“Penny Dreadful Did Gothic Horror Better Than Netflix’s Dracula”
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful brought the traditions of gothic horror to audiences from 2014-2016, but in 2020, Netflix and BBC’s Dracula tried to capitalize on fan interest, but didn’t reach the same heights of success.
Gothic horror, at its core, is meant to be stylish and dark with the occasional bout of over-the-top ridiculousness. Penny Dreadful was created by John Logan, whose writing credits include everything from Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre to Alien: Covenant, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and even films like Gladiator and The Aviator, for which he was nominated for Academy Awards. With Logan’s pedigree and skill, it’s no wonder the series was a success, even if its finale did catch audiences by surprise, as many were anticipating a fourth season.
The show runners of BBC series Doctor Who and Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss became attached with a new project, Dracula, which would retell the classic Bram Stoker tale in a three-part miniseries that aired first on BBC One and then hit Netflix’s streaming platform in the beginning of 2020. Though both Moffat and Gatiss have seen tremendous success and tried to ambitiously adapt Stoker’s tale, when compared to similar elements from Penny Dreadful, it fell flat.
First and foremost, Penny Dreadful is not specifically a Dracula tale, but it’s still better. Starring Eva Green, Harry Treadaway, Josh Hartnett, Reeve Carney, and Timothy Dalton, the series explored a lot during its three-season arc. Ambitious to its core, it adapted many common themes in “penny dreadfuls”, which were books in England that could be obtained cheaply that typically explored violent, dark, and even supernatural topics. Some of these tales woven included The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Dracula, werewolf mythology, Van Helsing, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and various historical elements associated with its setting of London, England in the late 1800s.
Though elements of Mina Harker, Van Helsing, and Stoker’s Dracula are explored as early as the show’s first season, the culmination of the character itself doesn’t fully come into play until the final season, and that’s part of what makes it great. Penny Dreadful somehow understood how to weave together all these tales that don’t traditionally go together, such as Dr. Victor Frankenstein working alongside Van Helsing to help Mina Harker’s father find her after she’s been abducted. Frankenstein’s monster ends up working at a theater, the Grand Guignol, with deep roots in actual history because he feels it’s the only place that will truly accept him. A werewolf finds himself looking to protect a woman who is wanted by the Devil. None of it seems like it would fit together, and yet it manages to do so perfectly.
In Dracula, the story becomes convoluted through time jumps that eventually propels the Count into the modern era, where he searches Tinder to find his victims, whom he can influence through sex. The show tried to be clever by giving Van Helsing a gender-swap which ended up being a familial lineage following Dracula throughout the years, but it copied too much from Moffat’s other shows, to the point of being formulaic, that it couldn’t quite keep up with its own attempts at originality. Penny Dreadful may have been melodramatic at times, but that was more reminiscent of the times, yet Dracula separated itself from honoring the traditions of its Victorian and Gothic history to feel fresh, but failed to capture the essence of Stoker’s novel through a series of distinct differences. Both Penny Dreadful and Dracula are likely to be appreciated by fans of Stoker and Gothic literature, but the former succeeds by knowing exactly what it’s meant to be from start to finish.
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