The following contains major spoilers for episode two.
I couldn’t call myself a horror fan, even if The Shining is my favourite film of all time. I enjoy horror don’t get me wrong and I’ve seen many, many horror films. But there are so many others who love the genre so much more than I, that I simply cannot lay a claim to the title. Having said that, with the amount of horror I have watched, I am very hard to shock.
Penny Dreadful has shocked me. Dreadfully.
The episode opens with a Victorian prostitute having her arm ripped off. This is not what shocked me. Half way through we have a séance where Eva Green’s character is possessed by the spirits of Sir Malcolm’s children. It’s a marvellously transformative performance, one that forces her to contort her body and face into the most hideous parodies of human life. From her mouth spews forth the failures of Sir Malcolm to protect his children. She becomes childlike and feverish when chanelling his son, ravaged by dysentery on some godforsaken mountain in pursuit of his father’s glory. When possessed by his daughter she is aggressive and seductive, fowl-mouthed and frothing, talking in the most depraved carnal detail of his daughter’s abduction. This is not what shocked me.
In fact it provides an opportunity for old Malcolm to show some actual humanity. He’s so stoic and hard faced, the level with which he plays the part of a firebrand in pursuit of his missing daughter, a 19th Century Liam Neeson if you will, can sometimes border on the self-deprecating. He’s not helped by a script in love with its own sense of theatre. In his scene in a police station, warned some evidence he is after is not for the faint of heart, he responds that his heart has never fainted. I’m not sure that the writers have a grasp of what that saying means. One of those quips that sounds good and means nothing. It only serves to make Sir Malcolm (the fact that we always have to refer to him as Sir Malcolm doesn’t help) seem self-important and pompous, an enforcer of his own authority but completely lacking in any kind of self-perspective.
A disfigured creature reaches into a man’s body and pulls him apart from the inside, leaving his father to cry at the remains. This did not shock me. Billie Piper turns up and for the second time in her career plays a prostitute. This time though her character is Irish. Was it her accent that shocked me? No, apart from a few clanging “r’s” I had no problem with her accent. It seemed decent enough to me and was served well by an accurate script. Although I admit I don’t know the accent well enough for my opinion to be anything close to a definitive one.
We also meet a Mr Dorian Grey or at least a version of him that I’m afraid would even make Mr. Wilde shudder with disgust. Like his original, this version is fascinated by life and death and how the closeness of the two can make you feel alive. This one may take it a step too far I fear. He hires Billie Piper’s Brona as a model for his erotic photography and finds out halfway through that she is dying of Tuberculosis. As she coughs up blood he is seduced by this, far more than any show of flesh. He proceeds to fuck this “dying creature” and wonders if she “feels things more deeply”. She coughs up blood all over his chest and mouth, and he smiles licks his lips and kisses her with claret all over his and her face.
This shocked me.
It seems that this is what the series is all about. Shock value. Using the natural depravity of the disease ridden Victorian ages, the despicable violence of the Ripper and the horrific imagery of the publications that the series shares its name with, to bring you the macabre, the chilling, the terrible. To shake your senses and shock your system. To compel you to keep watching by showing you the worst horrors the human mind can conceive.
Let’s just hope they put in a good story to go with it.