Small-screen horror has been experiencing a boom in the past few years, with the continued survival of quality programs like NBC’s Hannibal and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Surprisingly, basic cable networks beat premium ones to the punch in terms of ordering up legitimately scary shows, unless you count HBO’s True Blood (and I certainly wouldn’t). Now, Showtime is jumping into the ring with Penny Dreadful, an old-school creature feature set in an alt-history 19th-century London populated by some of literature’s most feared creations.
The show’s title alone, lifted from the cheap British paperbacks that beguiled readers with sensational subject matter, is a good indicator for what audiences should expect. Writer/creator John Logan (Skyfall) doesn’t expect Penny Dreadful to be taken as a gritty drama of the highest order. He’s aiming for something lower-brow and, dare I say, a lot more fun. In the first episode alone, we meet an obsessive scientist by the name of Victor Frankenstein, a host of vampiric creatures and a mysterious monster capable of (quite literally) ripping people to shreds. And despite the eerie setting and abundance of creepy visuals, there’s a clear merriment to the proceedings that should make Penny Dreadful quite a treat for horror fans.
As the pilot, titled “Night Work,” opens, director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) quickly establishes an impressively absorbing atmosphere, filled with dark shadows and sinister secrets. The guy has experience with conjuring up creepy locales, and Penny Dreadful‘s home with Showtime means that he’s working with a feature film budget – which, to be clear, is a wonderful thing. The show’s Victorian setting is quite striking and does a lot to sell Penny Dreadful‘s more lurid aspects.
“Night Work” has a lot of work to do, introducing a handful of characters and setting up the eight-episode first season’s main plotlines. That it never feels exhausting as it gets the wheels turning is a tribute to Bayona’s slick camerawork and Logan’s tight writing. First, we meet Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) as she furiously whispers prayers to a Jesus statue, only to find her place of worship overrun by spiders. There’s clearly something wrong with Vanessa, but that’s a mystery for probably much further down the line. Quickly in the next scene, she’s regained her composure and is watching an American sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) enrapture audiences as part of a traveling circus. Judging by the sly smile on her face, she likes what she sees.