Early on in the premiere of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) tells hired gun Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), “Do not be amazed at anything you see.” But, since they’re entering a vampire’s lair at the time, that instruction is easier issued than followed.
Same goes for the series. How can we not be awestruck by a creepshow that’s not only sumptuously filmed and deftly acted but also written as beautifully as an epitaph? Before you weigh in with your opinion, let’s review the dark delights of “Night Work”…
HER CROSS TO SCARE | After her prayers are interrupted by a spider crawling across her crucifix and a disembodied voice announcing, in chilling fashion, “I’m hungry,” poker-faced Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, dazzling in her subtlety) recruits libidinous sharpshooter Ethan from a traveling Wild West show to accompany her and Sir Malcolm into London’s supernatural underbelly in search of the adventurer’s daughter, Mina (of Dracula fame). Unfortunately, they learn too late that — drat! — the blood-sucker who’s got the missing girl isn’t the only one in town. (What are the odds?!) At least, thanks to a necropsy by a young doctor (who we later learn is Victor Frankenstein), the vampire hunters discover that, beneath the staked creature’s thick skin are Egyptian hieroglyphics. Curiouser and curiouser.
WILD CARDS | The following day, Vanessa sizes up Ethan as a man “of great violence and hidden depths.” (Hmm… given his reaction to the scene of Jack the Ripper’s latest slaying, could he be the legendary serial killer?) She also fills him in on the “half-world between what we know and what we fear” and suggests that, if he’s wise, he’ll run, not walk, from their mission and never look back. Which sounds like a warning to him (and us), yet she assures him (and us) that, “It’s an invitation.” (Throughout, the chemistry between these two is just off the charts.) As anyone would be, Ethan is intrigued — especially after the tarot card that he picks for her is “The Lovers” — but he nonetheless decides to take the warning rather than the invitation. (Yeah, right.)
LIFE AS HE KNOWS IT | Later, despite Victor’s protestation that he has no interest in joining Sir Malcolm’s “amateur occultists society” — the Victorian-era House is, not surprisingly, all about matters of life and death — he does need the money that he’d earn by developing a cure for the rarest of diseases (presumably, Mina’s vampirism). Returning home following the meeting, Sir Malcolm is briefly, harrowingly reunited with his toothsome daughter, who leaves him with the impression that the hunters are now the hunted.
Interestingly, when he reveals the visitation to Vanessa afterwards, both of them use the vaguest of terms to discuss their responsibility for Mina’s dire predicament. (As if to underscore Vanessa’s guilt, her next prayer session ends with the crucifix hanging upside down and the appearance of enough spiders to populate a lifetime of nightmares.)
Finally, we end the hour at Victor’s tiny apartment… which, it turns out, has a secret laboratory that’s big enough to hold Godzilla. What it actually holds, however, is a stitched-together cadaver on ice… a cadaver that comes to life after an accidental power surge! So, as the premiere draws to a close, we are left with an image that’s truly shocking — in its tenderness: Frankenstein’s monster gently wipes a tear from his overjoyed maker’s cheek and places it on his own. Breathtaking!