Penny Dreadful is well written and well-acted, sure. It has an air of sophistication without sophisticated badinage. The Showtime series has a hole where its sense of humor should be. This is where HBO towers over the other premium channels. No matter how seriously a show takes itself, the writers give it the human touch of a grin every now and then. When Showtime or Starz takes on a weighty project they treat them with gravitas. Penny Dreadful is a monster show, come on, a glorified House of Frankenstein. Lighten up a little, crack a smile, crack wise. Just because it’s a prestige project doesn’t mean the characters always have to be so heavy. Game of Thrones goes into heavy territory, but you can always count on a laugh line a week. Line of the week was a family tradition during the run of The Sopranos.
So it was encouraging to see Vanessa (Eva Green) joking around with the Creature (Rory Kinnear), aka John Clair, in a natural, unforced way. She could have used some of that last season when she was squaring off against demonic possession. The devil could have at least had a snappy rejoinder or two. I’m not saying it should have gone full Richard Pryor-SNL with beds landing on feet and sewing socks that smell, but some subtle rejoinders would have humanized the beast-hunters. Gallows humor is important for morale. Now the cast, all veteran actors with a wide range of talents, are finally getting those moments.
Angelique brings a welcome shade of blush to Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who usually looks like a smile might crack his face like old paint on a portrait. For a man who lives for pleasures, Gray barely afforded himself the luxury of even a snide remark last season. Isn’t he at least partly based on his creator, Oscar Wilde, a renowned raconteur? Wilde may have been jaded, but he kept his wit to the end. “I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there,” Wilde said, shortly before or after his death. Oscar Wilde is associated with The Decadent artistic and literary movement of the time. The Decadents celebrated Satan artistically, not religiously. Even Baudelaire asked for last rites from the Catholic Church before he died.
It appears that Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) does more than just throw money at problems. He gets his hands bloody in the service to the less fortunate. He has to do that because he’s probably one of the main causes of their misfortune. It really is too bad he can’t stay too long administering to the needy. He just nipped in for an appearance. But it gave him the chance to dump Miss Ives somewhere she can be useful. We’re already seen what devilish uses her idol’s hands have conjured.
Sir Malcolm is a royal four-flusher when you think about it. He gets to the end of his hand, which he’s bet everything on, his children, his marriage, and he loses. Now the degenerate gambler is sitting in for a second game. He’s got nothing in the hole but a wife who hates him and has more than one obvious tell. He is especially communicable on the rifle range date. The scene where Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) enchants Sir Malcolm with a less-than-heavenly scent was playful and seductive, with a touch of evil intent. Score one for the older generation.
Reanimated corpses are sensitive creatures. Natural pagans, they are more human than the people who haven’t suffered death yet. The Creature explains goodness without the promise of heaven by way of the most romantic of poetry. When Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) christens the reassembled Brona (Billie Piper) as Lily, she cries. If the doc would only give them some time together, they would make a good couple and John Clair wouldn’t be eating bland soup in a shelter.
Scotland Yard Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) is all weighty detective as he waits for the survivor of the Mariner’s Inn Massacre to speak through half a face. He’s got all night. Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) lightens him up as Penny Dreadful’s very own Charles Nelson Reilly. Lyle is having a blast and Beale is having even more fun than the character because he gets to play the flagrantly theatrical occult gossip queen at parties and the duplicitous double agent and spy.
There was a fair amount of mounting suspense in the baby snatching scene. And on Mother’s Day no less. It puts you in mind of the old demon barber of Fleet Street as seen through the lens of An American Werewolf in London. British subways, or tubes I suppose, are a great natural setting for British horror. Too bad Hammer didn’t spend more time in them. Evelyn’s daughter, Hecate (Sarah Greene), stalks and dispatches the doting parents without a glimmer of remorse, like losing buttons. The alchemy of doll making is a lost science.
These aren’t just suburban wiccans pulling bobby pins from London skinhead punks. Evelyn Poole might be based on Maria de Naglowska. Born in Russia, de Naglowska headed to France to lead The Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow, which worshiped the devil with sex magic. Naglowska had followers too, “adequately trained woman” who called her “the Sophia of Montparnasse.” According to the book Demons of the Flesh by Zeena Schreck and Nikolas Schreck, De Naglowska’s “female acolytes were also known as Sophiales, presented as the vanguard of a ‘new matriarchy’… As in the traditional Vama Marga (the belief that that the awakening of kundalini is possible through sex), the female is the deified priestess in the Naglowska cult. She sexually communicates a potentially dangerous esoteric power to the male, a power that cannot be confronted and sustained by anything less than a heroic disposition.”
Maria de Naglowska pretty much invented autoerotic asphyxiation with the liturgy, the Trial of Hanging, “in which male adepts were sexually stimulated, then voluntarily hanged until they passed out in a state of controlled semi-asphyxia,” according to Demons of the Flesh. “When the male sex magician hovered in psychic limbo, in a state de Naglowska described as ‘above all delights,’ one of her personally initiated female adherents would position herself on his asphyxia-induced erection. The ligature around his throat would then be released, and as he came back to consciousness, he would experience what de Naglowska describes in her The Light Of Sex: Ritual Of Satanic Initiation as ‘the explosive penetration of the resplendent woman at the sublime moment of holy coitus.”
While we’re on the subject of history, “Verbis Diablo” is probably a reference to a fictional version of the Codex Gigas, AKA “the Devil’s Bible.” 160 animals gave their skin for the medieval manuscript pawned in the monastery at Sedlec in 1295. According to legend, the Codex Gigas was written by a one monk in one night with the devil’s help. The monk had been sentenced to death and was walled up alive.
The codex is believed to have been created by Herman the Recluse in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice near Chrudim in the Czech Republic in the year 1229. It contains a complete vulgate Latin translation of the Bible as well as “Antiquities of the Jews” by Flavius Josephus (1st century AD); “Encyclopedia Etymologiae” by Isidore of Seville (6th century AD); Hippocrates’ medical writings and “The Chronicle of Bohemia” by Cosmas of Prague (1050 AD).
The codex is best known for its full page illustration of the devil, which some say is a self-portrait. Legends say that the Codex Gigas brought disaster or illness to its owners. It is currently being held at the National Library in Stockholm.
The “Verbis Diablo” could also be a nod to the book referenced in the movie The Ninth Gate, which was the adaptation of the book The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. In the book, Corso is running after The Nine Doors To the Kingdom of Shadows, also called De Umbrarum Regis Novum Portis, written by Aristide Torchia in Venice in 1666. That book has nine woodcut engravings rendered from the Delomelanicon, a book written by Lucifer himself. That is based on excerpts from The Grimorium Verum found in an 18th-century grimoire credited to Alibeck the Egyptian of Memphis. Elvis’s cousin purportedly wrote it in 1517.
Altogether this was a very suspenseful and engaging episode with buds of humor growing amidst the corpses. Penny Dreadful gets vile, especially with the baby bit, but it just makes it more tasty.