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Horror of Horrors: Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’ Is Wonderful, NBC’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Is Dreadful
May 9, 2014  | By David Bianculli  | 5 comments

Two new TV programs this weekend revisit and reinterpret classics in the horror genre. One is well worth the effort, and worth watching. The other is, well, horrible…

The program to skip – we may as well get it out of the way – is NBC’s miniseries remake of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, the novel that was made into a perfectly creepy, and creepily perfect, movie in 1967, directed by Roman Polanski. That film starred Mia Farrow as Rosemary, who feared the baby she was carrying might be the spawn of Satan. Or, she might just be paranoid to the point of madness, like the heroine in Polanski’s similarly unsettling Repulsion.

The director of NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby, Agnieszka Holland, has some fine TV work on her resume, including episodes of AMC’s The Killing and HBO’s The Wire and Treme. But here, she’s either misled or hamstrung by the unimaginative and heavy-handed adaptation by James Wong and Scott Abbott, whose changes to Levin’s original novel seem both arbitrary and ineffective. For starters, this four-hour TV version moves the action from Manhattan (where, in the film, the gothic Dakota served as the exterior setting for Rosemary’s apartment building) to Paris.

It’s set in the present day, which makes it harder to suspend belief whenever Rosemary visits a doctor to check on her pregnancy. And the pushy, oddball older neighbor who worms her way into Rosemary’s life, played in the movie by Ruth Gordon, is rewritten here as a mature French femme fatale, played by Carole Bouquet with an intelligence that cries out for better material for her to play, other than to somewhat seduce both Rosemary and her husband (played for NBC by Patrick J. Adams).

Rosemary herself is played by Zoe Saldana, the blue-skinned heroine of Avatar – but she, too, is trapped by an adaptation that gives her little to do. And what little she does makes little sense, while the whole thing moves so slowly, punctuated by occasional bursts of gratuitous blood, that you spend a long time wondering why you don’t just watch Polanski's version all over again.

And you should. NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby begins Sunday and concludes Thursday (9 p.m. ET both nights), but those times are given only to make the miniseries easier to avoid. The only thing more baffling than NBC’s decision to approve such a tepid remake of Rosemary’s Baby is its decision to start it on Mother’s Day.

Hey, mom, you nice and relaxed? Dinner over? Then why don’t we all sit down and watch a bad remake of a story about a mother-to-be who’s convinced she’s carrying the Devil’s child?

What? Too soon?


Over on Showtime, there’s a much, much better option: a new series called Penny Dreadful, premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. ET. The title refers to the lurid pamphlets of scary stories and “news reports” passed out on the streets of London around the time of Jack the Ripper, and this new series qualifies as the modern TV equivalent. Except that Penny Dreadful is as smart as NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby is dumb, and as frightening as that other horror show is uninvolving.

Series creator John Logan, who also wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s evocative Hugo, has crafted a show that turns 1890s London into an excitingly combustible cradle of clashing concepts. New inventions rub up against ancient beliefs. Scientific expeditions go hand-in-hand with séances. And roaming the streets of London, or lurking beneath them, or lording above them all in luxury, are some of the most famous characters and concepts from 19th-century horror literature. Dr. Frankenstein shows up, with some of his reanimated handiwork. Dorian Gray shows up, too, with a wall full of portraits. And there are vampires and vampire hunters, and lots, lots more.

I don’t want to describe too much, because I’d rather you discover the world, and characters, of Penny Dreadful on your own. The stars include Eva Green – a standout scene-stealer here – as well as Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton, and, starting next week, Billie Piper.

And while Penny Dreadful should grab you even before the opening credits begin, make sure to stay tuned for next Sunday’s episode two. That hour includes a séance that may be the scariest such scene I’ve ever watched – and all of the scares are delivered not by special effects, but by credible, über-creepy acting. Eva Green, expect an Emmy nomination next year.

I don’t want to say much more – but I already have. To hear (and read) my full review of Rosemary’s Baby and Penny Dreadful, which ran Friday on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, visit the Fresh Air website, where you can hear clips from both shows.

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Caught a free preview of "Penny Dreadful" and really enjoyed it Now I'll have to wait more than a year for it to come out on video.
May 13, 2014   |  Reply
The original Rosemary's Baby freaks me out to the point that I can't even watch it all the way through so I wasn't going to even attempt to watch this version good or bad. Nice to know it's not worth my time. After all it is one of my mom's favorite films and to have it be ruined on mother's day just makes things worst. As for Penny Dreadful I have been looking forward to it since learning that Josh Hartnett got himself a TV series and I love the concept so I am glad it is recommended and am looking forward to watching.
May 11, 2014   |  Reply
Keith Robin
I agree with Eileen and Andy, and I am also grateful for your review which saves me two hours of tv viewing that I can certainly use on more worthwhile fare. I have been looking forward to Penny Dreadful. Another winner for Showtime!
As far as remakes, I'm NOT looking forward to the made for television version of Ben-Hur! It was already remade, and as we should all be aware, quite successfully. Any film that you will pay to see multiple times (I rode my bicycle across the river to see a re-release one summer afternoon), watch on television whenever it was on, then buy on vhs, dvd, and most recently, Bluray (to relive, as much as possible, the original roadshow presentation), IMHO, is Special!
May 10, 2014   |  Reply
Sadly, tv joins the ranks of Hollywood and Broadway with the airing of Rosemary's Baby. When creativity dries up, it's simply easier to remake, remake, remake. Aside from an occasional Book of Mormon, Broadway is awash revivals. Hollywood can't seem to make enough action movies and their prequels & sequels. Why should tv be any different? This just makes me sad. I loved Ira Levin's book, and way back eagerly awaited its transition to the big screen. And I wasn't disappointed. Rosemary's Baby is a classic, and the very idea of a remake is laughable. The original had a fantastic director, top notch cast, eerie interior/exterior settings and equally creepy music. How did NBC possibly think they could equal, let alone improve upon that?
May 10, 2014   |  Reply
Thanks for the tip about the Rosemary's Baby remake. Pretty much what I would have expected. I love the movie and might have watched at least the first installment of this if I hadn't heard your review. Just a minor correction: Rosemary never suspects that she's carrying the Devil’s baby. She thinks the Castevets and their friends are going to somehow use the baby for their nefarious purposes. She only discovers the truth at the very end of the movie when she sees the baby and Roman tells her that Satan is his father, not Guy.
May 9, 2014   |  Reply
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