Unfortunately, the shifting tone also runs to the story elements of this one, too. Some things are really obvious and telegraphed from the get go and one wonders why the writers waited until the last episode in this first series to uncover these revelations which the audience must surely have figured out from very early on in the series. For instance, Billy Piper’s lovable Irish prostitute, introduced in the second episode, hooking up with Josh Hartnett’s character after shooting pornographic photographs with Dorian Gray (played by Reeve Carney), is gradually dying of consumption as a feature of her character as soon as she is introduced. One just assumes from the start that Piper’s character is going to die and end up being fodder for another character caught up in the plot, transforming into what many might see as a key legacy character fairly soon after her death and... indeed, the ‘makings’ of this character do indeed start to play out in the last episode of this first season. So I’ve no doubt she’ll be back in a much changed form for the second series.

Similarly, all the way through since he was introduced in the first episode, Hartnett’s character seems to be a set up for something more to come and it was in the second episode where I finally nailed just who... or rather what.. he is. Again, though, his transformation into a very specific and iconic figure is kept back right until the end of the last episode... following on from the similarly ‘not so surprising’ revelations about Billie Piper. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this character’s ‘hidden’ talent in the next series. It might even be a case, depending on whether they want to go the whole hog with the original character name, that this makes Hartnett only the third person in the history of cinema and television, to play this specific character (a crown which was held as being played by only Lon Chaney Jr until only a few years ago, in fact).

So yeah... there’s that lack of surprise in certain key elements of the script which can’t be gotten away from. I wouldn’t be surprised, also, if something resembling The Mummy comes in to the show at some point soon, either, since there are a lot of references to the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and so on dotted about the early episodes. Something held back for future seasons, alongside some other famous characters, no doubt.

All that being said, the series does still manage to surprise in certain places. The end of the second episode, Séance, for instance, is probably the bloodiest and most shocking in terms of language (when it comes to an amazing scene featuring Eva Green) but the final moments involving Victor Frankenstein (played by Harry Treadaway) and his new creation, who he has been bonding with over the course of the episode, is quite refreshing in terms of completely throwing away what the audience might have thought the purpose of that slow build was and actually caught me off guard. This is a good thing because that hardly ever happens to me and it definitely helped get me hooked from fairly early on in the run of the show.

Another introduction took me completely by surprise too. Most of the established characters from famous fictional sources are introduced in terms of their identity in a fairly sloppy manner, it has to be said, but one of them took me completely unawares. Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray has been promising Frankenstein a consultation with a friend who is an expert on blood and, when David Warner turns up playing this character and his name is revealed... well I didn’t put two and two together until his identity became known. What was even more surprising, given the reverance in which this character is held, is what happens to him a mere episode or two later. I don’t want to spoil the moment if you haven’t seen the show and I don’t neccessarily agree it was the right thing to do, but it certainly came as a slight shock although, in hindsight, the scenes with David Warner directly preceeding these really do kind of spell it out that this ‘incident’ is going to happen soon. I’m just getting old, methinks.

All in all though, the atmosphere and weight of the show, although uneven, is certainly enough to keep me watching. I do find the individual characters interesting and even the Frankenstein monster, played by Rory Kinnear, had my sympathies as the end of the first season drew to a close. It’ll certainly be interesting, though, to see where the main characters, brought together on a quest to find Murray’s daughter, Mina Harker (yeah... that Mina Harker), go from here... since that main plot comes to a close, somewhat, in the last episode. I’m pretty sure some supernatural being, either Egyptian or possibly Indian, may pose a new threat to Dalton’s character and his allies but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. Since I spent some Christmas money on the second series on Blu Ray, I’m hoping to be able to get to watch these in a month or two. As far as the first season goes, however, it’s not the absolute masterpiece of gothic horror I was hoping for but, with stalwarts like Eva Green and Timothy Dalton in there to prove that you really can’t go wrong with them, I think most fans of this kind of literary entertainment should be delightedly and dreadfully surprised. Worth checking out.

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