'Penny Dreadful' Is Wonderful, But 'Rosemary's Baby' Is Dreadful

Critic David Bianculli reviews the two new TV programs in the horror genre competing for viewers and attention: NBC's modern-day remake of Rosemary's Baby and Showtime's Victorian Penny Dreadful.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This weekend two very different TV productions attempt to do much the same thing - revisit old works of literature in the horror and suspense genre and adapt them with new approaches for a new generation. NBC's four hour miniseries version of Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby" barely justifies the attempt.

Showtime's new series called "Penny Dreadful," however, is much more captivating, borrowing characters and ideas from several classic works of fiction, including "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," and a merging with something refreshingly original. "Rosemary's Baby," which begins Sunday and concludes Thursday, is neither refreshing nor original. It tries hard - too hard, really - to stand apart from Roman Polanski's brilliant 1968 movie version.

That film starred Mia Farrow as a woman who comes to fear that the child she's carrying was sired by the devil himself. In that movie, exteriors of the creepy New York apartment building where Rosemary and her husband lived alongside some secretly Satanic neighbors, were filmed at the Dakota, later famous as the building where John Lennon lived and was killed.

For the TV remake, writers Scott Abbott and James Wong relocate the setting to Paris where the architecture can be as gloomy, but the change seems unnecessary. And the leading role is given to Zoe Saldana who played the blue-skinned alien in "Avatar." She portrays Rosemary as a woman who's stronger and sexier than the one played by Farrow, but not a bit smarter.

And where the movie had a meddling, mysterious old neighbor played by Ruth Gordon, NBC's "Rosemary's Baby" has a meddling, mysterious, elegant neighbor played by Carole Bouquet. Here they are in the kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV MINISERIES "ROSEMARY'S BABY")

ZOE SALDANA: (as Rosemary) What is this medicine?

CAROLE BOUQUET: (as neighbor) Fertility syrup. You drink it after it simmers for 12 hours in the clay pot.

SALDANA: (as Rosemary) Does it taste good?

BOUQUET: (as neighbor) No. Terrible. But it will make you ready to have a baby. I learn this from the Chinese.

BIANCULLI: Some scenes are a bit bloodier this time around, but neither the parts nor the whole measure up to the original movie version of "Rosemary's Baby." To be honest, I'm not sure why NBC has remade this at all.

I can recommend "Penny Dreadful," which starts Sunday on Showtime a lot more enthusiastically. John Logan, screenwriter of the movies "Hugo" and "Skyfall," sets this new series in London in 1891. Timothy Dalton, who once played James Bond, plays an intrepid explorer looking for his missing daughter. Eva Green, star of Tim Burton's recent remake of "Dark Shadows" plays Vanessa Ives, a strikingly stunning woman who dresses in black and has her own hidden agendas and powers.

They combine forces on a mission that takes them deep into London's underworld, a place less natural than supernatural. And in the premier episode, after seeing a traveling Wild West show, Vanessa visits the star's sharpshooter, played by Josh Hartnett, to try and enlist his services. He's eager to flirt, but she's all business.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "PENNY DREADFUL")

JOSH HARTNETT: (as Ethan) So what's the job? This night work?

EVA GREEN: (as Vanessa) Yes.

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) Something of a criminal setup?

GREEN: (as Vanessa) Would it matter?

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) Not at all.

GREEN: (as Vanessa) Then why ask?

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) The show's heading off to Paris pretty soon.

GREEN: (as Vanessa) The job's tonight.

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) Is it a murder?

GREEN: (as Vanessa) Would it matter?

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) One smile and I say yes.

GREEN: (as Vanessa) Meet me at this address at 11:00.

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) I don't know London.

GREEN: (as Vanessa) Then ask a policeman.

HARTNETT: (as Ethan) You have a name?

GREEN: (as Vanessa) Yes.

BIANCULLI: "Penny Dreadful" makes room very quickly for characters from Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Bram Stoker's "Dracula," and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" but in ways that seem fresh rather than forced. Showtime's "Penny Dreadful" is scary, seductive, surprising, and smart - everything that NBC's "Rosemary's Baby" is not. "Penny Dreadful" is just wonderful, "Rosemary's Baby" is just dreadful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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