Penny Dreadful is no Hilarious House of Frightenstein. For one thing, the new Showtime Gothic horror series, which debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on The Movie Network/Movie Central, takes itself way too seriously. Too much sloth, not enough Igor.
The idea all along was to play it straight, as creator/executive producer John Logan (the Tony-award-winning author of Red) explained last January at the TCA winter press tour. He grew up on the black and white Universal “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” monster movies of the ’40s. He loved how these classic monster clashed together and wanted to weave a new narrative, set in Victorian London, and sprung from the cheap, sensational “Penny Dreadful” serial stories bought for a penny in England in the 1890s.
All well and good, and the series, produced in Ireland, looks grim and authentic. The sets are as impressive as any on Copper of Boardwalk Empire, two other period shows that got details right. The cast is interesting, with Eva Green, Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton headlining.
Now, fair warning–this isn’t exactly my cup of gruel. I get frightened by commercials, especially those creepy ones that pick on Justin Trudeau. But the first hour of this deal just seemed gross in some places and dull when it wasn’t being gross. Plus Eva Green is so unattractive in this, which had to eat up half the special effects budget.
The titles are a turn off too. Titles shouldn’t matter, but once seemed fresh and new on Six Feet Under and True Blood just looks derivative today.
Maybe it gets better, and maybe horror fans will love it. Me, I was intrigued after Logan set it all up in January. Below is an excerpt from a feature I wrote for this month’s Movie Entertainment magazine, where Logan spills his guts about the hows and whys of his Penny Dreadful
“I grew up loving monsters,” Logan told TV critics at the most recent network TV press tour. “I’m just like a total monster geek.”
How much of a total monster geek? Logan admits he even has a certain fondness for the Saturday morning monster cartoons he watched growing up in the ‘70s such as Groovie Ghoolies. “I’m always temped to say we’re kind of doing Scooby Doo but I resist the temptation,” he adds.
He even used to eat—horror of horrors!—Franken Berry cereal.
“Yeah, I grew up on this stuff, it’s in my DNA,” he admits.
The 52-year-old says, as a boy, he glued together and hand-painted the old Aurora plastic models of The Mummy and The Phantom of the Opera, among others. He loved the gory Hammer Studios monster movies made in the early ‘60s.
About ten years ago, he re-read Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel and “was just very provoked by it,” he says.
He wondered why a work of fiction like Frankenstein still grips us 200 years after it was written. “I think it’s because the monster breaks my heart, you know?” he says.
“And, personally speaking, growing up as a gay man before it was as socially acceptable as it is now, I knew what it was to feel different, to feel alienated, to feel not like everyone else. But the very same thing that made me monstrous to some people also empowered me and made me who I was.”
He also drew on memories of the Universal horror movies of the ‘40s “where they would start mixing and matching the Wolfman with Dracula, with Frankenstein. And I thought I wonder if there’s a way to do that now and to take the characters seriously.”
Another source of inspiration completely came out of left field. Logan says he got one important note from Showtime network chief David Nevins. “He said essentially all television shows are about a family,” says Logan, “and he always talked about The Brady Bunch.”
The first eight-episode season of Penny Dreadful therefore, is about building a family, says Logan. “We go into the story through Josh’s character, who’s an American, and he’s our way into this world. He meets Eva’s character, then Tim Dalton’s character. And gradually as the season progresses, they become more interdigited, more reliant on each other, more like a highly dysfunctional Irish family.”