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Dark delights

Gory gothic horror series menacing mash-up of literary characters

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Penny Dreadful

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Penny Dreadful

It's dreadful, in the most delightful way imaginable. And for subscribers to premium cable's Movie Central, it really is worth every penny.

The new period drama Penny Dreadful is a murky, menacing, mightily frightening mash-up of literary characters, storylines and styles that unapologetically straddles the line between historical fact and outrageously fanciful fiction.

The title, Penny Dreadful, is drawn from a term used to describe Victorian-era pulp thrillers which were, in equal measures, serialized horror novels and roughly drawn comic books. Also called "Penny Awfuls" and "Penny Bloods," they were cheap (one cent, as the moniker suggests), wildly sensational publications whose covers promised generous weekly doses of murder, mayhem, bloody misdeeds, supernatural mischief and boundary-pushing sexual adventuring.

Though fictional, these "dreadfuls" sometimes placed their make-believe heroes and heroines in close contact with not-so-real versions of real-life people -- for instance, one serial called The Dark Woman had its female protagonist cross paths, in the same storyline, with infamous 18th-century thief Jack Sheppard and the not-yet-crowned King George IV.

Penny Dreadful creator/writer John Logan (The Aviator, Skyfall) gleefully embraces this character-crossover concept, imagining a Victorian-era London in which his fictional creations -- led by world-weary explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), mysterious dark lady Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and showboating American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) -- coexist with the drawn-from-literature likes of blood-lusting Count Dracula, scientific outcast Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the elusive soul-seller Dorian Gray.

At first glance, it seems like an ambitious and easy-to-bungle undertaking, but Logan attacks this difficult narrative challenge with skill, precision and flair, and the result is an eight-part series that's one of the TV season's most gripping and immediately addictive arrivals.

The story opens in 1891, during the last decade of the Victorian era, in a London in the grips of an industrial revolution that has sparked swift population growth and all the societal ills, attitudinal shifts and moral ambiguities that such a massive urban upheaval necessarily brings.

The city's population is fearful in the wake of a series of gruesome murders that some speculate marks the return of Jack the Ripper. Others insist there are even darker forces at work.

Among the diversions available to lighten the mood is a second-rate American Wild West show that brings pistol-wielding deadeye Chandler to town. After his show, he's approached by an unimpressed Vanessa Ives, who mocks his tall-tale buffoonery and offers him a chance to prove his skill as a marksman in a setting that offers much higher stakes.

He's intrigued, but she offers few other details, instructing him to meet her at a backstreets address the following evening. When he arrives, he's introduced to the grim-faced Sir Malcolm, who has set aside his globe-exploring ambitions to embark on a more immediate and perilous kind of search.

Once he agrees to accompany them, Chandler finds himself face to face with evils, terrors and violence unlike anything Buffalo Bill could ever have conjured. London, as it turns out, is the wildest place imaginable.

As this plot line unfolds, we're introduced to a young scientist (played by Harry Treadway) who's obsessed with the intricacies of human anatomy and seems convinced it's possible to reanimate deceased tissue. The eventual revelation of his name comes as absolutely no surprise.

Before long, the vain and somehow dangerous Dorian Gray enters the picture. And as the full scope of Sir Malcolm's quest is revealed, a larger narrative begins to build, pulling all these various characters in a single -- and singularly horrifying -- direction.

It's hard to say much more without beginning to spoil surprises, and that's the last thing anyone should do when dealing with such a thoughtfully intricate story. You have to -- and really, really should -- see it for yourself. Frightful, suspenseful, eventful, colourful and masterful, Penny Dreadful is, in its own darkly terrifying way, delightful.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 C6

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