'Penny Dreadful': What you need to know before the premiere

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Image Credit: Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Psychosexual horror drama Penny Dreadful weaves together the origin stories of (in)famous literary characters while reimagining them in Victorian London. It’s kind of like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, and Josh Hartnett leading the charge to understand the weird, unnatural world around them.

Dalton and Green play mysterious explorer Sir Malcolm Murray and supernaturally-in-touch sidekick Vanessa Ives respectively; in the first episode, the pair attempt to recruit sharpshooting American Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) in their quest.

Here’s what else you should know before the premiere:

What is a penny dreadful anyway?

Penny dreadfuls were serialized — and sensationalized — tales of horror and adventure printed in 19th-century England. Showtime’s own monster mashup lovingly pays homage.

It all comes back to Frankenstein.

Series creator John Logan is excellent at setting up action and suspense — he penned Gladiator and Skyfall, after all. But he’s also quite good at unlocking pathos.

The idea for Penny Dreadful came when Logan revisited and reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “I started thinking about the themes and why almost 200 years after it was written are we still reading Frankenstein,” he told TCA critics in January. “I think it’s because the monsters break my heart. 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. But the very same thing that made me monstrous to some people also empowered me and made me who I was.”

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) plays a pivotal role in the premiere, with an emotional reveal at episode’s end.

There’s an even bigger James Bond connection.

Besides Logan’s Skyfall credits, he is also slated to write the next two Bond films. Dalton played James Bond in The Living Daylights and License to Kill. Green portrayed Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.

There are no sparkly vampires.

Edward Cullen would not fit in with these bloodsuckers, who hearken back to the old school, ultra-creepy vampires who act — and look — like monsters in your nightmares. There is seduction in this series to be sure, but most of the supernatural beings encountered in episode 1 are not prom date material.

Keep your ears perked for literary name-dropping.

Showtime has promoted the fact that classic horror characters Frankenstein and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) make an appearance in the series, but expect others. Bram Stoker fans should pay close attention to why Sir Malcolm Murray is so obsessed with finding one monster in particular.

The squeamish may need to watch some scenes through their fingers.

This is premium cable, after all. Expect blood and gore and body parts — some sexy, some dismembered, some otherwise. But none of it seems gratuitous in a horror series that stops by an opium den and autopsy rooms and makes reference to Jack the Ripper — all in the first hour.

Penny Dreadful premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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