The frenzied marathon viewing required to watch a Netflix series in its intended state leads to a sort of dazed and confused sense of having been through something once you’ve finished, even if you’re not quite sure what it is. That feeling is only exacerbated by the determined weirdness and madcap inconsistency of Hemlock Grove, which gobbles up tones, plotlines and references like a wolf in a butcher’s shop. A word of warning: the second half of this review is pretty spoiler-ridden, so if you don’t want to know who dunnit, look at the star rating to your left and be on your way.
Hemlock Grove is based on the novel by Brian McGreevy (who co-wrote much of the series with Lee Shipman), and appears at first glance to settle snugly alongside teens-to-twenties targeted fare like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. But at its heart it’s a supernatural soap opera for a niche audience; a strange concoction of genre credibility and homage, often risible dialogue and genuine out-of-the-blue oddness. Attempting to fix a single point of comparison is a useless endeavour; it’s all over the place in a way that will prove exhilaratingly unpredictable to some and immensely frustrating to others.
Hirsute young gypsy Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) and his mother Lynda (Lili Taylor) move to Hemlock Grove to take up residence in their late cousin’s caravan. Peter immediately attracts the attention of high school freshman and aspiring novelist Christina Wendell (Freya Tingley), who – correctly – suspects the new arrival might be a werewolf. When a cheerleader is savagely murdered by a wild animal, suspicion quickly falls on Peter, and spoiled rich kid Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard) decides to investigate. Roman has secrets of his own, but not as many as his mother Olivia (Famke Janssen), who rules the town with an iron fist. Roman and Peter form a partnership to find the ‘vargulf’ (a werewolf gone insane), but will they survive the town’s other monsters, as well as their own dark natures, and can they keep Roman’s cousin Letha (Penelope Mitchell) safe?
You will know pretty quickly whether Hemlock Grove is for you, probably after the first confrontation between Olivia and her disapproving brother-in-law/on-off sex partner Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott). The writing is often deliberately arch and campy, but that’s a very difficult thing to get right. It’s hard to tell how much of the guilty pleasure enjoyment derived from the ridiculous dialogue and ominous glances is intended or not. The same is true of the awkward banter between Roman and Peter once they start getting on, as they chat about “chicks and stuff” and develop their unlikely catchphrase: “Shiiiiiiiiit!”
Anyone expecting a straight-faced horror series will be disappointed by these Dallas-esque power-plays and Sweet Valley High teen bonding, and those looking for a cosy Teen Wolf companion series will be a bit shocked by the cocaine, oral sex, caul-munching and teens being eaten “snatch first.” Hemlock Grove would almost certainly be better if it planted itself more firmly in pastiche or sincerity, but it would probably be a lot less fun.
Given the horror credentials behind Hemlock Grove (particularly Eli Roth’s presence as pilot director and executive producer), you’d be forgiven for assuming that the series would run red with blood for all 13 episodes, but that’s not the case. For much of the series deaths occur off-screen, and the build-up is decidedly slow. There are gory moments: the werewolf transformation is a mostly successful mixture of classic references (The Company Of Wolves springs to mind) and a new twist (eating the discarded human flesh is a nice touch), and there’s an after-the-fact flaying that comes as a shock. But the show’s more interested in the weird, rather than the revolting.
So whenever we’re starting to get a bit fed up of the series’ wheels spinning too slowly, the writers have the good sense to throw something odd and unexpected at us. Invariably it’s not even a plot twist; just something strange and unusual. Bored of Peter and Letha? Have a secret lab scene! Fed up of Roman’s moaning? Have a young girl kissing a bisected corpse! For example, even if we grow accustomed to Roman’s sister Shelley’s bizarre appearance (she’s a wig-wearing giant with one eye significantly bigger than the other), the fact that her head becomes luminiscent when she’s emotional is a detail that’s consistently intruiging and immediately shifts the show away from whatever point of comparison we’re using at that point.
The makers have pointed to Twin Peaks as an inspiration, and the specific lessons they learned from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s triumph become increasingly clear as the show progresses; Hemlock Grove is not a show that wants to give the audience answers. Although we learn who is responsible for the murders and what Roman and Olivia are, many secrets are kept and, once alluded to, horrific or unexplained events are remembered so infrequently we forget they even happened. If you’re expecting to find out exactly what the abnormally strong mad scientist Doctor Price (Joel de la Fuente) is creating in his top secret lab, or what exactly the deal is with the holy hit squad Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) is working for, think again.
Take Letha’s “immaculate conception”. In episode two, Norman is broken up by the idea that she’s probably using the idea that an angel impregnated her as a way to repress the memory of a sexual assualt. The idea that his daughter might have been raped is not mentioned again. Similarly, no one thinks to address the fact that Roman can make people do what he wants if he stares at them, and the grave-robbing he and Peter commit is never investigated with any real enthusiasm.
But there is something charming about the idea of a town so strange that weirdness is simply accepted. The 1960s soap Dark Shadows seems to be the real point of reference, intentional or not, and there’s that same sense of a town acclimatised to the unusual (as well as the mad soapiness). While Sheriff Tom Sworn (Aaron Douglas) might roll his eyes when Clementine asks Peter if he’s a werewolf, it’s pretty much only Sworn and Norman Godfrey who express the opinion that werewolves don’t exist. On the one hand, it’s tremendously irritating that our own desire for answers is thwarted by the fact that the characters don’t seem interested in finding them. On the other, it helps to establish an atmosphere of unpredictability. We don’t know what they’re going to throw at us because we actually don’t know what’s going on. That being said, the whodunnit is easily solved by the third or fourth episode if you’re paying attention.
Going back to that Twin Peaks comparison, it doesn’t feel like the writers are that interested in solving the murder, either. The slow build is punishing at times, and the series would have benefited greatly from having ten, or even eight, episodes rather than 13. If this was broadcast week-to-week, it seems unlikely that many viewers would have made it past episode seven. But because we can watch it one go, it’s that atmosphere and unpredictability that keep us going.
Your enjoyment of the show will almost certainly depend on your willingness to – and your interest in – simply going along with it. Just at the point when things are starting to drag, we have a wonderfully bizarre episode in which temporarily coma-bound Roman explores his subconscious state in all its Oedipal glory with an inner-beautied Shelley as a spirit guide. Any frustration with the show’s plotlessness is temporarily washed away by Norman conversing with Freud via Skype or Olivia theatrically screaming for her caul-coated baby from an enormous bed on the front lawn. It’s utterly ludicrous, and that’s what makes it work. But if you’re already irritated with the show, this will be a meandering and ridiculous waste of your time. For us, however, it was great fun.
The cast all seem to be on message. Landon Liboiron is consistently watchable, and Bill Skarsgård’s ability to maintain a state of emotional instability makes up for his wandering accent. The two actors work well as a pair, and the unusual chemistry between them (as well as several moments in the script) make it a shame that the sexual curiousity between the two characters is never pursued. It’s interesting and frankly disappointing that the writers are more comfortable making Roman’s complicated feelings towards his mother more explicit than those he obviously harbours for his best friend, but emotional complexity isn’t high on the agenda, especially when it comes to the performances from the grown-ups.
Janssen’s outrageous English accent is just one aspect of her hugely theatrical performance, while Scott’s sardonic father figure looks like he wishes he had more to do than engage in repetitious verbal spats with Olivia before sleeping with her. Taylor fares much better as Peter’s open-hearted mother, whether it be watching with pride as he goes through his werewolf transformation or playing Olivia like a fiddle when she comes to her for her mysterious drugs. The Battlestar Galactica veterans are on solid form, as Aaron Douglas gives good grim stoicism as town sheriff and Kandyse McClure gets to go entertainingly off the rails as the alcoholic Fish and Wildlife agent/church-sponsored werewolf hunter.
Venturing now into spoiler territory, the show does merit some criticism for the treatment of its female characters. The teens in particular fall into the categories of wet blanket (Letha), loud (the Sheriff’s two daughters), and victim-to-be. The most interesting by quite some way is Christina, although she’s sidelined by necessity for a good deal of the running time. The eventual twist that she is the one behind the murders isn’t really much of a twist at all, and the supporting exposition is delivered in a rush (complete with evil staring flashbacks) but it’s well-played by the talented Freya Tingley and it’s a shame she didn’t have more to do. Janssen’s wicked man-eater pretty much lives up to all the insults levelled at her by various men during the series, Peter’s fortune-telling cousin Destiny (Kaniehtiio Horn) jumps into bed with Clementine and Norman’s wife veers between clueless and bitter. Roman and Peter joke that being raised by women makes them more sensitive to them, but the writing doesn’t push enough of its female characters beyond stereotype.
However, cluelessness and bitterness is a trait shared by many of the characters in Hemlock Grove, not just the women. And to be honest, we don’t emerge at the end with much more of a clue of what exactly happened than the characters do. Some hurried but mostly satisfying exposition settles Roman and Olivia’s vampiric plotline in the final few minutes, although the resolution of the angel mystery was another guessable twist. We still don’t know what exactly Ouroborous is either; Price grinning over Olivia’s corpse and a final glimpse of something opening its eyes will have to do us until the second season, if it gets one.
So why three stars? This review reads like a list of things that are wrong with the show, but they are certainly part of its charm. It’s almost baffling how watchable it is. The off-kilter sensibility is beguiling in spite of and because of its inconsistency; it’s addictive because it keeps you on your toes, it keeps throwing these dark surprises at you. As a straight horror or a teen drama it would categorically fail but as a bizarre concoction of the two, with a dose of monster mythology thrown in, it somehow succeeds. Characters like Shelley, Clementine and Dr Price are great fun to watch, the two leads are solid and (perhaps the real test of a Netflix show) it definitely lends itself to bulk viewing. Also, in spite of our complaints about the slow pace, things do kick off in the final three episodes leading to a fun finale with, as we’ve mentioned, a lot of questions left unanswered in a manner that’s not hugely frustrating. As we’ve mentioned, answers just aren’t to be expected.
Whether or not you enjoy Hemlock Grove doesn’t depend on whether you’re invested in the murder mystery; it depends on whether you can settle into the world it creates. For all the horror homages, the audience this will appeal to the most is a younger crowd who are just discovering the genre. When the show gets all of its ducks in a row it’s exciting, funny and scary. When it fails, it’s a clunky, hackneyed mess. But for the bulk of the running time it’s veering wildly in between, making for oddly compulsive viewing, and yes, we would welcome a second season. Many viewers won’t have the patience or the inclination for Hemlock Grove, but it’s genuinely unusual and quite mad, and there’ll always be an audience for that. For all its faults, we found it to be very watchable indeed.