*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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”.
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…
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.
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?
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?
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.