Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron
Hemlock Grove, an original 13-part series that begins streaming today in its entirety on Netflix, is the service’s first foray into the horror genre, but despite the presence of Eli Roth (Hostel) at the helm, genuine shivers very rarely materialize.
Maybe it’s because its predecessor, House of Cards, was such an audacious dazzler, or because most of us impatiently are champing at the bit to see the long-awaited new season of Arrested Development due to start streaming in May, but based on the first three episodes Netflix made available for review, Hemlock Grove feels like little more than a listless place-holder.
Based on a novel of the same name by Brian McGreevy, who’s an executive producer on this TV adaptation, the series opens with the brutal murder of Brooke Bluebell (Lorenza Izzo), a beautiful high school cheerleader en route to a covert nighttime hook-up with her lesbian science teacher when she is savagely attacked and partly eaten by something horrifying. As in most werewolf movies, the attack initially is blamed on a large animal of some kind, but in this very weird semi-rural Pennsylvania town, human suspects aren’t exactly scarce.
Among them is Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard, brother of Alexander from True Blood and Gustaf of the current Vikings), a handsome, ruthless preppie who cuts quite a sexual swath through the females of his community. Roman is the future heir to a family fortune that we see tangibly in the form of the Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Research, a sinister local think tank nicknamed The White Tower. Roman’s late father, J.R. Godfrey (Paul Popowich), bitterly blamed researchers there for having a hand somehow in the sad plight of his other child, Roman’s sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin), a mute giantess who causes electrical sparks in times of distress. (To save time, let me assure you right here that I am not making up any of this stuff).
J.R. “committed suicide” while having a confrontation with his beautiful and enigmatic wife, Olivia (former Bond girl Famke Janssen), who was having an affair with J.R.’s brother, Norman (Dougray Scott). That affair is still in progress when Hemlock Grove opens, but Norman, a psychiatrist, feels positively lousy about it and frequently clashes (while dressed) with Olivia over the projects at their institute. He’s also not very happy to learn that his own daughter, Letha (Penelope Mitchell), is pregnant, allegedly by an angel. Seriously.
About the same time the murder occurs, gypsies Peter and Lynda Rumancek (Landon Liboiron, Lily Taylor) have moved to town and taken up residence in a relative’s abandoned trailer. Almost as soon as they meet at school, Roman senses something odd about Peter and begins to suspect that he’s a werewolf who killed Brooke. Peter, meanwhile, tells his mother that he’s pretty sure Roman is something called an Upir, a vampire spirit that historically has been bad news for gypsies. Against all odds, however, the two young men become friends, especially after they discover they have been having the same dream about a serpent devouring its own tail.
To report more would be to spoil the fairly meager surprises that pop up all too infrequently in this yarn. Maybe I was just too distracted by all the apparent plot holes and/or continuity gaffes to be drawn into the story.
For example, as the first murder is in progress, the victim inadvertently hits a speed dial button on her cellphone, calling her teacher-lover, who listens aghast to Brooke’s dying screams. During the investigation, the local cops note that the phone had been on when they found the corpse, yet no one ever bothers to talk to the last person called on the device. Later, when deputies find Roman and Peter hanging out near the small playhouse structure where the killing occurred, they angrily complain that the boys are disturbing a crime scene, yet there is no yellow crime-scene tape or other barriers around to keep away intruders.
As investigators warily begin to consider the unlikely prospect that a werewolf – or at least someone who believes he is a werewolf – might be behind the killing, one of them, Dr. Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure), encounters a shirtless Peter and remarks on how hairy he is (sometimes regarded as a signifier of a werewolf in human form). Problem is, apart from long locks, some beard scruff and very light chest fuzz, Liboiron ISN’T notably hairy.
For a scene that takes place in a new age-y head shop run by a gypsy, the storefront exterior features a huge window sign advertising “Medicinal Marijuana” inside, which I’m not convinced you would likely find in a smallish conservative Pennsylvania town (Hemlock Grove actually was filmed in Ontario, Canada).
As for the performances, in the three episodes I saw, only Liboiron delivers consistently strong work. He’s so relaxed and thoroughly “present” in all of his scenes, however preposterous they are, that the show wakes up anytime he’s on-screen. Props, too, to young Skarsgard, reared in Sweden, for generally maintaining a credible American accent. I’m still trying to decide whether Janssen’s vaguely British accent is an acting choice she made to underscore Olivia’s exotic strangeness to those around her or whether it’s a plot point that will be revealed in a later episode.
I haven’t read McGreevy’s novel, so I can’t fairly judge how many of the problems in Hemlock Grove originated in his manuscript, but there’s certainly enough blame to go around. Maybe, just maybe, things turn around in the later 10 episodes I haven’t seen, but three episodes in, the series is woefully lacking in urgency or any compelling reason for me to stick around to find out.