SPOILER ALERT: THE VERY NEXT THING YOU READ – Just stop now if you didn’t see the episode.
Finally. Ethan Chandler makes his transformation debut on Penny Dreadful. I don’t care if that’s a spoiler it is what we’ve been waiting for and, to be honest, we could have used a little more footage. It was a great tease but I want to see the werewolf without the tassels.
The production values are high on Penny Dreadful and the makeup has been superb throughout, especially last season when Vanessa Ives’ entire body turned grey with sickness. The little details made all the difference. But they left more to our imagination than I expected. I really thought the effects department was going to allow themselves more fun for the first werewolf transformation. Remember the scene a few weeks ago when Evelyn Poole was walking by the cows, draining them of blood and they were falling over dead? That was a superb show of subtle special effects. Tonight they let the fangs sprout but kept it cool and classic and ended it in media res. My favorite special effect of the night was when Poole got the doll’s heart beating with three taps of a finger. Penny Dreadful is masterful at underplay.
Penny Dreadful didn’t underplay Vanessa’s blood waltz, though. The blood on the dancefloor, panic at the disco scene was probably the single most visceral horror display of the series and that’s saying quite a bit. It was Kubrickian. That red red vino on tap could have been the overflow from the elevator shafts at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There were even almost-twin witches circling Vanessa like the ones who ran Danny’s Big Wheel off the track. Penny Dreadful really enjoys getting under the skin. What got under mine was the blood dripping between Vanessa’s eyelashes. I squirmed, great touch, and yet it was very subtle. A tiny detail that just couldn’t be overlooked.
Timothy Dalton is subtle. He’s not always so subtle, historically. He’s far better known for other movies but my favorite of Dalton’s is The Lion in Winter, where he was instructed, by Peter O’Toole no less, to use all his voices. Dalton made an aria of his lower registers tonight. He masterfully blended humor into the completely inappropriate reaction to his wife’s death. The way he dropped his voice when he asked how she died? The first little wisp of a question comes out almost like a giggle and yet he used it to convey a dark inner horror. Sir Malcolm was concealing his glee and Dalton is teasing us as badly as the werewolf special effects team.
And I love them both for it.
Penny Dreadful and Salem, though both are supernatural thrillers, are completely different takes on the genre. Yet the two shows have so many similarities. While Salem is a spooky soap opera with Dark Shadows in its blood, Penny Dreadful has the traditions of Hammer and Universal Horror movies coursing through its spirit. They really like to scare. They thrill in the cerebral attack because the brain is properly vulnerable while looking the other way.
Penny Dreadful doesn’t just rely on the usual suspense-building tricks either. Dorian Gray’s coming out party for Angelique was wrought with tension that had nothing to do with terror. Besides the anguish of what to wear, there was an underlying anticipation of who just might have been meeting whom at the ball. When Ethan passed the chance to trip the light fantastic with Miss Ives in favor of a night in the doghouse with Sambene (Danny Sapani), I expected Miss Ives to ask John Clair on the rebound.
Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) presents Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) more as a challenge than as a coming out. Does he notice that no one is scandalized? Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) is the luckiest man on Penny Dreadful. He gets to escort the loveliest lady in London, well, almost gets to escort her from the ball. But he also gets to play the fine line of a man pretending to be someone he thought he wanted to be but now wants to betray. And then Hecate (Sarah Greene) gives him a weapon against her own mother. Everyone on the show is hiding something, but he is hiding most of all. Beale is having a ball.
Eva Green can do anything with her eyes. Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) has to learn languages and steal brains and take up surgical sewing and doll-making to cast spells. Vanessa can cast aspersions with a glance. No one is safe from her cool appraising stare as her eyes linger on every exit, giving an unspoken chorus. You can almost hear her pupils muttering things under their breath to her iris, so clear is the window into her soul. The look Vanessa gives Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) as he leads Lily (Billie Piper) off the dance floor was an indictment that would have stood up in any court of law and Victor didn’t do a thing. She’d be great at Bridge but lousy at Poker.
Looking for a tell, Scotland Yard Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) is waiting for Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to tip his hand, or bear his fangs, whichever comes first. He’ll be happy for either. Rusk is a smug son of a bitch. He thinks he can appeal to the human conscience but he’s met with a lupine lesson in canine cunning. I just hope he puts the half moon Pinkerton cop to sleep before he gets him on a leash.
Mr. Clair, The Creature (Rory Kinnear) with the warm eyes has a cold touch. It was enough to scare the blind sculptress in the basement, but did you see the look on the Wax Museum owner’s eyes. It was like you could see the dollar signs rolling like in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Ka-ching. The man who took the name of one of the most sensitive poets is still monster enough that we know things aren’t going to work out well for the Wax Museum’s new attraction.
“Glorious Horrors” was written by John Logan and directed by James Hawes.