Yesterday, Netflix posted Hemlock Grove, its third original series, a supernatural murder mystery set in a town filled with gruesome secrets. But this bingeable 13-episode season isn't a taut small-town thriller, nor a glorious horror soap; in fact, it's sometimes downright boring. Spoilers ahead.
Any good small-town melodrama needs its royal family, and in Hemlock Grove, that family is the Godfreys. The small Pennsylvania town was once a steel town, with the Godfrey steel mill once pumping out poisonous air. Now the steel mill has been left to rot while a shining, CG biotech tower gleams without concern for architectural consistency or zoning laws. TV commercials for the Godfrey Institute occasionally blare across television screens with vague promises about a better tomorrow.
But teenaged heir Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) isn't concerned with the workings of the family business. Mostly, he has sex and blood on the brain, usually at the same time. He has a knack for talking girls into sleeping with him, and in moments of sexual pleasure or general frustration, he cuts himself. In an early scene, during a sexual encounter, he cuts his finger and draws a circle on the girl's shoulder (a recurring image throughout the series). While he's throwing himself between the legs of every girl who comes along, he enjoys a relationship with his beautiful cousin Letha (Penelope Mitchell—and, as one character explains, the name is pronounced "like Lisa with a lisp") that borders on a chaste marriage.
At the head of the Godfrey family sits Roman's widowed mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen, who plays the role like an alien pretending to be a soap opera ice queen). We're assured throughout the series that Olivia is completely and utterly evil, although she spends most of her time insulting everyone in a five-mile radius and sleeping with her brother-in-law, the local mental asylum's psychiatrist Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott). She also seems to have a vaguely Jocastan interest in her son, and she treats him like the adult he really isn't yet, dressing him in tailored suits, smirking wryly at his sexual conquests, and letting him drink and smoke openly and with gusto.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) and his mother Lynda (Lili Taylor, who is tragically underutilitzed) move into a late relative's trailer. They're gypsies (and are rarely referred to as anything other than gypsies) with a strong mystical and criminal bent. Peter hardly settles into his new home before he meets Christina Wendall (Freya Tingley), a curious girl who will tell anyone willing to listen that she's going to be a writer. Christina notices that Peter's index and middle fingers are the same length, and consequently accuses him of being a werewolf. By the time he starts at his new high school, the rumors of his monthly hairiness have spread.
Peter soon discovers that werewolf rumors aren't the strangest thing about Hemlock Grove. There's Roman's sister, the significantly named Shelley (Nicole Boivin), who is seven feet tall, mute, and deformed. Her face glows blue when she's happy or anxious, and she can make lamps flicker. There's Roman himself, who Peter describes as an upir. There's cousin Letha, who is pregnant, she claims, after an encounter with an angel. And Peter doesn't even know about all the experiments going on at the Godfrey Institute, under the supervision of the menacingly placid Dr. Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente).
And then there's the girl who was found dead in a playhouse, her body apparently ripped open by a wild animal.
The first few episodes of Hemlock Grove are good fun—a bit slow, but peppered with juicy scandals. In the first few minutes, we get a freaky sexual encounter, an illicit love affair between a teacher and her student, drugs, and a violent murder. After the body of that initial murder victim is discovered, Roman decides that he wants to play hero and solve her murder, and he drags Peter along for the ride. "I always wanted to be a warrior," he says. It's as if Edward Cullen and Jacob Black has never met Bella, but instead teamed up to fight crime.
Also, the second episode ends with a truly spectacular werewolf transformation, one that reminded me wonderfully of the gory transformation from Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves. If you don't plan on watching the rest of the series, that scene is still worth a viewing.
But soon a real warrior appears on the scene: Dr. Clementine Chausser (Kandyse McClure—Hi, Dualla!), an animal expert sent to Hemlock Grove by a mysterious religious order. She quickly teams up with the town's Sheriff Sworn (Aaron Douglas, another Battlestar Galactica alum), a man with no taste for the supernatural and the most horrible twin teenage daughters at home. (Seriously, I thought the town's big, bad secret was going to be that half the kids were cloned from assholes.)
At first, their investigations work nicely in parallel, with Chausser and Sworn doing the science and Peter and Roman working the magic angle. Peter believes that the murders (and soon they are murders, plural) are the handiwork of a vargulf, an insane werewolf. There a great sitcom moment when both parties go to dig up a murdered girl's corpse on the same night, for different ends, and Peter and Roman gain a powerful (and fun) ally when they employ Roman's psychic/sacred whore/con artist cousin Destiny. Meanwhile, Shelley proves herself to be an excellent gothic heroine; her deformities make her both Frankenstein's monster and a maiden locked in a tower of her muteness. When she isn't communicating through her iPhone (in Siri's voice) she's composing lengthy emails in stylized prose.
But after those first few episodes, the investigation stalls, and so does Hemlock Grove. Directors Eli Roth and Deran Sarafian become obsessed with dragging the series' undertones to the surface. Hemlock Grove isn't just a murder mystery, you see, it's about two boys, raised by women, who haven't yet passed into adulthood. Their models for manhood are long dead, and they take up the mantle of defenders of women in a childish, Scooby-Doo sort of way. There's a lot that Roth and Sarafian could have explored here, especially when we learn that JR, Roman's deceased father, saved the town from financial ruin by being a grownup and developing a new industry to grow the—in other words, by being an adult, not a child's fantasy of a hero. In the current era of economic uncertainty, when many towns like Hemlock Grove are dying.
Instead, Hemlock Grove delivers meandering explorations of sex and violence (including one truly baffling instance of sexual assault by a protagonist), and lectures about childhood and adulthood. Sometimes entire scenes are devoted not to advancing the plot or exploring a character, but to babbling about those themes. Characters like Lynda and Destiny, who are honestly more interesting than either of our protagonists, will appear on screen merely to talk about the protagonists. Roman and Peter will frequently park Roman's car to have a long leisurely conversation about something they plan to do. Olivia and Norman will have scenes that do little more than acknowledge the affair we know they've been having since the beginning. There's even one character who seems to exist for no purpose other than to be a paragon of virtue, the nicest person in this crappy little town.
At the same time, there are plot lines that are barely explored. Letha's baby has little significance until the end, but the revelation comes with a bit of a shrug. The mysteries of Dr. Pryce's work at the Godfrey Institute are obviously being held for a later season (if some such nonsense occurs), but we get too few hints at what kind of work the biotech company really does. And Olivia could have used some notes of true, genuine evil to pump us up for the things she'd pull at the end of the series.
Sometimes the show will deliver a clever poke at its own metatextual nature. There's an entire episode that takes place in Roman's comatose subconscious that I was prepared to hate, but actually had some brilliant notes to it. But even then, it refuses to throw interesting challenges at its characters, leading them through the sunlit gardens of info-dump instead of forcing them to make decisions or become better or worse people.
It's frustrating, ultimately, because somewhere inside Hemlock Grove, there's a good TV show (or maybe a good movie). But Roth and Sarafian have not used their 13 hours wisely. They might have attempted this story as a shorter, more exciting piece of media, or blown it out to develop the world and the themes into something that felt fuller and closer to our own reality. By hour seven, I should have been dying to know what would happen next. Instead, I wanted to turn the TV off.
Perhaps worst of all is that all those long, dull dissertations on manhood and what it means to be a hero and what it means to be a monster kill any chance Hemlock Grove had of being truly tense or frightening. Yes, there are some great action sequences and a few moments of nightmarish gore (though maybe more vomit than blood), but there's nothing to make you fear the strange and horrific people who go bump in the night—or bump into you at the grocery store.
Still, I suspect someone could edit it down into a decent murder mystery. Hemlock Grove is at its best when it sticks to its werewolves, and the greatest moments are those directly linked to its grisly werewolf murder.