Sunday, June 2, 2013

In Which I Review Hemlock Grove

Confession: When it comes to potential scary and/or supernatural monsters, werewolves have always been my least favorite and in recent literature, they've stopped being truly scary and started being the best friend of the heroine or a misunderstood creature--declawed as it were. They almost always have the identical sob story: young boy afflicted with lycanthropy who becomes an outcast in society, longing to just be human. *yawn* They rank up there with the continued neutering of vampires as soft and cuddly friends instead of the terrorizing badasses they are supposed to be (give me more Spike and less Edward Cullen, is what I'm saying here). So when Netflix announced a new original series that revolved around the supernatural and clearly involved werewolves as evidenced by the trailer and poster, I added it to my instant queue with some reluctance, deciding that if it was really terrible I could always bypass it. What Hemlock Grove turned out to be was a whole different kind of creature. 

 If you were to combine the absolute craziness of Twin Peaks, the absolute creepiness of American Horror Story, and the campy, overly dramatized soap opera feel of Dark Shadows, you'd probably come up with something a lot like Hemlock Grove. The series is based on the 2012 novel by Brian McGreevy, who wrote or co-wrote a majority of the 13 episodes. The story itself is fairly labyrinthine in nature, twisting and turning at times speeding up the story and sometimes slowing it down to a down right bore. Hemlock Grove is a small town in Pennsylvania which at one point was dominated by a steel mill factory, run by the wealthy Godfrey family, which has since shut down, the Godfrey's having decided to go into biomedical (and quite Fringe-y) research. The story opens with a young girl being murdered by a creature that rips her open, exposing all her innards. The murder shocks the very small town where it seems everyone knows everyone and everyone has at least one secret (sound Twin Peaks-y yet? Don't worry. No Red Room or dancing midgets). At the same time as the murder, a gypsy family comes to town, the Rumancek's. The take up residence in a long forgotten trailer and it is implied that they have a not-so-friendly connection to the Godfrey family, who live in their mansion up the hill. Peter Rumancek (Landon Liborion) is quickly suspected of being the killer, due in large part to Christine Wendell (Freya Tingley from Once Upon a Time) spreading the rumor that Peter is a werewolf. The other character who comes on the cops radar of potential murder suspects is Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard)--who mainly serves as the resident hottie and mystery boy, brooding blank stare and all. Peter and Roman form an unlikely alliance to take down the real killer, what Peter calls a vargulf (insane werewolf who kills for pleasure instead of food). From there it gets...complicated.

To start there are several other characters connected to Peter and Roman, all of whom have secrets. There is Roman's Uncle Norman (Dougary Scott, who is sadly sardonic, delivering his lines in a cold and detached manner), Roman's cousin Letha (Penelope Mitchell) who has been impregnated by an angel (yes, an angel...sounding American Horror Story yet? Don't worry. No leather cat suits), Roman's sister Shelly (a literal Frankenstein's monsters--hence the clever name--who is a giant with two different sized eyes and the ability to glow. Also, like Frankenstein's monster, she'll be our Messiah figure), and finally Roman's mother, Olivia (deliciously played by Famke Jansenn, tortured British accent and all) who is the real standout of this super angsty supernatural murder mystery.

 To save you all the trouble of wondering: yes, Peter is a werewolf. This is made clear in the second episode during--what has to be--the best werewolf transformation I've ever seen, the boy literally shedding his skin to become a wolf. And no, he is not the killer. The search to find the killer is often interrupted by the outside mysteries that all serve as part of the large mythology of the show. For example, the biomedical White Tower headed by the Godfrey's and run by super-human Dr. Johann Pryce (our resident Dr. Frankenstein) is conducting something called the Ouroboros trials, symbolized by a snake eating its tail. Dr. Pryce seems obsessed with raising the dead and creating artificial life. This involves extensive scientific trials which has left one resident in town particular crazed and making Dr. Norman Godfrey's job as a clinical psychologist very interesting. Another mystery centers on what exactly Olivia and Roman Godfrey are. Peter and his gypsy mother Lynda seem to know that the Godfrey's are not human, constantly referring to them as upir's. I am admittedly not as familiar with Eastern European mythology as I should be, but the mystery of the upir's isn't solved until the last episode, so I won't ruin it for you here. The final big mystery involves the supernatural God-squad known as the Order of the Dragon, the face of which is Dr. Clementine Chasseur, a not-so-recovered alcoholic who is deeply religious but haunted by her past. Dr. Chasseur's main role is to hunt down the monster responsible and send him back to Hell.

There is plenty of teenage and adult angst along the way. Peter and Letha strike up a romance--despite her immaculate pregnancy--which bothers her cousin Roman, who has a bit too strong of an attachment to his blood relative. Peter and Roman have an incredibly awkward friendship, their dialogue is campy and over the top and at times you can tell the writers wanted lines to be pregnant with meaning, and thus are short and pithy but frankly devoid of all emotion and thus come across as just bad acting. But at the same time, there are extensive homoerotic overtones to the two and I kept wondering if they were going to give in a make out (fair warning: lots of sex in this series, NC-17 rating). They even dream together! All this on top of a twenty plus year affair between Norman and Olivia that is both degrading and a little hot (and if you can't guess what this little affair means for the family tree, then you don't watch nearly enough television). Olivia is the femme fatale trope in the flesh; Janssen plays it perfectly: she is cold, detached, seductive, and altogether creepy with her jet black hair and constant white clothing.

The question of who murdered the girls of Hemlock Grove is finally answered in the penultimate episode and I'll admit, I didn't see this one coming. Unlike the question of Twin Peaks's who murdered Laura Palmer, this answer did not feel rushed, but made sense once viewed in flashbacks and lead to a fairly intensive battle scene before our Messiah figure swoops down to save the day--and like any good savior, perhaps sacrificing herself. The final episode deals with the Godfrey mystery and the outcome of Letha's pregnancy. The show is clearly angling for a second season, and I'm almost positive they'll get it--while not as critically acclaimed at Netflix's other original series House of Cards (which you all should watch RIGHT NOW)--it did make the streaming movie site a fair bit of money. Many of the bigger mysteries are left up in the air, enticing the viewers to come back for a second helping next year.

I know it sounds like I'm telling you all not to waste your time, but honestly, I'm about to change all that. Should you spend the 13 hours necessary and watch Hemlock Grove? Yes. Why? For one thing, because it is trying to be many different things at once (murder mystery, small town drama, film noir in flashbacks, teen angst, supernatural showdown, and coming of age tale) it almost can't be a cliche because of its pastiche nature. It can't decide what it wants to be, and that makes it entertaining. The acting is stilted and the story totally contrived, but it's FUN. I found myself laughing and pondering the outcomes at the same time. The episode "Catabasis" is particularly interesting, though I admit I love a good trip to the underworld (Katabasis is Greek and it's a standard trope in which the hero goes to the underworld to learn something important)--and this one came complete with a Skype phone call between Norman and Dr. Freud! There is magic and myth and weird science and archetypes run amok! And some fantastic visuals; and Roman Godfrey is pretty hot in a tortured soul, probably going to kill you type. Watch it. If only for its absolute ridiculousness.

Overall Grade: B-

No comments:

Post a Comment