As part of our Contemporary Media and the Gothic series, one of our students has reviewed the Sky Atlantic series, Penny Dreadful.
There is some thing within us all.
That is what was blazoned across the character posters for Penny Dreadful, and the mantra of the show. Penny Dreadful is the latest horror-drama to take the world by storm. Critics are impressed, but cult followings are already claiming it to be the greatest show to grace the airs in a long time. This echoes to a past that Penny Dreadful tries and succeeds to reinterpret for television. To understand why Penny Dreadful is such a gripping watch, one must first understand why it is such a fitting retelling. This post aims to both review Penny Dreadful and to critically evaluate it as an adaptation of both story and genre.
Penny Dreadful takes its name from the weekly pieces of fiction that were published in the 19th Century. They were so-called penny dreadfuls as they cost only a penny to purchase, and contained sensationalised melodrama that was often of macabre and Gothic roots. These works eventually penetrated public consciousness, and they were read by many. As they grew in popularity, many stories became infamous, and characters that they created still exist today. It was in A String of Pearls: A Romance that the character of Sweeney Todd was introduced, and before the suave and sophisticated figure of Dracula there was Varney the Vampire, a maybe-vampire maybe-human character that span for 220 chapters.
Penny dreadfuls were not novels, and not constrained by the same laws and codes as the writings of the upper-classes were. Penny dreadfuls were violent, crude and over-the-top in their plots and characters. Though its primary demographic was the working-class male (as detailed in Louis James’ 1963 book Fiction for the working man 1830–50), they were read by many. They transcended class and gender, and in fact were vastly popular amongst the female readership. Many middle-class writers would don a pseudonym so that they might also publish in the books. You can read a more detailed account of how the penny dreadful grew in popularity in our interview with Professor William Hughes.
The setting for Penny Dreadful is Victorian London, the scene of many famous Gothic works. It draws upon the era with great panache, referencing both real life crime stories and places. In episode 2, Séance, Sir Malcom Murray offers his assistance in the Ripper case. The Ripper is obviously Jack the Ripper, a real criminal who murdered at least six prostitutes in Whitechapel from 1887. The Ripper was such a huge figure to the Victorian readers that it inspired many pieces of work and conspiracies. Many public figures were accused, including Prince Albert and Richard Mansfield, who played both Jekyll and Hyde in a production of the show in London. The series also draws upon real geography, in this case a theatre. In Episode 3, Resurrection, Caliban is given a job in the Grand Guignol. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a Parisian theatre that opened in 1897, which specialised in shows of horror. In later years, its name became synonymous with grotesque shows of fear and repulsion. Though the theatre is based in London in the show, it is a loving homage that buffs of the genre will love. Both these, accompanied by smaller interwoven references, accommodate for an authentic Victorian world that houses the fictitious. In the same world which hosts monsters and clairvoyants, characters make reference to Darwinian theories like survival of the fittest.
On to the characters. The show follows in a similar vein to Alan Moore’s comic series A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which began its monthly publication in 1999, and earned itself a movie deal and subsequent theatrical release in 2003. Just as A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collected characters of Victorian notoriety for its cast, Penny Dreadful does the same. It is an ensemble show, utilising characters of public domain like Dorian Gray (from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), Abraham Van Helsing and Mina Harker (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and Victor Frankenstein and his monster (from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The characters interact with original cast members, like Sir Malcolm, and are brought together by a common goal: to rescue the abducted Mina and to stop the monsters which captured her.
Amongst the new characters is Vanessa Ives, a childhood friend of Mina’s and a clairvoyant. She is played by Eva Green, Vanessa is proving to be a fan-favourite, choosing not to play the role of an Angel of the House, but instead defying the conventions of the women in literature and actively participating in the hunt for her friend. Vanessa is intelligent, sharp-witted and swift in her actions. She had a stint in an asylum, a common theme in the penny dreadfuls, and she fully embraces her darker side when she discovers her mother’s adultery. She is the one who leads them to Mina, and is the character who goes through the most brutal experiences. She is possessed, she is attacked, she is brutalised; Vanessa survives all of this, making her one of the strongest characters in the show.
It is through Vanessa that we explore the question that is at the crux of the series: do we truly wish to be normal? Vanessa is given the chance to become normal through an exorcism that will rid her of her psychic abilities. Likewise, Dr Frankenstein is presented with the chance to destroy Caliban and put the mistakes he’s made behind him. Instead, he chooses to create another monster, hoping this one will be better-suited for the life they lead. The something inside us all is what the show focusses on, exploring the realms of the monstrous that could afflict us all. All the characters go through heartbreak and must sacrifice something in the end, whether it is the tangible, the incorporeal or their humanity. The monsters are given the chance to lament and express their stories. As Caliban says:
The monster is not in my face, but in my soul
The shows pays loving attention to the characters they borrow. Dorian Gray is a charismatic and charming bisexual, seen in his character portraits being caressed by a snake. He is dangerous and alluring, and both Vanessa and Ethan fall victim to his demonic charms. He is sexual, he is reckless and he is canonically as Wilde described him in his book. Likewise, Victor Frankenstein still fails to see that he is the cause of these creations and the monstrous things they do. He enables them, and when Caliban starts to kill those who become close to Dr Frankenstein, his response is simply to murder and make Caliban a mate. In chapter 5 of Frankenstein, the way Dr Frankenstein describes building his monster is matter-of-fact and clinical. It is easy to forget that he stitching together corpses when he describes it as his “work”. He is a cold and at times maniacal scientist, and Penny Dreadful highlights this constantly through his flippant approach to the murderous creature he has fathered.
The show sets a stunning backdrop with its Dickensian fog and costuming. The characters look authentically divine, and the use of Irish towns and cities to emulate a Victorian London provides a historical anchoring to the scenery. Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde were both Irishmen, and this is the landscape that helped to craft Dorian Gray, Mina and Van Helsing. The characters look the part of Victorian and composed, and that makes the scenes of horror that much more disturbing.
A scene worthy of mention for its sheer uncomfortable fearsomeness is when Vanessa is trembling as she prays, speaking in fast Latin chants. Suddenly a candlestick falls, and we discover an upside-down cross with thousands of spiders swarming from it. It’s unnerving to watch her praying, but the sudden onslaught of creatures and the hellish symbolism is terrifying. It is not the scene of blood and murder that the show so liberally provides us with, but is a subtler kind of horror that is just as frightening to watch. Or perhaps that is just arachnophobia speaking.
At times though, the show forgets that it has the visual medium to account for while it is in literary mode. In one particularly promising scene, Dr Frankenstein asphyxiates Brona so that he may use her corpse to provide Caliban with a bride. The scene is brutal but accompanied by a long and at times unnecessary monologue. This is of course typical to Victorian fiction, and a mirror to how Dr Frankenstein acts within his book. It is easy to lose sight of the doctor’s monstrous nature in text alone and it is effective without the visual accompaniment, but with the image on-screen of a dying prostitute it loses some of its effect and instead because the hammiest melodrama. Melodrama was the name of the game in penny dreadfuls, and this is an accurate portrayal of a scene as it might be in text. It is a good scene, though it can be dull if melodrama doesn’t interest you. Likewise, the revelation that Ethan was a werewolf was brilliant, though not enough time was spent on his transformation. It could have been gruesome and gory, with lingering shots of twisted muscles, broken bones and the maddened howls of a beast. Instead the sudden scene change to a full moon instead leaves the audience disappointed.
In summary, Penny Dreadful delivers exactly what the title promises. The characters are entered in to a world of melodrama and gore, with small amounts of plot being used in a heavily character-centred arc. The fun of the show comes not from the search for Mina and the vampire master, but the interaction of characters and the development of back-story and relationships. The original characters do not overshadow the characters we are familiar with, but they do not fade in to obscurity. The new characters are archetypes of the genre: Ethan is the hero found in American tales, Sir Malcolm is an African explorer as many of the imperialistic penny dreadful tales had, and Vanessa is the madwoman/psychic, though a very contemporary character by comparison to the others. All of the characters are fantastical, and this is the appeal of the show. It does exactly what a penny dreadful story would do, and it is delivered to us in the same tantalising manner; a weekly dose of story that has us hooked and ready for the next one.
Penny Dreadful was renewed for a second season in June 2014. We can expect more of the same from our new favourite show; blood, gore, and careful attention to the literary roots that inspired this drama. Personally, we can’t wait.