A Penny Dreadful for Your Screams

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In the Magazine
Showtime’s "Penny Dreadful" is an ambitious mash-up of Jack the Ripper, insect-like vampires and Oscar Wilde Jonathan Hession/Showtime

John Logan is a mix-and-match kind of guy. A Tony Award–winning playwright (Red) who’s been nominated for three screenwriting Oscars (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo), he’s the sort of moviegoer who might dump Goobers and Gobstoppers into his bucket of Flavacol-seasoned popcorn.

Born in San Diego, the 52-year-old Logan is the youngest of three children of Irish émigrés. Childhood asthma kept him indoors, where he watched vintage movies on the family Philco. He adored the Universal Horror monsters of the 1930s and early 1940s: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and the Mummy. Logan was even crazier about “monster rally” sequels that featured ensemble casts of classic creatures. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. House of Frankenstein. House of Dracula. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. “All the sudden, in one movie, you’d have Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man,” he recalls, excitedly. “Suddenly, all the origin stories were coming together to form a new branch of the river.” 

His newest Dream Team tributary gushes forth on May 11, when Showtime airs the premiere episode of Penny Dreadful, which it bills as a “psycho-sexual horror series” written and executive-produced by Logan. Filmed in Ireland and set in the England of 1891, the show stars a former James Bond (Timothy Dalton) and 007 alumni Eva Green and Rory Kinnear. Skyfall director Sam Mendes is a co-producer. Logan, by the way, wrote Skyfall and has signed on to write the next two Bond features.

Asked if there’s a connection between the British spy and the undead Dreadfuls, he grimaces and says, “I don’t think the worlds cross much. Other than Sam Mendes working with me on both, it’s better to keep the bread in the bread box and the frozen food in the freezer.” Not to mention the stun-gas Gauloise in the cigarette case.

The term penny dreadful is not a dig at Barbara Bouchet’s performance as Miss Moneypenny in the original Casino Royale. It refers to the lurid tales that, with the coming of cheap paper and steam-driven printing presses, began to appear in weekly installments in the 19th century. The Victorian equivalent of today’s comic books, the pulpy fictions could be purchased for a penny at newsstands and tobacco shops. Variously known as “penny awful,” “penny horrible” and “penny blood,” the stories were especially popular among working-class teenage boys. Still, Logan cautions not to read too much into the show’s title. “I’ve never read a penny dreadful in my life,” he insists.

Logan says his literary inspirations were Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth; and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. During the course of his research, he immersed himself in the era by studying contemporary crime broadsheets about Jack the Ripper, listening to the popular English music of the late 19th century and doing “everything short of drinking absinthe.” (But only because he’s a teetotaler.)

Logan is best known for writing male characters—the courageous Maximus in Gladiator, the neurotic Howard Hughes in The Aviator, the reptilian Rango in, well, Rango. Penny Dreadful centers on a female fortune-teller: Green’s lovely, austere, tarot-shuffling Vanessa Ives. “There was something very exciting going on as modern Britain faced the 20th century with mechanization and Darwin and psychology,” says Logan. “A woman in Victorian England was a very constrained figure. Literally and figuratively corseted.” He buttons Green up in accordion collars and piles her hair in uptight coils. When she finally lets her hair down, you know she’s possessed by a demon. 

The only American on hand is Josh Hartnett, who has grown a mustache but not much of a following since Blow Dry, the 2001 hairdressing rom-com in which he displayed what The Guardian called the worst British accent ever recorded on celluloid. In Dreadful, Hartnett plays a Yank sideshow sharpshooter named Ethan Chandler.

Earlier this year at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Hartnett told me he got into character on set by buckling on the bulky holster for his Colt .45s. In the show, his character gets into character by donning a wig and fastening a fake mustache to his real mustache. The comic highlight of the premiere is when Hartnett peels one ’stache off the other.

The first two episodes involve a monster mash-up of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his Karloffian creation (Kinnear) and Oscar Wilde’s literary creation Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). For verisimilitude, Logan threw in some vampires and Egyptian skin-walkers.

The opener begins with the Ripper-style killing of a mother and a young child. Was the murderer human? When the daughter of an explorer (Dalton, bearded), goes missing—as often happens in such cases—an Egyptian vampire is encountered, slain and brought to Dr. Frankenstein. Diagnosis: The vampire has insect skin. Cool!

In Episode 2, the good doctor brings Insect Guy back to life, secrets are revealed at a séance, and an Egyptologist prattles about standard-issue Egyptologist stuff like curses and the coming Apocalypse. Oh, and Ethan flirts with a consumptive Irish drifter who gets hired as an artist’s model by Dorian Gray.   

At times, the dialogue of Penny Dreadful crosses over into the Truly Dreadful. When Gray tells the drifter, “I’ve never f***ed a dying creature,” you can almost hear Oscar Wilde clawing his way out of his grave.

Which may well be the plot of Episode 3.

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