Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” opens with a scene that feels like Charles Dickens directed by Wes Craven. A shivering, working-class, 19th-century Londoner is snatched through a window and butchered by a Jack the Ripper-style killer.
And he’d like some more, please, sir. Good thing there’s a team of dashing figures gathering to stop the killings, all of them harboring their own dark secrets.
“Penny Dreadful” is a smart, self-referential Dracula vs. the Wolf-Man vs. Frankenstein concept delivering the scares, chills and laughs that summer TV needs.
The horror icons who’ve been skulking around Victorian London are still making friends as the monster mashup thriller series begins Sunday. Players include Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein and an African explorer named Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who’s leading a search through the supernatural underground for his missing daughter.
If you’re looking for a faithful retelling of the kinds of tales beloved by mopey teens, look elsewhere. If you’d like to see what happens when Victor Frankenstein dissects a vampire covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics tattoos, stay tuned.
That’s not to say you won’t be rewarded for having read Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and an embarrassing number of Jack the Ripper paperbacks. But the inclusion of Sir Malcolm — Mina Harker’s father, a character who was already dead in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” — quickly makes it clear we’re not sticking too close to the source material.
As Sir Malcolm’s assistant Vanessa Ives, Eva Green, who made “Dark Shadows” tolerable and the “300” prequel worthwhile, is the Agent Mulder of the “Penny Dreadful” crew, trying desperately to keep the supernatural elements inside her at bay and failing, most memorably at a stuffy society séance.
Whatever demonic baggage she has allows Vanessa to move safely among “Penny Dreadful’s” vampires, who are decidedly not hunky or sparkly. So while hired gun Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Sir Malcolm dispatch a nest of undead, she glides away to uncover the real action nearby.
“Penny Dreadful” creator John Logan — who wrote “Sweeney Todd” and “The Aviator” — teams up again with “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes to produce the series. So it’s no surprise that it bounces between understated menace, dry wit and slick action sequences amid mounds of gore.
The Victorians didn’t wait for some weird virus or curse to make the dead walk; they got out the sewing kit and made things happen. The “Resurrection Men,” who bought and stole bodies to study, make an appearance; then it’s on to visit a squirrely Egyptologist at the British museum.
There’s a fair amount of grim sexuality, some of it involving Brona (Billie Piper of “Doctor Who”), a working girl with a “Deadwood” outlook who shares morning whiskey with Chandler. When Dorian Gray hires her to pose for some naughty pictures, he’s fascinated by her tuberculosis symptoms, calling her a “dying creature” as she coughs and the camera clicks.
“Do you feel things more? Do you feel pain?” he demands. Dorian (Reeve Carney) is given a lot of these over-the-top melodramatic lines. The scene in which he and Vanessa meet — after their eyes lock across a crowded room — borders on the ridiculous.
“You are the only woman in this house not wearing gloves,” he purrs in her ear, coming close to a classic Christopher Walken “SNL” sketch. “Your hands want to touch. Your head wants to appraise. Your heart is torn between the two.”
Despite these flashes of silliness, “Penny Dreadful” keeps pulling itself back into dark places, mostly led by Green’s troubled heroine, who manages to scare you and keep you on her side.
It’s not clear what Vanessa did to make herself so appealing to the undead, but the show starts dropping breadcrumbs right away. With so many Gothic sources to pull from and every character dogged by a dark past, we shouldn’t have to wait all season for any one mystery to be solved.
“Penny Dreadful” presents itself accurately as a guilty pleasure — the title refers to the lurid, dirt-cheap pamphlets Victorian Brits bought for their doses of serialized sensationalism — but as Oscar Wilde once wrote, the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.