Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s dementedly entertaining monster mash, is back.
A spirited stew of Victorian horror influences, Penny Dreadful brings some different elements into the spotlight in the new episodes. Touchstones like The Bride of Frankenstein, the Bathory Blood Countess, House of Wax and Victorian witchcraft all play heavily in the season 2 premiere.
As always, that inspired lunacy pivots around Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the tormented medium who’s been touched by a demon. Powerful witch Evelyn Poole/Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), seen in a small role last season, emerges with some dark plans for Vanessa. That includes sending her coven of blood witches to attack Vanessa and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), the original American werewolf in London. Chandler is ready to bolt the city after last year’s season-ending tavern massacre has the police on his tail. Vanessa’s distress convinces him to stick around.
Their ally Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is engrossed in keeping a promise to his original creature (Rory Kinnear) to resurrect the doomed Brona Croft (Billie Piper) as his bride. The Creature finds work at a grotesque wax museum, whose proprietor isn’t quite as genial as he at first appears.
The return of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) reunites the Victorian Scooby Gang to rally around Vanessa. Evelyn and her coven plot to drive Vanessa into the arms of the devil they serve, hoping to unleash an apocalypse.
Penny Dreadful can at times be overheated, but it’s also inventive and adventurous. It deploys its numerous constituent parts with a lot of style and is masterful at whipping up a dark mood and an atmosphere of tightening dread. It can be pretty fearless, especially its willingness to play with unabashedly over-the-top imagery: Kali luxuriating in a blood bath before a baroque ritual or the swirling madness of Brona’s lightning-fueled resurrection.
But it’s not all flash and blood. Penny Dreadful has a facility for some decidedly quiet, human moments. Sir Malcolm’s confrontation with his bitter, estranged wife at their children’s graves is possibly the premiere’s most powerful scene without ever raising the volume above a reproachful sigh. The Creature’s quest for a real life, while misguided in some ways, is rather affecting, thanks to Kinnear’s nimble performance. Victor and the Creature’s tangled bond can be quite fascinating and a twisted triangle with the resurrected Brona can only add more dimensions.
But Penny Dreadful rests on Green’s shoulders. The plot machinations could be nothing more than an exercise in eerie style without Green’s committed, commanding performance. Green is an expressive actress who communicates as much with the scenes of Vanessa’s tightly controlled reserve as she does in the moments when the medium slides toward darkness or loses control. She has an effortless bond with her castmates, which easily sells the notion that these men would venture into hell for Vanessa.
The premiere hints at some interesting developments for Hartnett’s agonized werewolf and at the possibility that he doesn’t truly understand his own nature. Meanwhile, Reeve Carney’s dissolute Dorian Gray didn’t even turn up in the episode. The writers have demonstrated a facility as to when to deploy characters and plot elements for maximum effect, though. He won’t be out of the mix for long.
The production is as stylishly macabre as ever. The direction and cinematography are sharp and crisp, producing some stunning imagery and kinetic action sequences. The design team has continued its high standards, delivering things like Kali’s gothic mansion (complete with a devilishly baroque blood tub) and the sinister wax tableaux that feel like they could exist in some real world, seedy London attraction. The costuming and make-up remain assets. The trio of bald, naked demon witches with bloody gashes clawed into their flesh is a particularly evocative image. Their assault on Vanessa and Ethan’s carriage is inventively staged and packed with tension. But also results in some gore. Penny Dreadful isn’t for the squeamish or easily offended.
With a great cast, ghoulishly entertaining stories and a sleek, retro-cool aesthetic, Penny Dreadful is a great adventure with unexpected heart. It’s an addiction that’s worth giving into.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 5, 2015.