The shared universe is as much a tradition in horror as the superhero genre, stretching back to that fateful day in 1943 when Frankenstein first met the Wolf Man on the big screen. But few monster mashes have preserved their literary roots like Penny Dreadful. The brainchild of screenwriter John Logan, who penned all eight of its first season’s episodes and has written the entirety of its ten-episode second outing, Dreadful unites such disparate figures as Dorian Gray, the Frankenstein monster and Abraham Van Helsing in a TV drama that’s offered more sex and scares than fans dared hope. But as intense as its debut season was, Logan tells us the ante is upped in every way as the second year of his “horror show that’ll break your heart” kicks off this week.
“I was immensely proud of the first season,” the screenwriter turned showrunner tells SFX in Los Angeles. “This season I think is much better, and tonally very different. There’s more pressure, there’s more tension this season. Last season our heroes were hunters, and this season they are the prey. There’s so much pressure on them externally, from Evelyn Poole, and also internally because they’re brought closer and therefore the stakes are higher emotionally. We sort of unleash hell in this season. We go for broke. So it is our make-or-break season, and we’re going for it… We have ten hours. So there’s more time to tell the story.”
Logan explains the threat posed by Poole, aka Madame Kali, to Dreadful’s cursed clairvoyant Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), and African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton).
“When I was planning this season ten years ago, thinking about these characters and this world, I became fascinated by particular parts of Vanessa Ives’ past, which is where she learned to read the tarot. It’s not something a Victorian girl, even one as unique as Vanessa Ives, knows how to do. Thinking about that led me into the world of the occult and the supernatural… This season we embrace witchcraft. I created the character that Helen McCrory plays, Evelyn Poole, last season. This season she becomes an antagonist, for not only Vanessa, but all of the characters. Last season we set the players on the board, now we get to play with them in interesting ways… Last season we had creatures. Now we have a proper villain. And we enjoy her immensely.”
Logan tells us his biggest challenge in introducing witchcraft to his show has been “making it organic” to the character of Poole. “Because no two witches are the same, no two vampires are the same. No two demonically possessed women are the same. She’s a very particular character. She’s a character of elegance and grace and beauty, and a character of absolute barbarism.”
Regarding McCrory’s work as the enigmatic Evelyn, Logan remarks, “I’d worked with Helen both on Hugo and on Skyfall, and I’d seen her on stage. She’s an amazing actor. So I went to her two and a half years ago and said, ‘I’m gonna beg you to take a [TV] part. You have two scenes in the first season. Then the second season is all you.’ Because of our friendship, because of her faith in me as a writer, she took the chance. She’s an amazingly agile performer, a very soulful performer, and, like Eva Green, fearless.”
As for what makes the witchy Madame Kali such an effective antagonist… “I don’t believe in villains and heroes,” says Logan. “You think Evelyn is a villain, but she’s more of an antagonist. She has a noble calling even though it runs counter to Sir Malcolm’s. She might think she’s on the side of the angels, even though she’s on the side of the devils.”
Penny Dreadful’s first year irreparably altered its characters — revealing Chandler to be a werewolf, robbing Murray of his long-lost daughter Mina, and killing off Billie Piper’s tuberculosis-plagued Irish immigrant Brona Croft only to see her corpse prepared for reanimation, as a mate for Frankenstein’s monster. All of which leads us to season two.
“Ethan, in this season, learns exactly what he is,” says Logan, “and he’s hunted by a very dogged Scotland Yard inspector played by Doug Hodge; and he’s drawn closer to Vanessa in every conceivable way due to the pressure on him. Sir Malcolm is drawn into a relationship with Evelyn Poole that alienates him, romantically, personally, and supernaturally from the rest of the people in the series. And Doctor Frankenstein himself is grappling with a new life. And has to deal with what those feelings, what those sensitivities, are.”
Logan gleefully recalls informing Hartnett of his character’s true nature. “I will confess that was one of the great moments in the entire process. I met with Josh for the first time — he was the actor I desperately wanted, he’d read the first two scripts — and I had to say the words, ‘Oh, by the way, you play a werewolf.’ At which point he could have walked out of the room, but to his credit he didn’t.
“One of the great revelations [of season two],” Logan continues, “is Ethan sees himself for what he is. The dread of it all, if you will, has encompassed him. The sense of not knowing. So how we treat lycanthropy is a major part of the season and beyond for Ethan… Everything becomes more fluid in the second season. Because we know the characters and now we get to unspool them in different ways. So erotically, romantically, supernaturally — both in terms of ugliness and beauty — I think we just get deeper.”
Logan tells SFX that his greatest inspiration for his characters comes from the idiosyncratic cast he’s assembled cast to play them. “When you see how they spark, how they connect, the actors who just click together magnificently, where the chemistry is — you imagine it on the page. Then you see it on the set, and you hope it translates to the screen. When it does, it’s absolute lightning.” Of all his characters, the writer-producer exhibits the most outward affection for Eva Green’s demon-plagued Ives.
“Everything Eva does exceeds my expectations. We spend a lot of time together, Eva and I, and we talk about things in great detail. Some of the more difficult scenes we just read together. So we build the performance as a duo. Then every time I go on the set she exceeds anything I imagine.” Logan is quick to add that, after eight hours of story, Penny Dreadful has only scratched the surface of Green’s character, and that her story will be told “endlessly” in episodes to come.
“Eva Green herself, she’s an Alpine mountaineer. She’s only happy in the high altitudes. So I have to challenge her and I have to challenge myself to climb higher. Every single line, every single episode, and every single season… I will say that this series asks one very simple question, which is ‘Who is Vanessa Ives?’ I don’t believe I will ever know. And as long as she remains an enigma to me I will continue to try to unwrap her.”
In addition to his cast, Logan has found further inspiration in the horror films he loved as a boy. He doesn’t hesitate before naming his gateway drug — “Frankenstein. Originally the Boris Karloff movie, then the Christopher Lee movie, and then the book. That was the way I fell into the entire sordid mess.” Logan also cites director Francis Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a favourite: “I love Coppola’s Dracula, every frame of it. And all of those movies that I watched first as a kid and then as an adult have filtered through and informed my work. I stand on the shoulders of those who have walked before me.”
Like Coppola’s film, Penny Dreadful depicts a world still frightened by the superstitions of the past even as the technology of the future engulfs it. The contrast is one Logan sees as an apt metaphor for the perils of 2015. “One of the reasons this is set in 1891, and now 1892 in this season, is they were looking at a world that was changing so quickly technologically they couldn’t keep up. The old gods were being replaced by the new gods, with the turbine engine and steam and telegraphy and electrical lighting. I feel we’re in exactly the same place. Who knows what demons will come from the internet, from Facebook, from the communication that moves so quickly that we lose the idea of actually interacting with other people? It’s one of the main reasons I wrote the series and why I think it’s relevant. I think we live in that world right now. On our show, it’s Victorian London and it has cobblestone streets and it has fog. But it’s exactly the world we live in as I see it. Completely.”
Having co-written the screenplay for Star Trek: Nemesis as well as the blockbuster Skyfall, Logan is no stranger to the opinions of genre fans. But before leaving us, he beams as he mentions the reception Penny Dreadful has had from the most demanding of critics.
“Oh, I’m thrilled… Especially among hardcore genre fans, because that’s the bread and butter, and those are the people I didn’t want to disappoint and betray. So the fact that they’ve responded so favourably is fantastic!”