The Victorian Brits called them “Penny Dreadfuls.” Or “Penny Awfuls.” Or “Penny Bloods.” Or “Shilling Shockers.”
You get the idea. According to “Dr. Matthew Sweet” (the British critic, not the rocker) in the jaunty publicity scholarship for “Penny Dreadful,” premiering at 10 tonight on Showtime, for the price of a “copper coin” you could buy a broadsheet at your local newsstand and “all manner of adventure and atrocity could be yours – in sixteen smudgy pages of poisonings, stranglings, burglaries and flagellations. They were cheap. They were sensational. They were printed with ink that came off on your fingers.”
They were stories told in weekly serial installments. They had titles like “Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood” or “The Boy Detective – The Crimes of London” or “Lost in the London Sewers.” The tale of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was first popular as a Penny Dreadful.
“Stories to be read aloud by the fire, or on street corners among gangs of boys,” Sweet calls them. “Their plots were violent, horrific and prolonged: the tale of a teenage lad who solves crimes dressed in women’s clothes; the plucky ballet girl who dodges men with cruel intentions; the blood-drinking fiend who is boiled in a volcano at the end of issue 108.”
They weren’t the only tales told in serial form in the 19th century – Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Charles Dickens’ novels began that way, but these were pitched high and aimed low.
Just like television. What is Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” in the 21st century but a new kind of semi-hysterical “Penny Dreadful,” promising “all manner of adventure and atrocity” among high-gloss people in Washington, D.C.?
That’s not why, though, I so much looked forward to John Logan’s “Penny Dreadful” – more, I must confess, than any other show so far this year.
It was a stray comment by Logan out in media hype-world that snagged me and wouldn’t let me shake loose.
Here is one version from Logan talking to Caryn James in the Wall Street Journal about why he wanted to do “my 19th century novel” for television. “It had to do with that 10-year paroxysm in Victorian literature, where from about 1890 to 1900, ‘Dracula,’ ‘Picture of Dorian Gray,’ ‘War of the Worlds,’ ‘Island of Dr. Moreau,’ ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ were all written.”
The century had begun with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 1818.
So here they all are in one premium cable TV series swirling around an overripe farrago of heavy breathing, creaking wooden stairs and furniture, slithering, slimy creatures and bodily fluids of all colors manifested in aggressively unpleasant ways. It’s a kind of nuthouse new pseudo-serious way to do a Showtime “Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.”
There are Draculoid vampires and victims (including one named Mina), a handsome fellow named Dorian Gray, a tender and moving relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his monster and, for good measure, an American trick-shot artist in Buffalo Bill carnival huckster mode played by Josh Hartnett.
Nor is Hartnett the only significant misfire in the annals of movie stardom to be found more modestly manning the high Victorian lunacies of Logan’s monster fantasy “Penny Dreadful.”
Starring in “Penny Dreadful” is, perhaps, the all-time greatest Megaplex Movie Star That Never Was, Timothy Dalton, who, once upon a time, was going to make us forget Sean Connery and Roger Moore playing James Bond but only wound up making the world realize that all the consummate British rep training in the world couldn’t make a matinee idol out of a stuffed shirt.
Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, searching for his missing daughter in a demimonde full of vampires, spiritualists and worse. His mysterious aide-de-camp is the beauteous Vanessa Ives, played by Eva Green, whose face and form are about as striking a way to fill screens of all sizes as we have at this moment.
Lest you wonder what an actress whose career is in mid-prime is doing with such proven second-raters as Dalton and Hartnett, there is, in episode two, a seance of all the major players with one Madame Kali in which Green is suddenly and showily beset by foul-mouthed creatures from the beyond as her eyes roll around in her head. Acting, as John Lithgow’s master thespian would say.
So, you ask, who is Logan and why does he get his own multi-episode series to play with and invent a wildly overwrought and excessive 19th century novel for television?
Well, he’s a playwright and screenwriter best known for writing the last Bond movie “Skyfall” (where he killed off M), the script for Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” and two of the better recent films by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo” (about Georges Melies) and “The Aviator” (about Howard Hughes).
More importantly he’s a self-declared lifelong devotee of monsters.
Which leads to a surprising inclusion in “Penny Dreadful’s” publicity explications – a statement that begins “I have always loved monsters. Not so much because they frighten me; their terrible loneliness, their stumbling search for acceptance. Looking back now, I think my affection for monsters feels more like a kind of kinship. Growing up as a gay man before it was as socially acceptable as it is now, I knew what it was to feel alienated and unlike others.”
And that, in the first two episodes of “Penny Dreadful” I’ve seen, is the most interesting and unexpected sidelight of all.
At one point in the first episode, a high-camp Egyptologist who employs flesh-eating beetles to devour the outer layers of mummies says about the plural of the word “papyrus” – “Isn’t that a delicious word ‘papyri’? Sounds like something eaten by little Persian boys, don’t you think?”
Which may be the campiest single line I’ve encountered anywhere in at least a decade and one of the funniest.
Add to that the fact that the actor playing him affects rhotacism, the Elmer Fudd speech defect which pronounces “R’s” as “W’s.”
Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Noel Coward is trying to communicate at our next seance to tell us how much of a kick he’s getting up there out of “Penny Dreadful.”
I don’t know that I agree with him completely but yes, it is fun – not the good, clean fun we’re all prompted to prefer but the bad, dirty kind we so often actually do.