By Becky Grace Lea
Produced by Sam Mendes and written by Academy Award winning screenwriter John Logan, Penny Dreadful is a Gothic delight of a television show, taking its inspiration from nineteenth century literature and weaving something mesmerising from it. It’s an elegant take on the horror genre, bringing in characters from works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to mingle with Logan’s own monstrous creations. However, as with any horror network show currently on air, it isn’t afraid to unsettle its audience, something which Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful score never ceases to forget.
Like the show on which it is based, Korzeniowski’s score has its fair share of influences, from the echoes of nineteenth century composer Saint-Saens’ ‘Aquarium’ from Carnival of the Animals in the quieter track ‘Where Do They Go?’ to the Bernard Hermann-esque strings of ‘Too Many Monsters’. These musical references aren’t overwhelming, but rather build well into the combination of elegance and horror that defines both the television show itself and the score.
Those somewhat contrasting qualities are captured well in the show’s main theme, ‘Demimonde’, a whirl of strings that is both lyrical and bombastic, alternating between fast-paced rhythms and slower, compelling melodies. This neatly constructed ebb and flow continues throughout both the individual tracks and the score as a whole. Although its horror leanings are most apparent, it’s not entirely an assault on the senses, opting for a quieter, mounting sense of menace throughout before the brilliant crescendos in the marvelous one-two punch of ‘Transgression’ and ‘Asylum’.
The pair are perhaps the score’s two most ambitious pieces, fully embracing the horror score rulebook and allowing Korzeniowski to put his own spin on it. The discordant strings that open both tracks immediately produce a deeply unsettling effect before going on to employ differing techniques to continue that sense of unease. ‘Transgression’ adopts the low choral approach, a little reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen and considering Penny Dreadful’s demonic subject matter, it works particularly well. In contrast, ‘Asylum’ contains a high-pitched ringing, just in the background of the main instruments that builds on that disturbing effect.
These tracks are followed by the relative calm of ‘Closer Than Sisters’, a beautiful piece that retains the sombre atmosphere but strips everything back for a quietly unsettling effect, rather than outright menace. The ‘Demimonde’ melody appears again here as a leitmotif on the piano, more lullaby-like than threatening. The score’s lighter moments are particularly effective against the darker, more foreboding elements, particularly the soaring hopefulness found within ‘Street.Horse.Smell.Candle’ and the beautiful ‘Welcome to the Grand Guignol’ which finds the score at its most playful. Both tracks feel like dances, capturing sense of wonder and childlike discovery that works as a moving counterpoint to the darkness elsewhere in the score.
The diversity present throughout is what really strengthens Korzeniowski’s score, utilising its contrasting moments to great effect whilst retaining an elegance throughout. Quietly hopeful in parts and designed to thrill in others, it’s a brilliant accompaniment to the television series and a stunning piece of work in its own right.
Penny Dreadful is out now from Varese Sarabande