Thursday, 27 April 2017


Gothic melodrama Penny Dreadful mastered its grisly stride in its third 
and final series.

Image copyright Showtime/Sky 2016.

“Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives.”

Apologies for being a bit behind on this one, but there’s just so much to watch now you’re almost inevitably going to be a few  or several  months behind with some things.

To business: one of the appealing things about John Logan’s horror melodrama Penny Dreadful – that’s gothic horror in the traditions of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose characters the series has cheerfully plundered – is that as well as confronting vampires, witches and other spectral creatures, all the main players – as star Timothy Dalton pointed out at the first series' press conference – battle internal monsters of their own.

Vaness Ives (Eva Green) fights a demon for possession of her body, Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) grapples with his rampant carnal and violent desires, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is a besotted, hopeless drug addict and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) conceals a werewolf beneath his gun-slinging American exterior. Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear, fantastically nuanced and moving) fights his loathing for himself and humankind in equal measure. At the other end of the moral scale, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Frankenstein’s creation Lily (Billie Piper) wallow luxuriously in their own depravity. Such a heady brew places Penny Dreadful firmly in the traditions of Stoker, Shelley et. al, while its painterly, heightened gothic hues – a newly industrialised London is coloured drab, industrial grey, while a disreputable Zanzibar is by turns opulent and murky – elevates the series’ visually melodramatic aesthetic.

Adding to the cinematic palette in this final series, there’s some inspired, panoramic filming on a train and (apparently) the plains of New Mexico. The scenes would have made classic Western director John Ford proud, as Scotland Yard’s finest, the wonderfully named, cool as a cucumber Inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge, immaculate in just about anything), pursues the escaped Chandler, who looked like he’d been rescued by the Wild Bunch.

Adding an interesting twist to the third series is Eva attending treatment sessions by an Alienist, the earliest form of address for a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is developing “a new branch of science.” Intriguingly and with some insight, the Alienist Mrs Clayton tells Eva that her affliction “is a dark root with no name from which grows illness.” That may be true in the majority of cases, but Mrs Clayton is shocked to find out that Vanessa’s demons are in fact real. It’s a clever touch, playing the new rationality of the scientific age off against old superstitions. The writer M.R. James pursued similar themes in his ghost stories, written a few years after the events of Penny Dreadful.
Arguably the stand-out in the ensemble this year is Samuel Barnett’s take on Dracula’s slave Renfield which is every bit as twitchy, obsessive and repressed as you’d expect from the man who nailed a public school take on Dirk Gently. Shazad Latif’s dignified, Anglo-Indian Dr Jekyll runs a close second, with Christian Carmazzo’s two-faced, charismatic Dracula close behind (and I’ll wager it’s the first time the King Vamp has been a fan of Captain Nemo).

There is some truly gruesome stuff this time around that would have scandalised the editors of the original penny dreadfuls. The instance of grand guignol that sticks most in the mind is a very young, very naked woman about to be murdered in front of a circle of paying English gentleman voyeurs.

I’m not a huge fan of horror, but it’s hard to resist this line-up of the gothic greats: Dracula, the werewolf, Frankenstein’s Creature, Dorian Gray and Jekyll, especially when they’re reimagined this well. Penny Dreadful is as far from those cheesy Universal Pictures team-ups House of Frankenstein (1944) House of Dracula (1945) as it’s possible to get (fun though they were). And with quality, predominantly British thesping this good, it’s easy to get lured into a binge watch.

Go for the jugular if you haven't already.

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