One of the more inspired aspects of this year’s SXSW was the newly added Episodic program, a showcase previewing yet-to-debut TV series. Episodic original content has clearly been undergoing a revolution. Indeed, the conversations surrounding small-screen content often eclipse what’s being said about big-screen fare. While, say, Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” and Sean Durkin’s “Southcliffe” debuted as one-offs in the festival world, expect this new sort of collective programming to catch on -- and fast -- at other major fests.
I took a break from scouring the admittedly underwhelming narrative competition film program to check out the first hour-long installment of Showtime’s supernatural period chiller “Penny Dreadful,” starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett and former 007 Timothy Dalton. (Watch a new trailer for the series, which hits Showtime May 11, below.)
Executive produced by Sam Mendes, all eight episodes are written by “Skyfall” scribe John Logan. (This finds similarity with the “True Detective” model of auteur-oriented series creation; that show is written in entirety by Nic Pizzolatto and helmed by Cary Fukunaga. Meanwhile Steven Soderbergh has the promising-looking ten-episode “The Knick,” starring Clive Owen as a turn-of-the-century surgeon, which arrives on Cinemax this summer.)
Juan Antonio Bayona, who directed 2007’s “The Orphanage,” helmed the first two episodes. Bayona spoke before the screening, mentioning that a few last sound and post-productions additions were yet to be made to the version we would see, but that the tone was true to what would bow on Showtime come May 11.
So, about the tone: Based on the first episode, “Penny Dreadful” is an elegant, creepily crafted horror opus, liberally mixing classic frighteners (Frankenstein’s Monster, Dorian Gray and Dracula, for example) to create a late 1800s London with a ghastly demi-monde just below its surface.
And “demi-monde” is just the way it’s described by the haunted Vanessa Ives (Green) when she recruits sharp-shooter traveling circus-man Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) for some monster slaying. Vanessa is the accomplice to prominent explorer Sir Malcolm (Dalton), who’s lost his daughter to the city’s malevolent creatures and is hell-bent on recovering her.
Dalton is good, while Green is the standout; she’s apparently relishing the morbid stares, low-rumbling register and feverish altar prostrating that are all part of her character. (Hartnett, however, could be the weak link of the series -- his line delivery is about as wooden as the circus wagon Ethan rode in on.) Harry Treadaway plays Dr. Frankenstein, revealed in the episode’s strong final scene when he brings a young, very un-Boris Korloff-like corpse (Rory Kinnear) back to life.
The London inhabitants of “Penny Dreadful” think Jack the Ripper has returned, leaving bloody body bits at increasingly gory crime scenes. (We know that more sinister forces are at play, however.) Bayona’s visuals are appropriately shadowy and drenched in deep reds, a refreshing shake-up from the usual over-lighting that plagues TV series.
If “Penny Dreadful” follows in the footsteps of its first episode, it will be some shivery good fun for fans of Gothic noir, macabre period pieces and smart horror alike.