“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!”
– Bram Stoker, Dracula
“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
“Bring it on, fur-ass!”
– Charlaine Harris, From Dead to Worse
The Twilight Saga has a hell of a lot to answer for.
Adolescent lust! Vampire angst! Shirtless werewolves! What were they thinking by propagating such insidious and amazing piffle? A quick flick through the box offfice results provides some semblance of an answer. Namely, a $3.3 bilion return over five films for a combined budget of $385 million. That’s serious coinage. Now Netflix are in on the act, ready to turn television screens a healthy shade of crimson with their latest original series.
The first time you encounter the blood-stained sex opera of Hemlock Grove, it feels like a series of improbable scenes tenuously glued together with the production values of a Zalman King film. Wonky plot twists abound. Performances veer from the bland to the mentally questionable. The dialogue’s so ripe you could turn it into cider.
And yet there’s much to savour in Brian McReevy’s moody, febrile fantasy. Hemlock Grove may be pure ham, but it’s more of a fine prosciutto than a lump of processed pork. It’s sleek, seductive stuff. Small town Gothic in slim fit jeans. Genre fans with a healthy interest in cryptozoology and/or light nudity should come away from the experience more or less satisfied. Viewers with a disposition for narrative logic, perhaps not so much.
Such is the show’s somewhat liberal attitude to cause and effect, the actual plot feels almost inconsequential, a kind of springboard for lashings of teen sex, outrageous gore and increasingly random phantasmagoria.
A good chunk of the action takes place within the show’s eponymous and gloomy locale, kicking off with the horrific murder of a 17-year old cheerleader. Initially, all eyes are on brooding gypsy boy Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), who lives in a trailer on the edge of town. Peter has a secret – specifically, that he’s a big, bad werewolf with a penchant for live flesh. Awkward.
He befriends troubled rich kid Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård – yes, there’s always another Skarsgård) and together they vow to find the killer and clear Peter’s name, while taking their tops off at opportune moments.
Meanwhile, lest anyone was concerned about an apparent lack of mad scientists thus far, strange experiments are underway at the “White Tower”, home of the Godfrey Family’s mysterious biotech company. Oh, and Roman’s having these strange visions that may or may not suggest some kind of preternatural ability.
As the plot thickens over the course of 13 unhinged episodes, secrets are revealed, monsters are unleashed and a mysterious section of the Church called the Order of the Dragon starts taking a VERY keen interest in local affairs. It’s all quite mad, a little bit rubbish and annoyingly compulsive.
Nerds will no doubt be delighted at the sheer amount of references to classic horror evident in Hemlock Grove. Bits of Dracula, Frankenstein and assorted lycanthropic lore pop up throughout the run. Character names link directly back to their literary sources, most obviously Roman’s mute, gentle giant sister Shelley (a little on-the-nose, that one – shame there’s not a driver called Igor.) The show revels in recreating these myths for an audience more familiar with Bella Swann and Sookie Stackhouse.
The werewolf sequences are particularly thrilling, with Peter’s initial metamorphosis comfortably holding its own alongside An American Werewolf in London and The Company of Wolves as one of the greatest ever screen transformations. Honestly, it’s a genuinely violent and visceral moment. Props to the producers too for using real wolves during key sequences. They’ve clearly watched the Twilight films and made a conscious decision to avoid any of that rather unconvincing and wobbly CG nonsense.
Perhaps it goes without saying that practically none of the performances are really any good. Dougray Scott turns up as Roman’s uncle Dr. Norman Godfrey and frankly looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. And Bill Skarsgård, pretty as he is, somehow manages to turn klutzy line delivery into a transcendent piece of terrible performance art. Are there any more Skarsgårds out there? Should we prepare ourselves accordingly?
But Hemlock Grove’s secret weapon is, without question, the wonderful Famke Janssen as Roman’s mother, Olivia Godfrey. Janssen’s probably too good for this kind of kitsch, but no matter. She’s great, prowling the set with a neverending cigarette and the kind of predatory, feline grace that makes men fall to their knees and puts other women in their place.
Hemlock Grove is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix right now. We’re still not sure whether that’s a good thing.