It’s not often that TV is genuinely scary. Whether it’s the small size of the screen or the relative lack of time to build up a spooky atmosphere, horror shows (that aren’t about zombies) seem few and far between. Penny Dreadful is blissfully, horrifically, unaware of this. If Episode 1 of John Logan’s series tickled your interest with its blend of pulp fiction, Episode 2 leaves you gasping for breath in pure terror.
What’s so impressive is the way it weaves fear with character. The end of last week’s opener introduced us to Frankenstein’s monster in a subtle, melancholic sequence that went for your heart more than your nerve-endings. Here, he takes a name – Proteus – and begins to learn more about the world. Alex Price gazes around with open eyes and a joyous expression of discovery. Far nicer than the monster made famous by Shelley, there’s a tension to seeing the heartwarming creature grow, as we try to reconcile this interpretation with the book that came before. When, you wonder, will the novel’s familiar narrative take hold?
That same suspense possesses the whole show, as it introduces Dorian Gray to the mix. Reeve Carney plays the seemingly salubrious socialite with an unsettling, hungry gaze, lusting after everything with a heartbeat – and, you suspect, things without too. He has a penchant for photography, especially if he’s (ahem) in the frame.
That carnal passion is echoed by another new face, Brona Croft, a lady of the night played with an accomplished Irish accent and bawdy charm by Billie Piper. Flirting with Ethan Chandler, she gives Josh Hartnett someone to play off against; together, they make a cute couple of non-literary figures, so distinct from the rest of the written bunch, flippantly wandering the streets of classic horror texts.
“You’re hunting for a man,” growls Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm, as the police search for a serial killer bumping off women around the city. “You need to start hunting for a beast.”
That shift between surface and shadow, between page and screen, written on Dorien’s face and stunningly captured by Juan Antonio Bayona’s ever-moving camera, is where Penny’s dread lies. It comes to the fore when Simon Russell Beale’s hilariously camp Egyptologist, Ferdinand, invites Malcolm and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) round for a party. A fan of the supernatural, his evening’s ostentatious plans are suitably strange, but Bayona focuses on our lead couple throughout the uncanny entertainment: as Green demonstrates just how flexible a performer she is, the director zooms in on Dalton’s face, quietly shedding a tear. The scene lasts for 8 shocking minutes, delivering exposition and horror simultaneously; a master class in how to heighten character through fear and vice versa.
“You do not belong here,” Dorien whispers to Vanessa, playing the sinister force to her intelligent skeptic, but the dramatic revelation comes from Simon Russell Beale, whose cheerful observer transforms into a serious advisor. A shot of a smashed mirror table hints at the transgression through the looking glass that has been undertaken by every person in the programme, literary and non-literary alike. But like Dorien’s incessant desire to bonk anything that moves, these decadent, stylish flourishes are undercut by the growing sense of ghastly danger; in other hands, all this nonsense would be laughable, but you’re too busy shivering to giggle.
As everyone reorients to each other, it soon becomes clear that Penny Dreadful is not mashing together tropes and types for the fun of it. This pulpy fiction is smarter than that. These are hand-picked characters who deal in, or are obsessed with, life and death. That theme of mortality – or, more accurately, immortality – is a bloody well that runs deep underneath all of their storylines. The question is when, or how, the well-worn paperbacks will interrupt what’s on screen.
It’s not until late in the episode that we really get to know the Frankenstein’s monster of stories old; an unpredictable lurch back to page from screen that sees the beast steal the show with both hands.
“Whatever your interests, you must forget you ever saw it,” stammers Ferdinand to a determined Sir Malcolm. You’ll be telling yourself the same thing for hours afterwards. Episode 1 of Penny Dreadful was trashy fun. Episode 2 just might be the scariest piece of television you’ve ever seen.
Season 1 to 3 of Penny Dreadful are available on Sky On Demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £6.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.
Where can I watch Penny Dreadful online in the UK on pay-per-view VOD?