Netflix sure has come a long way over the years; in March of 2013, it was estimated that over 33 million people currently subscribe to their service. As video stores seemingly fall by the wayside, the popularity and reign of Netflix only continues to rise. Given their power position, It’s really no surprise that projects began developing with the intention of being Netflix exclusive.
Enter: Hemlock Grove; a thirteen episode series made specifically for Netflix. When the initial trailer began to surface, I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect. On the surface it appeared to be another “Anytown U.S.A. has a dark secret” type of stories — but what caught my attention was a name: Eli Roth. The man responsible for bringing us such graphic delicacies as HOSTEL and (my personal favourite) CABIN FEVER. In addition to serving as executive producer, Roth also acted as director of the premiere episode. If a guy with such a solid track record was attaching his name to the project, how could it be bad? At the very least we could surely expect disgusting, cringe-worthy traditional effects… couldn’t we?
The basic premise of Hemlock Grove is simple enough: when a series of brutal murders begin, it becomes a race to discover the culprit before he (or it) continues their spree of destruction. From the very beginning we’re tossed into the simply bizarre universe of Hemlock Grove; a town so weird and dysfunctional that the savage murders almost seem to pale in comparison. There’s a girl convinced she was impregnated by an angel; a boy with a blood-fetish who has seemingly mastered the old Jedi mindtrick; his giant, blue-glowing, eye-deformed medical experiment of a sister; their sadistic, manipulative, and sex-starved creature of a mother… and the list goes on, and on, and on.
I kid you not: everything in Hemlock Grove is a mystery to which there is never an answer; it is a perpetual “…” that leaves you hanging until the series reaches its end, still leaving you strung up and waiting for a proper resolution. And to make it worse, the entire time the writers treat you as if you already know why everything is happening. I understand it was influenced heavily by Twin Peaks — of that there’s no doubt — but even Twin Peaks was easier and more satisfying to follow! At least the absurd was expected, and even served a purpose in the story.
Writing and story aside, I did thoroughly enjoy the cast. Famke Janssen, Bill Skarsgård, Landon Liboiron… the performances were all well done. The up-and-coming Freya Tingley handled some tense, mature scenes brilliantly, and Kaniehtiio Horn was particularly effective in her possession scenes. If the material they had been given was as good as their acting I would no doubt be writing a very different review.
But let’s talk effects, because again, with Eli Roth’s name front and centre we’re surely expecting an emphasis on practical, old-school guts and grue. Did it deliver? Yes and no. At the very heart of it, this is a werewolf story. No matter what else happens in a werewolf story, the most important scene is the transformation, and over the years special effects gurus (like Rick Baker) have elevated these scenes to an art. I don’t think we were necessarily expecting Hemlock Grove to top the beauty of, say, An American Werewolf in London… but I also don’t think we were expecting to see the majority of it achieved through CGI. Where the concept succeeded, the execution failed.
No matter how much I wanted to like the show, I just couldn’t get into it. And that’s disappointing to me since I legitimately dig Eli Roth and everything he’s attached his name to.
When all is said and done, the series suffered from a bad story and an under-developed script more than anything else. On the plus side, if you ever lay awake at night and wondered what would happen if they blended True Blood, Twilight, and Twin Peaks together? At least now you have your answer:
Welcome to Hemlock Grove.