By Dragoş Manea
The first episode of Penny Dreadful (Showtime, 2014-), John Logan’s riff on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begins with a scene of strange intimacy. The show, which chronicles the adventures of a number of famous Victorian horror characters and assorted stock types, manages to reinvigorate a stagnant genre by demonstrating a formal bravery that has often been absent on the small screen—to my mind, only Carnivàle, Hannibal and True Detective come close—and which is rooted in a deep awareness of the fact that horror works best not when it shocks, but when it estranges.
By strange intimacy I thus refer to the way that Penny Dreadful collapses the distinction between the intimate and the strange and locates horror at the very heart of the familiar. But this too is a strange kind of horror that focuses not on cheap thrills or extreme violence, but on maintaining an anxious tension between the familiar and the strange—between that which we take for granted and that which calls into question the conventions that govern our sense of being in the world.
The only cold open in Penny Dreadful’s deeply-serialized first season is a fitting introduction to the show. It opens with an extreme close-up of a sleeping child’s face, the camera slowly hovering over it, and then cuts to a close-up of her mother, sleeping in the same bed and being woken up by the sound of broken glass and barking dogs. As she gets out of bed, the only sound that we hear is her breath and the rumpling of sheets. As she grabs a lantern and moves towards the bathroom, all that we hear is the noise of her movement. Once on the toilet, in front of a window, the camera closes up on her, and we hear the wind and an ominous violin stroke that quickly dissolves into it. The woman turns her head towards the window—and is instantly pulled away by an unseen attacker. The show then cuts to the girl, who follows in her mother’s footsteps. As she opens the door to the bathroom, she lets out a powerful scream and the show cuts to the title sequence.
Such scenes are plentiful in Penny Dreadful. They combine formal techniques that suggest intimacy—close-ups, handheld shots, the almost total absence of extradiegetic music coupled with a delight in incidental sound—with depictions of intimate situations—waking up, going to the toilet, praying. But then something happens within these intimate situations that transforms them—a monster, for instance, bursts forth, or something that we were conditioned to consider monstrous proves to be beautiful (and is framed according to the conventions of representing beautiful things). The effect that such scenes achieve is one of deep anxiety with regard to what we consider familiar—and one that helps disclose the profound conventionality of our mundane existence.