The last thing I was looking to watch was another vampire or werewolf drama but there was something about the Twin Peaks meets True Blood set-up, alongside the scare powered production credentials of horror director/actor/producer Eli Roth, that made me curious about Hemlock Grove. All twelve episodes of season one dropped April 2013 on NetFlix but in my world though it failed to net any of the buzz of say House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, I discovered Hemlock Grove long after the fact but it seems just in time before season two.
Lack of an instantaneous fandom is not necessarily an immediate reflection on the quality of a show. It’s all too easy to get lost in the binge watching shuffle of the current tv buffet. Many a tv gem has taken their time to build to a critical mass of appreciation; case in point Breaking Bad and Orphan Black who eventually met popularity on the slow audience build. However, by episode two of Hemlock Grove I realized just how narrow the demographic of whom it might appeal to really was. Someone will appreciate it though especially camp horror fans who like their gore mixed with a little or a lot of silly.
Based on the novel by Brian McGreevy, the story about a creepy family in a creepy town is well-tread territory, and Hemlock Grove is an unabashed mash-up of Dark Shadows, True blood and Twin Peaks. It wears those inspirations as much on its sleeve as it does inspirations from Poe, Lovecraft and Shelly. And it’s the later that Hemlock Grove really is the 2014 spawn of with its gothic tones and grisly horror matched by broody model pretty teens, deceitful adults and lots of mangled bodies.
Things open with the horrific murder of a local girl, and it lets us know we’re in for a pretty gruesome ride. The story unravels slowly though, and it really isn’t until the third episode that the body is discovered, and the stakes are raised. Until then we spend a lot of time becoming familiar with this small Pennsylvanian town, its sinister residents and the moody melodrama that makes up town life.
Famke Janssen plays wealthy widow Olivia Godfrey, who one character calls the “most despised woman” in town. Famke plays her as a Jessica Rabbit meets Maude Addams femme fatal who slinks around dripping with lots and lots of mystery; the biggest of which is where her accent could possibly be from. It might be British, maybe it’s Eastern European; whatever the intention it was an interesting choice by Janssen. I’m still not sure if it’s bad acting or a genius character move but everytime she opens her mouth with another”dahling”it kind of stops me in my tracks. By the time they delivered the obligatory flashback, it made just as little sense. Part of Olivia Godfrey’s infamy comes from being a major shareholder of the “nobody knows what the hell goes on in there” Godfrey Institute of Bio Medical Research. She is also busy carrying on an affair with one of the Institute’s other shareholders, Norman Godfrey, played by Dougray Scott, who is the married brother of Olivia’s late husband, who had committed suicide after the birth of their third child.
Olivia’s sexy creepy gene is quite evidently passed on to her broody chain-smoking man-child son, Roman Godfrey, who she is just a little too close to. Played by Bill Skarsgård, another one of Stellan Skarsgård’s offspring quick on his brother’s heels as a sexy bad boy with vampiric tendencies, he does a good job of inhabiting Roman’s perversion and compassion. We know tow things about him from the get go: he has a kinky bloodlust, and he loves his sister dearly, a deformed giant who speaks through her smart phone. Roman eventually fosters a kind of bromance with town newcomer, lone wolf Peter Rumancek. Played by Landon Liboiron with Lili Taylor (always a welcome site) as his hard-living nomadic mother. Peter’s friendship with Roman actually provides one of the most interesting relationships to watch on the show if not on tv in general. And it is their Scooby Doo meets Supernatural adventures that brings everything to a head over the twelve episodes.
Somehow connected to it all is the mysterious Godfrey Bio-Medical Research Institute that is so mysterious even owner Olivia doesn’t know what the hell goes on inside. To her credit she admits she doesn’t really care. Who does know is creepy head-scientist Dr. Johann Pryce, actor Joel de la Fuente – who just oozes mad scientist under his too polite bureaucratic persona. The rest of the cast includes Battle Star Galactic alumni, Kandyse McClure as the hard drinking god fearing wildlife/monster hunter Dr. Clementine Chasseur, and her fellow former BSG regular Aaron Douglas as the thick-skulled town sheriff and father of two perfectly bitchy but funny twin daughters.
Hemlock grove unravels at a slow pace, and characters often say I feel like something is about to happen and so too does the viewer. All the creepy violin music, the forboding stares and threatening vibes inevitably do devolve into a more talk than action type of story-telling. On a better written show like True Detective, where the sinister atmospherics and eccentric characters get equally compelling verse, it can work. Hemlock, however, trips over its own dialogue, which is disjointed and clichéd at best. One character actually alludes to the lycanthropy of another by saying, “One had to step in before things got too hairy.” Really!? At least there was some sense to made of the line for all its punniness unlike the stream of consciousness that produced, “There are dreams sir that you wake up with teeth marks and then there is the smell of coffee.” If you know what that means, please leave in the comments below. It seems odd to get nit-picky by lines of dialogue but in Hemlock Grove’s defense the nonsensical nature of the writing is actually what kind of makes it fun to watch.
Hovering between the youthful face of CW and the skinmax lite of HBO, Hemlock Grove wanders less down the road of Twin Peaks or True Blood and more into Once Upon A Time meets Edgar Allen Poe territory. While it sets out to tackle the super compelling theme of the monster within, by half way through the first season it devolves into a hypothetical what if Dracula, the werewolf, and Frankenstein’s monster all went to high school together. An r-rated Smallville for horror fans, by the time the story stumbles into crazy town by episode eight. which indulges in way too many dream sequences, the mounting nonsense accumulates to the point where either you succumb, sticking around out of sheer curiosity to just what kind of crazy will happen next, or you turn it off.
Being a child of Eli Roth who found fame as the father of the Hostel franchise, you would expect gore, and it happens only so often but when it does face ripping and intestines spilling are par for the course. Hemlock Grove has received some well-earned note for the best screen refresh on werewolf transformations, which Roth admits was American Werewolf in London inspired. Overall though things are really more gory than scary, and if it’s horror you’re thinking about, the dialogue is a far worse offender.
Series composer Nathan Barr and Lisa Richardson as the music supervisor do a good job cementing the soundscape, which swings between sub woofer throb intros, mournful violin cues and completely left field song choices. It actually fits quite well with the kind of moody cray cray camp that Hemlock Grove is. Doing to Gothic horror stories what One Upon A Time does to fairy-tales but in a far sexier, and if you believe it even sillier fashion, Hemlock Grove is just weird enough to cut it for a rainy weekend binge view or horror filled pre slumber night cap.
Overall I’d say A for effort but C for execution giving it a in 2.8 out of 5 sloppy burritos
Trigger warning for rape, extreme cat danger and teen romance