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Penny Dreadful - 1.01 - Night Work - Review



*This Review Contains Spoilers*

Do not read this review unless you have watched the episode, now available on Showtime.com, as it will make reference to specific scenes and occurrences.

"Do not be amazed at anything you see. And don't hesitate"

With those words, Ethan Chandler, as well as the audience, are swept into a world found only between the steam and shadows of Victorian London. Familiar ghouls and legitimately scary moments (I admit I jumped in my seat a few times) haunt this lavishly shot imagining of what would happen if the literary ghosts came out to haunt the real world. The title Penny Dreadful comes from publications of the same name common to 19th century England. Penny dreadfuls were small, cheap magazines containing sensational short stories aimed at working class young boys. Think of them as the MAD magazine of the Industrial Age. Often these serialized stories featured frightening or unsavory characters such as Varney the Vampire, Dick Turpin a notorious fictional highway man, and Spring-Heeled Jack, a popular urban legend at the time. Even Sweeney Todd himself got his start in a penny dreadful series know as The String of Pearls: A Romance. The mood and subject matter of Penny Dreadful mirrors these Gothic tales, tales meant to titillate and allow the youth who read them escape in to a world of daring and mystery.

The premier episode begins with a mother and child, asleep in a hovel. The mother rises from her bed and we are privy to her use of, well, the privy. Her back is to a window, so my horror movie senses immediately began to tingle. Sure enough, the mother is unceremoniously yanked screaming through the window by... something and disappears into the night. Her daughter is awoken by the commotion and investigates. Whatever she discovers about her mother's fate will have to wait, for with a scream from her we are launched into the opening credits.

After the credits, we see a woman on her knees praying in the Hail Mary in Latin before a crucifix in a rather austere room. This is Vanessa Ives and she looks haggard and troubled as she repeats the prayer over and over, only stopping to observe a wicked looking spider skitter over the crucifix, while faint ominous whispers can be heard in the background. Another spider appears on her clenched hands and pauses a moment, almost as if to acknowledge Vanessa and her futile prayers. She then seizes, her eyes rolling into the back of her head while a disembodied voice assures Vanessa, "Soon, child, soon. I'm hungry...". So, apart from literary spooks and spirits, are we to expect demon possession this season?

We quickly jump to daytime, where a wild west show is taking place out in a field. Spectators take in the quick draw marksmanship of Ethan Chandler, who showboats his skills with a gun, shooting plates and horseshoes out of the air while spinning tales of how he survived Custer's Last Stand. One of my favorite shots of the entire episode occurs here, a nifty piece of cinematography as the camera zooms in on Vanessa in the stands, sitting stock still amongst the other spectators whose heads whip back and forth, following each of Ethan's shots like a tennis volley. Vanessa, however, only has eyes for the American showman, who ends his show by shooting a feather out of a young woman's hat. This must have deeply impressed the young lady, for later on we see her and Ethan shagging against one of the show's wagons in the woods. Ethan is established as a bit of a con man here, promising to never forget his lover, though he doesn't even know her name.

The scene follows Ethan to a tavern who is gazing at a pocket watch with an inscription from his father, when he is joined by the mysterious Vanessa. She does a quick Sherlock Scan of the sharpshooter, noting he is a man used to wealth, yet squanders it, a man in hard times who enjoys the drink. Ethan is intrigued by her proposal of some "night work", as she is in need of someone talented with firearms. The job is tonight and Ethan is given an address.

Later on that night, Ethan and Vanessa meet at an opium den, a staple for media regarding this time period, and are joined by one Sir Malcolm, the financier of this "night job". Sir Malcolm and Vanessa keep Ethan in the dark as to his role in their endeavor, only assuring him that they are searching for someone. The trio descent deeper into the bowels of the opium den. The lighting here is very soft and amber, reminding the viewer of old sepia toned photographs. Often when we see "dark and gritty" media the colors tend to be very blue, so it's interesting that for this scene the show decided to go with a warmer color palette.

Deep underground, our protagonists come across three pale and sickly looking men. One of them strongly reminds me of Nosferatu with his pointed ears and bald pate. Sir Malcolm and the lead ghoul begin to argue in Arabic, the dialogue going untranslated. It was made clear that our protagonists seek the opposing trio's master, but trouble is brewing as two of the ghouls flank off to the sides, watching and waiting. Vanessa hears a girlish giggle in the distance, but quickly all hell breaks loose as the ghouls attack Sir Malcolm and Ethan. These enemies are especially resilient, particularly against Ethan, who gets off many shots with his six shooter. However, their supernatural nature isn't revealed until one of the fallen contorts himself in an impossible way as he rises to his feet.

While the brawl is going on Vanessa wanders deeper into the area, following distant sobs and crying. She comes across a room littered with blood and dismembered bodies, gore as far as the eye can see, entrails having become extrails. Among the gore are several unconscious, pale individuals, lying in beds of leaves. Vanessa examines one and we see telltale twin puncture wounds on its neck. Yep, we got vampires. According to some legends, vampires must rest in the earth of their homeland in order to regenerate. I wonder if this method also works with leaves or if the foliage was a stylistic choice. Vanessa's poking around is interrupted by the head ghoul, who seems to be recovering nicely from being shot full of bullets. And Ethan quickly arrives to add a few more.

Sir Malcolm and Vanessa continue to search for the missing "her", while Ethan is distracted by movement in one of the body piles. This is just a fake out scare by a rat, the real terror beginning when a vampire-like creature pops its head out of the pile, unearthing itself from the mutilated bodies. It's more feral and resilient than the ghouls our protagonists dealt with before, so much so that Ethan's bullets don't even seem to penetrate its skin. Sir Malcolm is ready for the beast with a bad ass cane sword, but it's Vanessa who takes control of the situation. She stares down the confused monster long enough for Sir Malcolm to shish-kabob it with his concealed weapon. Whatever Vanessa's deal is with the occult and those spiders, it must be some serious hoodoo to stop a rampaging monster in its tracks like that. Vanessa and Sir Malcolm realize that the female they are seeking is not in the vampire pit and there must be another like the creature they have slain. Ethan is shaken by the events he just witness, while the pair stake the remaining vampires for good measure.

Cut to a new vision of gore, as Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and Ethan enter the hidden workshop of surgical students. Cadavers in these times were the main method doctors learned their trade, but the lack of executed criminals and the vast demand for bodies due to scientific growth made acquiring legitimate subjects difficult. Grave robbing became a trade, to the point where those dealing in bodies, "resurrectionists", tried to up their game and offer fresher subjects by committing murder. One of the most famous examples of this are the Burke and Hare murders, where William Burke and William Hare suffocated about sixteen people in order to sell their bodies for anatomical study. Their method of murder even gave birth to the term "to burke", meaning to smother someone by sitting on their chest. I wonder how it is that someone who is knighted, like Sir Malcolm, can get away with being seen so openly in a place such as this.

Our trio bring their newly acquired corpse to the back room where the proprietor's assistant is working with a severed arm. He is very haughty, dismissing Sir Malcolm and the rest as he claims to be busy with research. It's interesting to note that this young man does question Ethan on the subject of galvanism, which is a huge clue as to who he actually is. Galvanism is the archaic term for electrophysiology, or the biological study of muscle contractions induced with electricity. There should now be a gigantic, steampunk-y sign over this man's head blinking "I Am Victor Frankenstein". As such, I shall be referring to him as Frankenstein for the remainder of the review.

The good doctor doesn't have a minute of time for this mystery body, that is until Vanessa uncovers it and reveals its unusual nature. Then Frankenstein is like a kid on Christmas with a new toy. He rattles off various biological and physiological points of interest and descriptions, definitely assuring the audience that he is not only well educated despite his bad attitude, but also that the body is far from human. Bearing an exoskeleton, which the doctor peels away to reveal Egyptian hieroglyphics, it's safe to say our vampire is more insect than mammal. This brings to mind scarabs, who in ancient Egyptian religion were associated with an aspect of the Sun god Ra and symbolized regeneration or rebirth. Naturally, Ethan is overwhelmed by all of this, but in order to get answers he'll have to meet with Vanessa and Sir Malcolm tomorrow. Clearly these two are baiting the hook, hoping someone with such skills will continue to aid them with their search.

Elsewhere in London, the authorities have discovered the mother and child from the pre-title sequence. The carnage is extreme. I'll spare you a screenshot, but it's like someone was making salsa and the blender blew up. We even have a constable vomiting in the corner. Ah, some tropes are just timeless, aren't they? On one hand I'm inclined to say this is just gore for the sake of gore, tying in with the theme of the original penny dreadfuls, here to shock the reader, to push the limits of propriety. On the other, one could say this is a very striking and...colorful way to show the viewers that what ever is lurking out there in the night is dangerous and spares nothing. No one is safe.

Cut to Ethan, who is seen arriving at Sir Malcolm's abode. The door is answered by an African American servant with unique scarification on his face. These type of markings were often seen in Africans of various tribes years ago. They served various aesthetic and social purposes, the latter resulting in scars that served as markers of one's political and religious roles. Often, the owners of such body modification were held in high regard. So I'm inclined to believe that this man is certainly not a simple servant, perhaps someone lying low and working on more dangerous tasks for Sir Malcolm. As Ethan waits for his host, he inspects a parlor with a large map taking up most of the wall, various notes attached. This seems like a Victorian version of the push pin map often seen in most crime thrillers. Who ever Sir Malcolm is searching for, he certainly is dedicated to the task.

Vanessa silently arrives at Ethan's shoulder and brings him to a small library where she has a deck of cards spread face down on a small table. Ethan scoffs at the fact that one of his would-be employers is a spiritualist, though despite accepting the label of “skeptic" he admits that what he witnessed the other night was not of this world. Vanessa begins to explain of the world of darkness not often seen, the world they witnessed last night, as she begins cutting her deck of cards and placing them on the table. This looks to be the most commonly seen method of reading tarot cards, the Celtic Cross card spread. Each position a card is placed in signifies a stage of life it will divine; past, present, future etc. As she continues to arrange her cards, she opens an invitation to Ethan. Sir Malcolm’s daughter is the female they have been searching for. She was taken by a creature just like the one they brought to Frankenstein. Vanessa and Sir Malcolm hadn’t suspected there would be more than one creature, so they further require Ethan’s skills.

The sharp shooter asks the essential question, what does Vanessa have to do with Sir Malcolm and his daughter? However, the spiritualist shrugs off the question and when Ethan turns down her proposal, Vanessa shows him the door, not before trying one more method of capturing his interest by asking him to pick a card. At this point she has laid out the first six cards of the Celtic Cross. Ethan, instead of choosing a new card from the remainder of the deck, picks one Vanessa already laid down, the sixth card in her cross layout, a card that is meant to signify the current situation or immediate future of the subject. In this divination, the subject most likely is Ethan and the card he reveals is The Lovers. While at face value, The Lovers can signify a relationship such as that of obviously lovers or close friends, it also stands for trials to overcome. With Vanessa mentioning personal curses, I wonder what happened in Ethan's past to take him from a wealthy lifestyle and turn him into an professional liar and such a strong marksman. Perhaps he lost a lover of his own?

We come to a sweeping exterior shot of a museum, where people are picking up newspapers, reading the latest news of the gruesome slaying we saw in the opening of this episode. Folks are already theorizing that Jack the Ripper has returned and there is a nice "blink and you’ll miss it" ad on the back of one paper for a “Dr. Tibbald’s Blood Tonic", and actual ointment used in Victorian times. Could this historical nod also be a front for our Penny Dreadful version of Dracula? Even sharper eyes will notice another ad for a one, Dr. Jekyll. Curiouser and curiouser…

Within the museum we met the resident egyptologist, a Mr. Lyle. I don’t care for this man as he is exceedingly foppish and a bit mad cap, flitting about this scene like an excitable butterfly with an agenda. It’s important to note the we finally get Sir Malcolm’s surname, Murray, when he is introduced to Mr. Lyle. Another nod to Dracula. Also, it might be a stretch, but when Mr. Lyle’s assistant departs, he is chastised for slouching, Mr. Lyle remarking that he “looks like an orangutang”. This could either be a nod to the The Murders on the Rue Morgue or an outright plot point as to who exactly is responsible for the grisly dismemberment at the beginning of the episode. I would love for it to be the latter, showing that Penny Dreadful is taking care in weaving layers upon layers of well know literature into its plot.

Sir Malcolm and Vanessa enter and immediately Mr. Lyle is falling over himself with introductions, begging Sir Malcolm to sign a copy of his book. Vanessa is more interested in a glass case off to the side, filled with carrion beetles picking the flesh off of a skull. This is an actual practice I’ve been fortunate enough to witness at the Chicago Field Museum. Such beetles are employed, as it is stated in the episode, to clean all remnants of flesh from items put up for display, leaving the bones unmarred or damaged. Some will remember this process from the 1997 movie The Relic, which takes place in a fiction museum based on and filmed at the Chicago Field Museum.

Sir Malcolm produces several photographs of the tattoos emblazoned on the mysterious corpse and asks Mr. Lyle to translate them. A quick close up of one photograph shows a depiction of Thoth, the Egyptian god commonly attributed to science and writing. Thoth also serves as the scribe to the gods and records the judgement of the dead. Mr. Lyle describes his translation to be something along the lines of “blood cure or blood transformation” but doesn’t rule out this particular set of hieroglyphics to mean “blood curse”.

Mr. Lyle then comes to a photograph that gives him pause. Whatever is to be translated must be of great significance to both the plot and the characters since the egyptologist's demeanor changes. He does not wish to discuss their findings further at this time, proposing they meet outside of the museum. Despite Sir Malcolm’s insistence that the matter is urgent, Mr. Lyle brushes off our protagonists, inviting them instead to his wife’s party in a few days where Sir Malcolm can bring the remainder of the photographs for them to discuss freely. As Vanessa and Sir Malcolm see themselves out, Mr. Lyle remarks that the source of these writings is actually the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be a pity if I didn’t mention Akasha, found in the writings of Anne Rice, when mentioning Egypt and vampires in the same sentence. According to Anne Rice’s own brand of vampire mythology, Akasha was the mother of all vampires, a pre-egyptian queen who was possessed by a spirit that brought her back from the brink of death. Akasha allowed her dying husband to drink of her blood, creating the first vampire line. Since this is only one take on the origin of vampires, I doubt Penny Dreadful will follow this tract, but it is interesting to note given the current topics.

In another part of town, the bodies of the murdered mother and child are being brought out by the police, while a gaggle of spectators look on. One woman remarks that the mother was with child and seems certain that Jack the Ripper is back at it. Ethan is there amongst the crowd and the speculating woman notices him, staring as if she recognizes the sharpshooter. Could Ethan have some connection the the murdered woman and child?

While this is going on, Sir Malcolm’s servant, who goes by the name Sembene, drops by Dr. Frankenstein’s hovel with a package for the young man. Before answering the door, Frankenstein carefully conceals a secret bookshelf door, as well as hides several drawings and notes. No doubt he is already begun his work in reanimating the dead. The gift from Sir Malcolm is formal wear and an invitation to dinner at his club. The club is an Explorer’s Club, so we see the how and why regarding Sir Malcolm’s wealth and fame. It was very in vogue at the time to travel to Africa, an unfamiliar territory to most Europeans. Perhaps Sir Malcolm came across our Arabic speaking, Egyptian writing vampires on one of his journeys and got a little in over his head? I wonder if he brought back any trophies that might carry curses…

Sir Malcolm attempts to beguile the doctor, appealing to the fact that they both are dissatisfied unless they seek the truth, Sir Malcolm through his explorations and Frankenstein through his scientific research. However, the good doctor gets a bit heated at this and we see his true passion come bursting forth. Frankenstein seeks the truth, not through the understanding of how things work, nor for the satisfaction of having knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Frankenstein wishes to know the secrets of life and death. If we hadn’t already pieced out that this young doctor was Victor Frankenstein, his fervor for understanding the space between life and death would leave the viewer no doubt. This passion also seems to please Sir Malcolm, who offers the broke young doctor employment. Frankenstein is less that impressed with the idea that he would be under the employment of an "amateur occultist". Remember this is the era when spiritualism was a very popular fad. Scientists and authors were on both sides of the fence, trying to prove or disprove that life after death was a possibility. You have Nobel laureates attending seances regularly, while Harry Houdini, master illusionist, made it his calling to expose mediums as frauds. However, Sir Malcolm makes it clear that the life of his daughter is at stake, that this is no game to him. Again, Sir Malcolm bids Frankenstein to join his cause, telling the doctor he was picked because he was “unafraid to pull back the skin and look beneath”.

Cut to Sir Malcolm’s residence later that evening. Ethan, hidden in the shadows, watches Vanessa from her bedroom window. He begins to approach the house, when a carriage pulls up and Sir Malcolm disembarks. This seems to upset Ethan, who retreats down the alley. Was he expecting to find Vanessa alone? Did he take the reveal of The Lovers in the earlier tarot reading to be a literal invitation? I find the character of Ethan Chandler, our token American, to be the least intriguing of all the players introduced in this first episode. With everyone else, I find myself wishing to know more about their motivations, their past, how they all became tangled in this supernatural mess. But with Ethan, unless we get a further glimpse into what makes him tick, I shall remain indifferent to his contribution to the show.

Inside the mansion, Sir Malcolm is seen getting ready for bed. This scene is one of my favorites, with its long, wide shots. The explorer finds his window to be unlatched. With this development and the fact that the camera slowly pans back and forth to follow his movements, the scene screams out for a jump scare. And we get it, as a figure appears silently in the background when the camera follows Sir Malcolm crossing the room to fix a flickering light. No musical sting, the figure is just suddenly there and did cause me to jump even though I was expecting this sort of appearance. I do enjoy subtle horror, where less is more.

Hearing quiet sobs, the explorer is alerted to the presence in his bedroom, slowly approaching the figure and addressing it as “Mina”. So the missing daughter is Mina Murray. I wonder if Van Helsing will come to call in later episodes. The window bursts open again and as that damn camera pans between it and the characters, Mina has enough time to get right in Sir Malcolm's face, scaring the beejesus out of me as she emits inhuman shrieks and hisses. A light on the wall bursts and Mina disappears. What is the connect between these vampires and electricity? The lights did flicker right as Mina appeared. Could this all tie into Dr. Frankenstein’s interest in galvanization?

Later, as Sir Malcolm is steeling himself with a glass of whiskey, we get a rather mysterious exchange between him and Vanessa. Vanessa claims that “her one true friend” would do Sir Malcolm not harm, to which he scoffs. Vanessa is indignant to this response, insisting that this entire situation is her fault, that her “transgressions” are to blame. Could it be that Vanessa dabbled a little too far in the world of the spirits and unleashed something she can’t control? Sir Malcolm insists that the two of them must live with the guilt over what happened in the past and leaves Vanessa with a parting thought. His encounter with his daughter reminded him of a lion hunt, more specifically of a particular moment in that hunt when the lion spotted those stalking it and the prey became the predator. One of the best things about Penny Dreadful are bits of dialogue like this. Every conversation paints a picture and alludes to more than what is just being said. It gives the show great rewatchability.

Vanessa has retired to her room and is again desperately praying, whispering the Lord’s Prayer in Latin this time. In the background, candles begin to float and she is roused from her fervent prayer by the crucifix on the wall turning upside down, hordes of spiders pouring out from behind it. While an inverted cross isn’t strictly demonic, known within Christianity as St. Peter’s Cross since the disciple of Christ wished to be crucified in such a manner, seeing himself as unworthy of suffering the same fate as Jesus, its dominance in popular culture sends a clear message the the audience that Vanessa is struggling with forces of great darkness. Has anyone spotted a “666” on Ms. Ives?

Out in the rain soaked streets of London, Dr. Frankenstein trudges home. He pauses at his door and turns, as if he suspects he is being followed. Rewatching the scene the viewer can barely make out a figure standing across the street, disappearing into a shelter right before the good doctor turns. Is this meant to be one of Sir Malcolm’s men keeping tabs on Frankenstein, or one of Dracula’s? We see the doctor make a beeline for that secret door in his bookshelf, descending down into an underground workshop where a very naked cadaver on ice is hooked up to all sorts of electrical devices. It’s like James Whale’s playhouse down there, an ambient hum and crackle of electricity filling the air. One of the various devices seems to fizzle out, so Frankenstein goes to tinker with it, his back to the corpse. Folks on this show need to stop turning their back on things because we know something is about to happen. Sure enough, a bolt of lighting strikes, and the electrical instruments go dead, plunging the workshop into darkness. The doctor lights an oil lamp and his creature is gone! Knowing he can’t have gotten far, Frankenstein finds his creation huddled in a corner. As he approaches the reanimated corpse with the oil lamp, I wince, thinking the creature will react badly to the flame. This isn’t the case and as the doctor beholds his success, tears trickle down his face. The creature reaches out, touching a fallen tear and bringing it to his own cheek, mimicking the act of crying. Could it be that the body used in this experiment is known to Dr. Frankenstein, that he had some connection the the creature when he was once a man? Or is it the shock of his work being realized that's what is bringing the doctor to tears? The creature gasps and smiles at hearing his creator’s voice for the first time, the latter introducing himself as Dr. Frankenstein. And this is where the episode ends.

The pilot episode of Penny Dreadful succeeds not only in intriguing its audience with the various mysteries surrounding its players, but also presenting a familiar yet unique view of its Victorian setting. We know where we are and what we might expect, but how events and characters are presented remains fresh and intriguing. When I first heard about this show I was inclined to compare it to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I am a huge fan of the graphic novel and guiltily enjoyed the movie and I have to say I see more of the former in Penny Dreadful than the latter. However, despite the similar premise of common literary figures of the Romantic era joining forces or being seen in the same stories, this is not a tale of literary superheroes. In Penny Dreadful the protagonists are not fighting for crown and country, saving the world from whatever dangers crop up. They are fighting their own demons and personal battles first and foremost. Aside from characters like Mina Murray, Dr. Frankenstein, and from what I hear, the soon to be seen Dorian Gray, our characters are new imaginings of tropes found commonly in literature of that era. We have the Great White Hunter in Sir Malcolm, the medium and spiritualist in Vanessa Ives, and the cocky American sure-shot in Ethan Chandler. All these archetypes fall in step with what is expected to be seen in a penny dreadful.

The costuming and sets of Penny Dreadful are not overly theatrical and do not steal the spotlight from the players but help enhance it, allowing viewers to submerse themselves further into the story. Considering the small shout-outs I noticed in the newspaper earlier on, I’m inclined to watch the backgrounds very closely for other details and clues to the unraveling mystery. The thrills found in the episode are what you would expect from any horror movie, primarily relying on gore as opposed to jump scares. But even as I nervously eyed the corners and backgrounds of certain shots, waiting for a monster to be revealed, I found that the atmosphere invoked in each scene drew me further into this world. The music is gorgeous by the way, not relying on spidery harpsichords but beautiful swells of orchestration that build emotion and feed into the dialogue.

I have high hopes for this series. I already find myself trying to connect the dots between characters, wondering at their pasts and their current motivations. I enjoy the subtle nods and extra information provided in scenes like that of the tarot card reading or the visit to the egyptologist. As you might have noticed I have quite an interest in several things seen in this pilot episode, so this show is like candy to me. The first episode can be found online on Showtime’s website and it seems the second will be offered there as well. Let us know what you think of the pilot in the comments!

Tune in to watch the premiere of Penny Dreadful May 11th on Showtime.


About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
Recent Reviews by Ashley B (All Reviews)

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