Claustrophobia isn’t simply the fear of enclosed spaces; it’s a powerful reaction to being contained within them. Sufferers often report an inability to breathe, as if oxygen is running out. Penny Dreadful knows how to do claustrophobia. Almost the entirety of episode seven is set within Sir Malcolm’s townhouse, all candle light and tight closeups – until we enter the room at the end of the hall where Vanessa sleeps. It lacks such warmth, such harsh boundaries between light and shadow. It’s the grey of weak moonlight straining through shredded curtains.
Episode 7 is entitled Possession and it quickly becomes clear that this is the Exorcist episode. There has been a rash of modern horror films that have tried to tap into the fear of other powers invading the body and the mind and Penny Dreadful’s take on it is better than all of them. It’s better than The Exorcist. Arguably. It is a different animal: being a television show, it has front-loaded the character development and relationship struggles across six preceding hours. What it does so masterfully is the deception of the beast, the inability to tell the difference between the true Vanessa and the thing scratching its way out.
It feels almost needlessly repetitive to state, but Eva Green’s performance is astonishing. What she does with her body can make her seem either invulnerable or utterly ruined, and the strangeness of the switch is part of what makes her fall so terrifying. If this thing can do that to her, what chance do the rest of us have?
The episode isn’t all demonic battling, taking place over several contiguous weeks, connected by one of the more difficult techniques to get right: montages. Often, a montage will show a progression over time, which always feels cheap as it sidesteps the growth that accompanies such change. Here, the montages show not a change, but a lack of it. The same fits night after night. We get full scenes when something changes or gets worse.
Between those violent eruptions, we see the rest of the characters trapped in the house, having to live with one another. Habits that were private can no longer be hidden, such as Dr Frankenstein’s manipulation of his body through science. Chemistry, to be exact.
A question is repeated: “Do you believe in God?” Sembene’s answer is the best: “I believe in everything.” When faced with such darkness, it doesn’t seem like the hippyish response it might do elsewhere, especially when delivered by Danny Sapani, who remains the most mysterious of our twilight cast.
The climax of Possession is fevered brilliance. All seems lost and the future hangs on a hair trigger and then, and then… Penny Dreadful knows what game it is playing. It knows where you think it’s going to go, and each time it banks to the side and leaves your mind spinning with a vertigo of possibility. It seems certain that next week’s final episode will not give us all the answers – but it will leave us clawing at new questions.
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.
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