Penny Dreadful, the hugely entertaining new eight-episode Showtime series premiering tonight, takes its title from the lurid serialized horror stories that sold for a penny at Victorian newsstands (the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd is based on one such yarn). Happily, there’s nothing either cheap or dreadful about this lavish and completely unpredictable new period drama.
John Logan, the Chicago-born Tony-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Skyfall), strives to capture the spooky, often gory spirit of those vintage chillers by weaving together recognizable figures from literature, such as ageless lothario Dorian Gray and obsessed Dr. Victor Frankenstein, with original characters of his own, whom he brings together and sends off on a delightfully macabre mission.
Penny Dreadful opens in 1891 London, in the aftermath of the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders. As the police turn their attention to a new spate of gruesome crimes, celebrated explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) comes to enigmatic spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) with a plea for help: His daughter, Mina (the name is a tip-of-the-hat to Dracula), has gone missing. Both Malcolm and Vanessa suspect that supernatural forces are afoot, so they enlist the assistance of American Wild West sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and, sure enough, soon stumble into a nest of feral vampires.
As their quest takes one unexpected turn after another, their party is joined by Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose own studies into the thin veil between life and death dovetail nicely with Malcolm’s mission. Not long after that, the group encounters Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and Brona Croft (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), a consumptive Irish beauty. Other distinguished guest stars include a hilarious Simon Russell Beale as Ferdinand Lyle, a flamboyant Egyptologist, and Helen McCrory as Madame Kali, a (probably fake) clairvoyant.
Beyond that, I won’t spoil any of the surprises awaiting Penny Dreadful viewers – partly because, two episodes in, I honestly don’t know where the hell Logan is going with this nutty narrative. Suffice it to say that both episodes I’ve seen feature absolutely top-tier special effects and, much like those old horror tales snapped up by titillation-hungry Victorians, each episode ends with a jaw-dropping twist that will leave you jonesing for the next installment.