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'Penny Dreadful' on Showtime shows promise

From left, Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler, Timothy

From left, Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler, Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in the pilot episode of Showtime's "Penny Dreadful." Credit: Showtime / Jonathan Hession

THE SHOW "Penny Dreadful"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A child sleeps, while about her an ancient boardinghouse creaks. The sounds of a vibrant vast metropolis, London, circa 1891, barely intrude. Her mother arises, leaves the room ... and vanishes, taken -- or is she consumed? -- by some foul incubus.

That's your mood-setter for this Showtime horror series that takes its name from Victorian-era broadsheets that trafficked in lurid, shocking crime -- much, maybe even all, of it made up. Sunday's episode opens with Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), who needs help to find the daughter of world-famous traveler/adventurer, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton). She locates her man: Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American sharpshooter who's part of a traveling Wild West show. A roué and overall stretcher-of-truths, Chandler quickly learns of "a half-world between what we know and fear, a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt."

MY SAY What the world needs is a good $3 burger and a decent TV horror series where the blood of ghouls runs in the streets like rivulets of molten lead. Not, mind you, one filled with the jejune panderings that pass for a "scare" in (for example) "American Horror Story," or the romantic entanglements of "True Blood," where soap occasionally replaces the offal. Just good, solid, straight-ahead horror.

I'm still looking for that burger, and I'm still looking for that horror series, but "Penny Dreadful" makes at least a promising case for fulfilling the latter need. There's much to like here, while "PD" even offers a satisfying answer to a long-standing Hollywood mystery: "Whatever happened to Josh Hartnett?" He's right here, and he's good.

The same can be said of Dalton (but then it's always the same with him) as well as with French actress Green, who -- with her opalescent eyes and darkly mysterious allure -- completes the trio of leads you'll meet in Sunday's opener. Of said ghouls, they are lovingly rendered here, or as Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) says of one specimen he dissects, "He sharpens his teeth, has covered himself in hieroglyphics and is encased in an exoskeleton."

"Dreadful" wants to explore character more than the anatomy of fiends, however. Treadaway's Frankenstein is most memorable (so far). His "creature" (Rory Kinnear) is more human than inhuman, and there's the slightest homoerotic vibe between master and creation. That's interesting -- just not scary.

BOTTOM LINE This John Logan ("Skyfall," "Hugo") creation promises an intriguing summer pastime, for an eight-week run anyway.


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