Penny Dreadful, Gothic Horror Dream Come True


My goth friends have been raving (in a good way!) about this series, but I didn’t have Showtime or Amazon Prime until recently — just in time for season two’s premiere on May 3, 2015. Penny Dreadful mashes up classic Victorian horror stories into one operatic, gothic, mystery tale beginning in 1891 London.

The main character is Vanessa Ives, whose childhood best friend was Mina Murray Harker, from Dracula. Mina’s father, Sir Malcom (played by Timothy Dalton), has teamed up with Vanessa to rescue a kidnapped Mina in season one of the show. They’re aided in this mission by Dr. Victor Frankenstein (yes, he’s created a monster … or two) and an American gunslinger Ethan Chandler — who’s shagging an Irish whore dying of consumption, Brona Croft. Most of the characters sometimes hang out with Dorian Gray (yes, of picture fame), either for brooding or shagging, sometimes both. Minor characters include Dr. Van Helsing (again, from Dracula) and a spiritualist Madame Kali / Evelyn Poole (played by the always awesome Helen McCrory). That’s just season one.

Penny Dreadful

Mean Kali Green.

Each episode has a fair amount of blood, gore, and sex, but it’s on par with Game of Thrones, maybe a smidge more gore instead of sex compared with Westros. Penny Dreadful has consistently dark themes, of course, but the show also features pathos and tenderness at times and occasional gallows humor. If you’re not usually into the horror genre, this may still be of interest because it’s such an elegant, smart, and well-acted and scripted series. If you enjoy the gothic aesthetic, this show will push all the right buttons and make you squee with delight! Especially because it doesn’t just hit the gothic-horror clichés, Penny Dreadful does it in a gorgeous late Victorian fashion.

Penny Dreadful

Pick a card, any card.

While the look of the show is stunning, and I’ll get to details about that in a minute, the show isn’t perfect. For one thing, Dorian Grey really seems like an afterthought — his character isn’t well integrated into the story, and he’s used a lot of the time as soft-porn eye candy. Not that I have a problem with this as a visual — he’s hot! it’s sexy! — but as an editor, I feel like there’s two shows going on. Here’s Penny Dreadful, the horror-mystery show, and here’s The Dorian Grey Porn Chronicles. I’d watch both, but for different reasons, if you know what I mean.

Penny Dreadful

Hey baby, let’s get it on.

Another critique: Brona Croft, as played by Billie Piper (of Doctor Who fame), whoa, that’s one hell of an “Irish” accent. Not saying I could do better, but then, that’s not what I get paid for. Don’t worry though, it doesn’t look like she’ll do much talking in season two (spoiler alert!).

Penny Dreadful

Shhh, let’s not talk.

Penny Dreadful Costumes

If you’re wondering why the costumes in Penny Dreadful look so amazing, that’s because the producers didn’t screw around — they chose Gabriella Pescucci as the costume designer. She won a Best Costume Academy Award for The Age of Innocence (1994) and also designed The Borgias (2011-2013) for Showtime.

Penny Dreadful

That gown! That hair!

Penny Dreadful

She makes this face a lot.

Horror movies and TV series don’t have a strong reputation for historical accuracy in costume — usually it’s just ‘throw some black dresses around’ or ‘rent generic Victorian costumes and splash them with blood’ — but this show might change that. The wardrobe for Vanessa (played by Eva Green) is particularly gorgeous, with many elaborate 1890s gowns covered in lace and beading and using rich materials. Her hair is also fantastic in a big, sweeping, period updo but a tiny bit messy to help convey her wild side. Brona is in slightly raggedy mismatched clothes but never cliche Victorian tart garb. The men are all in very proper suits, Sir Malcom is crisp yet dark, Ethan is dun-colored with touches of past wealth, Victor’s clothes show that bit of absent-minded professor.

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Sir Malcom & Vanessa.

Penny Dreadful

Brown is the new black.

Only Dorian looks off for the period. His haircut is very modern, and he usually wears his shirt collar open, 1970s-style. He even has big, chunky silver jewelry — yo, Dorian, be mad pimpin’! When everyone else looks perfectly proper and 1890s (with a gothic flair), Dorian just looks weird. I guess the filmmakers are trying to show that Dorian is ageless and doesn’t fit into this era, but the costumes make him look like he stepped out of Entourage. Like I said, he’s cute and shag-able, but that doesn’t mean he fits in here.

Penny Dreadful

Dorian “Pimp Daddy” Gray

Penny Dreadful

Bringing sexy back.

Background and recurring characters, however, do fit in and fill out the scenes beautifully. From exotic-yet-scary Madame Kali to flashbacks of Mina and Vanessa’s seemingly innocent youth to the grimy London street scenes, the costume and art direction details create a gothic Victorian wet dream. I don’t know how much Showtime is spending per episode, but the whole package looks rich and they’re getting their money’s worth in atmosphere.

Penny Dreadful

Do not be fooled by this “proper” suit.

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Flashback to (somewhat) happier times with Mina in pink & Vanessa in cream.

Penny Dreadful

Vanessa & her mother in a flashback that sets the stage for the story.


Do you like gothic horror shows? Have you watched Penny Dreadful?

15 Responses

  1. Isis

    I love it! I was a bit afraid of it given what a mess they did out of Dracula, but PD is just marvellous. I agree that Dorian Grey looks a bit out of place- it would be better if harked back in time instead of the future, but apart from that, I love it. I hope thise new season keep it all up!

  2. Sarah F

    The show is fantastic. I was watching with a friend, and we often tell male characters to kiss each other- so when it finally happened we catapulted off the couch with glee. I’m pretty sure a plate of brownies fell to the floor. The costumes are incredible, and Eva Green’s performance blew me away. I too found Grey’s outfits to be very reminiscent of some posh 70s nightclub, but the rest of the work is so detailed and period appropriate that it didn’t bother me. Can’t wait for season two!

  3. rikibeth

    My Irish friends tell me that Billie Piper was producing a very creditable Belfast accent. It sounds totally wrong to American ears trained to believe Dublin is the only real Irish accent and that only hokey leprechauns sound like they’re from County Mayo. Its grating quality is, they tell me, authentic.

    If you watch the video of the SDCC Penny Dreadful panel & listen to John Logan talk about how he chose Reeve Carney to play Dorian and the instructions he gave to Gabriella Pescucci about how to costume him, it at least EXPLAINS why his clothes don’t make sense. Short form: John Logan TOTALLY had the hots for Reeve Carney as soon as he saw him. Can’t blame him. Wish he hadn’t given costume notes.

    I spent 3.5 muslins getting a cosplay version of Victor’s waistcoat right. My best friend looked AMAZING.

  4. thayanepilar

    In the second season Billy Piper shows up with short hair and appears wearing a weird post sex style shirt, wearing like it were a proper victorian nightgown…That wtf me but I love the show despite its slips and the supposed “irresistible man” Dorian Grey should look like but instead, they change for a pimp style boy who looks like he’s 18.

  5. Barbie

    I came across the tv series quite by accident. Seeing how I don’t have cable or satellite at home, I usually make due by borrow movies fromt he library. I found Season One and was hooked from the very first episode. Took us a week to watch the whole Season. When I learned that Season 2 had just finished on Showtime and Season 3 had just been signed for next year. I cant wait to see them. I enjoy a lot of “time” pieces such as this, so it was right up my alley. Thanks for the write up on the show, very well done.

  6. Kelly

    Is young Vanessa’s blue day-dress the same pattern as May Welland’s “almost breakup with Newland” pink/white ensemble in The Age of Innocence?

  7. Grainne O'Loughlin

    Dude that is totally lilac not pink. Also Vanessa’s dress is more champagne than cream, especially in that material. Thank you Rikibeth for pointing out that Billie’s accent is on point. We’re not all leprechauns ya know.

  8. mmcquown

    Recently binge-watched the whole series on Netflix. Eva Green jusr burns yup the screen with her intensity. I just wish she didn’t smoke!