I am going to try something new this month. After a year of reviewing Netflix suggested films for my Gleaming the Queue column, I’ve decided to write on one of Netflix’s Original Series. And, as it is the most recent of the Netflix Originals, I picked “Hemlock Grove”. Boy, was that a fuck up.
After the phenomenal “House Of Cards”, I was eager to check out Netflix’s latest only-on-Netflix original programs after reading the series’ description by executive producer and Hostel writer/director, Eli Roth. Roth described “Hemlock Grove” as being like “Twin Peaks,” but set in a former steel town in Pennsylvania where biotech has risen from the ashes and this strange facility has taken over the town. “Hemlock Grove” is also rooted in monster mythology, the roots of all the modern day tales we know about werewolves and vampires and Frankenstein.”. With a description like that from a great horror movie director, it seemed like all of the parts were primed and ready for “Hemlock Grove” to be another great Netflix Original. But, “seeming” and “being” are not the same thing (a repetitive theme throughout “Hemlock Grove”), and although it sure seemed like Eli Roth’s series would be great, it’s not. It’s REALLY not. In fact, it’s little more than one of those CW teen series shrouded with extreme gore, luring (but perpetually unsolved) mysteries, and the softcore porn-like sex scenes. All of these bells and whistles are used at great length to distract the viewer from the series’ aimless plot. At the end of the day, “Hemlock Grove” is just another droll “Twilight” spinoff with a shitload of blood and tits.
“To the Mystery Machine, Peter!”
The “Hemlock Grove” series is based on Brian McGreevy’s novel by the same name, and, to be honest, the only thing this show has going for it is that it’s won’t be critiqued by any official rating system. “Hemlock Grove” is the sort of supernatural horror thriller that’s so concerned with atmosphere and mood that it barely gets around to telling its story. And when it does, it’s this diluted mess of character self-discovery that comes across as being little more than a pompous, Monster Mash version of “Glee”. After thirteen episodes, there’s still a lot more suggestion than information, and plotting that’s probably meant to be cleverly elliptical — important characters who appear out of nowhere, story points that are made clear a few beats too late — is confusing to the point of maddening. “Hemlock Grove”‘s convoluted storyline doesn’t make you just scratch your head; it makes you scalp yourself, and then smash your head into your TV set.
From what I gathered, the story of “Hemlock Grove” is this: Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania, like Twin Peaks, Washington, is a faded industrial town in the woods – complete with empty storefronts and a wealthy family with secrets that lords over the town (this time, it’s the Godfreys, not Van Hornes). The series begins, as so many seem to do these days, with the brutal murder of a young woman. On the day of the murder, a mysterious pair of Roma gypsies — played by the excellent Lily Taylor and the awful Landon Liboiron — moved into town. As the murder was so brutal – entrails on the outside brutal – the townsfolk accuse the new resident gypsies of being werewolves (because that makes sense, right?).
The gypsies moved into a deserted trailer nestled in the woods behind the stately manse owned by the Godfreys, the industrial family who abandoned running the town’s steel mill to run a bio-medical research facility of questionable ethics. One gets the impression that the Godfreys’ have been keeping the town financially afloat for decades, and, therefore, the eccentric billionaire family has the run of the place. Maybe eccentric is too tame a word. Richard Branson is eccentric; the Godfrey family is just fucking nuts. There’s the seductively sinister matriarch (Famke Janssen), the arrogant troublemaker heir (Bill Skarsgard), and the mute giantess (Nicole Boivin), who has one enormous eye and skin that glows blue (don’t ask; it’s never fully explained). The patriarch of this modern day Adams Family seemingly committed suicide some years before, and the cause of his death is another one of “Hemlock’s Grove”‘s mysteries.
Boys Becoming Men, Men Becoming Wolves
The banal CW / “Twilight” influences are seen early on in the show’s central relationship: the odd-couple friendship between Peter, the gypsy boy, and the Godfrey scion, Roman, who, by the way, enjoys the taste of his own blood and can compel people to do his bidding. Peter and Roman agree to work together to solve the murder mystery, and clear their own names in the process (the townsfolk, remember, think Peter is a werewolf and think Roman is just plain weird). But as more girls start dying, the questions are directed at the secrets of the Godfrey family and the town itself.
As each episode of “Hemlock Grove” ended, however, more questions are raised than answered. I was waiting for Peter and Roman to clear up the piling mysteries that the show so torturously sets up, but the answers never come. Even by the final thirteen episode, little is explained and even more questions raised. In fact, every time SOMETHING was explained in “Hemlock Grove”, that explanation leads to at least five more questions. Like the reoccurring Ouroboros symbol throughout the series, every question answered comes back around again to another set of questions. And, unlike David Lynch, whose unanswered narrative twists are evocative, “Hemlock Grove”‘s efforts at a nonlinear narrative are sophomoric to the point of being moronic. By the conclusion of the thirteen episode, I think two questions raised throughout the season were definitely answered, and in the same episode, at least five new questions were raised. But, by the time I had arrived at Episode 13, my brain was so thoroughly fried by the banality of watching the final three episodes in a row, that all of my frustration throughout the series had dwindled to a defeated desire that it would just end.
Lemme put it like this: “Hemlock Grove” is terrible in ways that mock the meaning of the word “terrible”. And by being this bad, “Hemlock Grove” revives the pejorative “direct-to-video” stigma for the Netflix generation. It’s a straight-to-Netflix TV show – one that diminishes, rather than promotes, on-demand media service’s “Original Series” aspirations. Next season will probably star Lou Diamond Phillips and some kind of anaconda/shark hybrid monster. And yes, I know, that may sound awesome, but rest assured, in the hands of the “Hemlock Grove” team, we’ll probably have to wade through four episodes of the anaconda/shark’s identity crisis only to find out it was actually just Lou Diamond Phillip’s dream.