Is he back? The creepy new Showtime series Penny Dreadful, set in 1891 London, opens with the unbelievably messy dismemberment of a little girl and her pregnant mother. The crime has the Victorians in a panic as they wonder if Jack the Ripper — not heard from in three years — has returned for yet another murder spree. Little do they know, they have so much more to worry about. Such as devils and ghosts and vampires. And ancient Egyptian curses. Oh, and scientifically resurrected dead people, courtesy of one Victor Frankenstein.
Penny Dreadful, taking its title from the cheesy, lurid newspaper serials that were hugely popular during Victorian times, is a phantasmagorical soup that blends bump-in-the-night frights, audacious gore, freaky sex and post-9/11 paranoia with famous characters from Gothic literature. Creator and executive producer John Logan (screenwriter of Skyfall and Hugo) says he was inspired to develop the series when he stumbled upon a curious fact: Five of the greatest terror classics — Bram Stoker's Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds — were written by Victorians during the final few years of the 19th century.
"I didn't see that as coincidence," Logan says. "To me, it was evidence there was something in the water — namely a lot of anxiety and dread over what the future would bring." This was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Logan notes, and London was the center of the world. "Science was colliding with religion. Aristocracy was colliding with poverty," he says. "The social fault lines were extreme and violent and frightening, and — just as we did after the collapse of the World Trade Center — people were asking themselves, 'Where do I belong in this scary new world?' That is the jumping-off point for Penny Dreadful."
The series centers on three mysterious individuals — spiritualist and channeler Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Chandler comes to London in a raucous Wild West show, where the legends he tells about himself are as bogus as the fake mustache he wears over his real one. Before long, Chandler is enlisted by Vanessa and Sir Malcolm as a hired gun. It seems Malcolm's beloved daughter has gone missing — something evil and otherworldly is suspected — and he needs Ethan's Yankee brawn to help find her. This oddball gang is soon joined by Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who lends his expertise on the undead.
"Sir Malcolm has gathered a rather warped little group of people — each with their sordid secrets — and they are not afraid to play with the dark side of their own natures," Dalton says. "My character was ruthless and obsessive enough to go on a search for the source of the Nile, and now he will stop at nothing to find his daughter. In fact, he says he would 'murder the world' if he could save her. And he means it."
Hartnett's character, a seedy alcoholic on the run from legal woes in the U.S., is based somewhat on fact. "The Victorians were fascinated by the mythology of the Wild West, and guys like Chandler toured Europe happily selling that mythology," Hartnett says, adding that Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and even Sitting Bull would appear in shows playing themselves. "The Brits ate it up. They saw the cowboy as a knight in shining armor."
In Chandler's case, they wouldn't be far off. "He has his issues, but bravery's not one of them," Hartnett says. "Chandler is completely willing to put himself at risk against the supernatural monsters he encounters while working for Sir Malcolm. It might seem foolhardy, but it's not. It's possible that he's witnessed some of this wild stuff before, back in the United States."
Well, maybe not quite this wild. Among the literary characters appearing in Penny Dreadful is the suspiciously ageless Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who is seen having debauched sex with a tuberculosis victim — he wants to know what it's like to do it with the dying — while a manservant takes pornographic photos of the encounter.
"We tend to think of Victorian times as being so proper and buttoned-up when, in truth, it was a hot cauldron of craziness and chaos," says Dalton. "We completely debunk the myth that we've all grown to know — and it should be debunked!"
Penny Dreadful premieres Sunday at 10/9c on Showtime.