Stream On: Frankenstein’s children, or the adder beneath the rose

By on August 20, 2020

Reading the lurid stories of a “penny dreadful,” a cheap pulp magazine of Victorian times.

Generations still walk the earth that learned in childhood, through the stories of such as The Brothers Grimm, of the legendary id that inhabits and informs the human race still.

Through tales of the demimonde, these dark secrets and blood urges of humanity were made flesh … they can still be found in the “penny dreadfuls” <Wikipedia>, the pulp magazines of the Victorian age, and also now on Netflix.

Fasten your seatbelts!


Inspector John Marlott (right) embarks on the case of a lifetime (or two) in The Frankenstein Chronicles. (IMDb.com)


The Frankenstein Chronicles is an ingenious police procedural-meets-gothic-horror story that features a cast of historical figures including William Blake, Ada Lovelace, and Charles Dickens. Set in 1828 London, it references Mary Shelley’s 1818 book; indeed, Ms. Shelley becomes a person of interest in a bizarre murder investigation.

Sean Bean (Patriot Games, Game of Thrones) plays a London River policeman who discovers a body on the banks of the Thames that turns out to be made up of parts of eight missing children, stitched together with surgical thread. In a heavily political atmosphere (the 1832 anatomy act was being argued, which would give doctors, anatomy professors and students license to dissect donated bodies, and kill the illegal trade in corpses by “resurrectionists,” or body snatchers), he begins an investigation.

He finds open cases of six missing children and attempts to track them down, reserving the supposition that some or all of the body parts of his “corpse” might have come from resurrectionists, perhaps in a grisly protest. The investigation takes a turn when he hears of Mary Shelley’s recent novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (which you can download or read <here>). Was his find on the shore the ghastly result of a mad attempt to replicate the recreation of life in the book, or something far stranger? Take a wild guess. <Here> is the BBC-TV teaser.

American gunslinger Ethan Lawrence Talbot, Vanessa Ives, Sembene, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and explorer Malcolm Murray unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London. (IMDb.com)

PENNY DREADFUL <official website> (Showtime; Netflix; Amazon.com; Prime Video; other platforms) 2014-2016 [TVMA]

Penny Dreadful is an ingenious drama/horror story that features a cast of fictional figures including Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, John Seward, Renfield, and Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Victor Frankenstein and his creation from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Henry Jekyll from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Now it’s a party!

“The first episode opens in Victorian England on September 22, 1891, with the brutal abduction of a woman and her daughter who are later found mutilated and dismembered. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Casino Royale) enlists the skilled American marksman/showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnet, Black Hawk Down) to do some ‘night work.’ She introduces him to Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton, License to Kill), father of the recently-abducted Mina Harker. The trio infiltrate a vampire nest in search of Mina. They find and kill a vicious vampire, later enlisting Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, Agatha Christie’s Marple) to examine it. The autopsy reveals hieroglyphs etched beneath its skin, which are later found to be from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Ethan, overwhelmed by the new world opening before him, takes his payment and leaves Vanessa and Sir Malcolm’s service, but is later tempted to return. In his laboratory, Frankenstein brings life to a dead body.” (Wikipedia)

The first takeaway regards the atmosphere: reds and browns comprise the palette on the beautiful sets. Every square foot of dark wood or fabric is filled with intricate designs in the upper-class sets, and dirt or stains in the dark lower-class sets. No proper walls are without ornate wallpaper. The splashes of light might have come from Caravaggio or Rembrandt. The actors speak in period language, often in aphorisms, such as “True evil is, above all things, seductive” and “To be beautiful is to be nearly dead.”

But the headline is the terrific story and the yeoman job done by the writers and actors. The tales of Dracula, the wolfman, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde are woven together supporting the story of Sir Malcolm, Vanessa and Mina in this fascinating universe. Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray is even a connecting figure (Dorian Gray in <Wikipedia>).

Victor Frankenstein’s subplot in Penny Dreadful follows Mary Shelley’s novel fairly closely: a major character here is the creature (Rory Kinnear, Skyfall, Black Mirror), who finds a place working in a wax museum after much rejection. He seeks out Victor Frankenstein and demands that the doctor make for him a mate. Frankenstein is enlisted by Malcolm Murray to do the autopsy on the vampire corpse.

Chandler, a sharpshooter with a traveling wild-west show in London, has blackouts during the full moon, and is troubled by newspaper accounts of mayhem during those times. An expert marksman, he goes to work for Malcolm Murray as security. His birth name turns out to be Ethan Lawrence Talbot (Lawrence Talbot in <Wikipedia>).

Murray, who is trying to find his lost daughter Mina, finds that the forces of darkness have also targeted her friend Vanessa Ives, who is given instruction in the supernatural by an ex-witch in a cottage in the woods. All of the stories overlap, presenting pressures and motivations for the characters. Penny Dreadful is a delicious entertainment, with flavors of romance, melodrama, and terror, with a hint of humor.

Here’s the original Showtime trailer: <https://www.imdb.com/video/vi570338073>

On April 26, 2020, a spin-off series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premiered (<Here> is where it is available for viewing). It is set in 1938 and centers on Mexican-American folklore and social tension of the era in Los Angeles, California.

Next time, the lighter side of the dark side: The Addams Family and The Munsters.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers.

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