Monday, April 22, 2013

The Horror Show: HEMLOCK GROVE

Episode 1: "Jellyfish in the Sky"

The concept of "television horror" has been around long enough to have developed distinct archetypes that have their own inescapable gravities. For example, if you're going to dabble in sinister soap melodramas, you'd better be prepared to deal with comparisons to DARK SHADOWS, something HEMLOCK GROVE has been doing the series was first announced. The latest program to take a wild stab at the "gothic soap" subgenre, the Netflix series has an advantage that many of its contemporaries do not: The ability to plan and shoot its entire first season before the pilot airs. It's nice to jump into a new show without any worries that it will prematurely expire after two or three episodes.

With just a single episode under my belt, though, it's hard to tell where HEMLOCK GROVE wants to take me. It plays like a hybrid of the 1991 DARK SHADOWS revival and TWIN PEAKS, with a touch of THE X-FILES thrown in for flavor. The worst thing I could say about the show is that it feels like a glorified homage to '90s horror. But I miss those shows, so that's not such a terrible thing to be. Is it original? No. Fresh? Hardly. But it's got my attention.

The story revolves around the creepy Godfrey family, which harbors more than one monster under the roof of its stately mansion. One of them might be a werewolf (though we get not formal confirmation of that in the pilot) while the other is a deformed giant. At the top of the sinister hierarchy is the secretive, and probably not human, Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen.)

Wandering into the mix is Peter Rumancek, a 17-year-old Gypsy who has taken refuge with his mother in a trailer on the outskirts of town. A connection between the Rumanceks and Godfreys is alluded to but not explained, while a flashback explains why Olivia's husband is no longer in the picture. Frankly, it's a mystery that could have been milked for a few more episodes, but there's still enough of the family's toxic gene pool to keep things interesting for a while.

Playing opposite Peter is Olivia's son Roman, who seems to have devoted his life to developing the world's best James Spader impression. His relationship with his mother, as well as his cousin Letha, are both fairly unsavory. Olivia's behavior with the lad suggests he's her lover, which Roman has (possibly unrealized) romantic intents on his younger cousin. The Godfreys have such ravenous appetites that they're in danger of devouring each other.

So the citizens of Hemlock Grove probably don't stand much of a chance, seeing as how they're on the bottom of the no-longer-proverbial food chain. It looks as though this season will revolve around the murder of a 17-year-old cheerleader, a young girl Roman denies having known. His Facebook feed tells a different story, but the few moments of her life that are glimpsed at the start of the episode suggests there was more going on with this young woman than meets the eye. She was murdered en route to a secret tryst with one of her female teachers, who hears to the girl murder through an open cell phone connection.

While HEMLOCK GROVE sometimes looks like SPIDER BABY as filtered through the Disney Channel, it's not a terrible looking show. Keeping with the '90s revival vibe, the whole thing looks like a post-grunge music video. Unlike the shows that inspired it, HEMLOCK GROVE doesn't wear its pretensions on its sleeve and understands its own pulp value. Its cartoonish qualities sometimes gets in its own way, but tends to support the narrative more than undermine it.

And, while nobody in the cast will be threatened with winning any awards for their work here, most of the performances are solid. At the start, I was worried I'd have trouble telling the blandly attractive teens apart (the leads all look like American Apparel models) but that turned out not to be a problem. Even though most of the cast is pretty despicable, they've got just enough humanity in them to make them interesting, if not pitiable. As Roman, Bill Skarsgård comes across like the embodiment of every douche to grace the screen in a JOHN HUGHES movie. This is not a guy we're not supposed to like, but Skarsgård gives us hope that there's something inside the coke-sniffing, drug-dealing womanizing minor that might be worth saving.

Landon Liboiron as Peter Rumancek has more heaving lifting to do in the narrative. He's the audience's cypher, and we're essentially introduced to Hemlock Grove through his eyes. Using a thief and a liar (not to mention potential murderer) as a centerpiece character is a ballsy move but, again, he comes across like a kid trapped by circumstance. He hasn't earned his cockiness yet, and isn't nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

The adults of the series are a little less interesting, though they're performances are more assured. Janssen is sultry, sarcastic evil, while DOUGRAY SCOTT as her brother-in-law is tasked with being the show's moral center. Given than he was sleeping with Olivia at the time of his brother's apparent suicide, his morality isn't always sure bet. Scott was originally cast as Wolverine in the first X-MEN movie but had to drop out when production of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 ran long, forcing the film add HUGH JACKMAN at the last minute. It's nice to finally see him share the screen with Janssen, but I can't help but think TOM CRUISE owes the man a massive apology.

LILI TAYLOR, an actress I'm always happy to see, also stops by as Peter's mother, but her place in the credits suggests it's not a permanent gig (hint hint.) Also, it's great to see AARON DOUGLAS of BATTLESTAR GALCTICA in the cast as the town's hapless sheriff. If you're looking for someone to play  "conflicted authority," he's your man.

Make no mistake ... HEMLOCK GROVE is trash. But it's fun trash, and I'm willing to accept its drinking-game style foolishness as long as it remains entertaining. Right now, it still feels too much like its bristling around the edges as it insists it's not TWILIGHT, which is difficult given the subject matter. Also, HEMLOCK GROVE really needs to work on creating a realistic-looking high school if it's going to spend a significant amount of time at the location. It feels faker the Sunnydale High. So yeah, the show's got a long way to go to find its own voice.

But here's the rub: A Network television series has the ability to receive audience feedback and adjust its story as necessary. HEMLOCK GROVE shot its entire first season the same way a network would shoot a pilot, and I don't yet know if that's going to be a benefit or a burden on the show's growth.

I guess that 's a topic to revisit in the next episodes.

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