Vampires, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray have been resurrected once again, as Showtime’s new “Penny Dreadful” has become the premium movie channel’s current darling.
There are things to kind of like ... and kind of dislike ... in the new eight-episode horror series set in Victorian London.
Oh, and that's the series' Caliban at the left, with his "father," Vic Frankenstein. More to come about both. I'll bet you already get the connection.
Here’s the set up. Sir Malcolm Murray, played by one-time James Bond Timothy Dalton, is an 1800s version of Indiana Jones. He’s explored strange new worlds and sought out new civilizations ... he's boldly gone to the exotic, the strange the weird. His daughter Mina Harker has been addicted by a vampire cult and apparently turned into a red-eyed blood guzzler. So the search is on, with Sir Malcolm looking for both his wayward offspring and a cure for her affliction.
To win the game, Sir Malcolm has enlisted Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a sharpshooter recruited from a wild west show. He’s got the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) as a house mate, and while they’re not fooling around, the black-clad Vanessa has attracted vampires and other assorted demons who want to fool around with her. The loyal and lethal manservant Sambene (Danny Sapani) provides security for old Malcolm. So far, I can tell the dude hates cats.
Victor Frankenstein is on the team. Dorian Gray — Reeve Carney, perpetually young — is hanging around. So is Rory Kinnear, whose Frankenstein’s Monster is probably the coolest thing about the whole show.
The monster — whose dramatic first appearance is probably the most shocking for any screen Frankenstein — is far from Boris Karloff’s lumbering, black-suited golem. He’s scarred ‘n stitched, pale in face, long black hair and yellow eyes. No bolts ... but there are plenty of nuts rolling around inside his head.
Original gangster, no. Original gothic, yes.
The creature — Caliban is his adopted name — is the most thoughtful and well-planned of any character on the “Dreadful” roster. He’s been abandoned at birth by young Victor, who seems more like a teenage Frankenstein as played by the young Harry Treadway. Caliban has still managed to educate himself, has made a friend in a loony actor and found work as a stage rat at a Grand Guignol theater. Kinnear’s creature literally runs circles around the Karloff model — he nimbly runs from station to station under the stage, providing the Guignol’s gory special effects.
But old Yellow Eyes wants more than just a living. He wants love. The creature finds old Victor and threatens to make life tough for Dad unless he builds him — a mate. A bride ... for Frankenstein! I do love nods to the old classics.
Kinnear has been given the best lines, such as “You have not known horror until I show it to you.” And “Look upon your master, Frankenstein.” Might be the first Frankenstein to speak with a British accent. Poor Boris - an Englander himself - mostly had growls.
And while I appreciate tradition, I like the new update for the monster. The white face and screwball eyes say this is not a guy you want as a Friday night beer partner. But I’d still take my chances against him in a fair fight, as opposed to the coffee can-headed Karloff version.
It seems like Hartnett’s gunslinger is a little out of place, but because mash-ups are still popular —mixing different genres in the same story — why not have an Old West dude gunning for vampires? And these vampires are not the dapper, cultured supermen and women of “True Blood.” They do not joke around, do not drink fake blood and at least in the case of Fenton the vampire — who is stupid enough to let himself get captured in a zoo — they’re a bit careless. The vampire master looks like the real deal, though, and more Nosferatu than Count Dracula.
Dorian Gray, his painting ages while he stays eternally young, kind of looks like he wandered in from another TV show. He flirts with girls, he flirts with guys, he put the gunslinger under his spell. And although I felt like yelling “Don’t do it, Josh!” at the TV set, both Chandler and Dorian were both making out in no time, after a night on the town. Dorian is a cultured dude, but what is he going to do in a battle against a qualified vampire? Hypnotize him?
So “Penny Dreadful,” named after the cheap pulp horror stories of the 19th century, is a little bit of everything. It’s part “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” it’s part Victorian horror adventure, it’s sexy, it’s violent. So far, my favorite scenes have been inside the Grand Guignol, famous in Paris during the late 1800s and into the first half of the 1900s, for gory, bloody stories that shocked theater fans. Funny, how people have been making a big deal about movie gore for the last 30 years — ever since the 1970s’ “Jaws,” “The Omen” and “The Exorcist” really started the mainstream ball rolling — but people were screaming from graphically sliced throats and faces a long time before David Warner got his head shaved from the neck up thanks to a sliding plate of glass in “Omen.”
That’s one thing about the Showtime and HBO series — anything goes. Vampires eating cats, guys ripped apart, rolls in the sack. The ABC and NBC censors would be cutting a 50-minute show down to 15 minutes. In a way, that’s one reason I think series offered by cable movie channels do so well. “The Sopranos,” “True Blood,” Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s other new fave, “Masters of Sex,” have no limits.
I’m just hoping old Caliban finds a wolfman to fight sometime during the “Penny Dreadful” run.