This weekend saw the premiere of Netflix series Hemlock Grove produced by Prince of Gore Eli Roth. Having been ladled with online trailers for the past couple of months, horror fans across the world were left salivating over the next genre serial, something to tide us over until American Horror Story returns.
Set in a provincial town in Pennsylvania, gypsy Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) and mother Lynda (Lili Taylor) move into the willowy neighborhood, setting up afresh. However Peter soon becomes a murder suspect when two girls are found gruesomely mutilated. Social outcast Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) befriends Peter, curious of his new mysterious friend and spurred on by his kindness towards his equally estranged and troubled sister Letha (Penelope Mitchell). The two realise that they share dreams and both have secrets that establishes a mutual bond.
Hemlock Grove proves to be a slow starter, with episode one cautiously trawling through an array of inconsistent scenes that are difficult to piece together or make sense of. Although the episode tries to maintain the suspense factor, it fails to engage viewers by its fragmented narrative, passing on rudimentary details which leaves viewers perplexed rather than intrigued. It also left me turning to the book on which the series is based in search of answers.
Brian McGreevy’s book, also called Hemlock Grove, divides its readers as a glance at the online reviews will show. Some love it. Some find it unreadable. I admit to finding it interesting. While sometimes written in an unbearably eccentric style, the book does draw you in, something that, by contrast, the first episode of the TV show does not.
Brian McGreevy is an executive producer on the series as well as co-writer but the dialogue of the first episode is so leaden and full of meaningless exposition that the lead characters fail to garner any empathy. Nevertheless, buoyed by the book, I persevered and moved on to the second episode.
Episode two progresses ever so slightly with character reveals and more explanatory dialogue, some of which seems unnecessary or even tedious. Is Roman strong and devious or is he weak? His character appears to be unbalanced. Is he a vampire or not, and if so does he know? It’s hard to fathom whether Roman is confident or whether he’s just a whiny rich kid with a witch for a mother. It’s difficult to keep a handle on his character and if there is anything that Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or even American Horror Story have taught us, it’s that good drama is built around strong characters.
Hemlock Grove is reasonable viewing, despite some intrusive rather than illuminating flashbacks. The second episode was better than the first perhaps because it seemed a little less disjointed. Or perhaps because I’d read the early chapters of the book and found there what was missing from the script. Many of the lines in the script are indeed taken straight from the book. But gone is the almost epistolary way the tale is told via an unknown narrator whose presence you’d forget if the occasional reminder wasn’t dropped in.
What Hemlock Grove isn’t is horror of the kind we’ve come to expect from Eli Roth. This is no Hostel or Cabin Fever. You’ll find much more gruesome scenes in the latest series of Game of Thrones. And while it is an unusual take on the horror genre it is not Cabin in the Woods. What it feels like is a teen drama, set in a high school where some of the pupils are monsters. If that’s the market Brian McGreevy’s book was aimed at, then it succeeds. Will it work on television? Only if the characters earn our affections.
Which reminds me. How long do Americans go to high school for? I know actors love to lie about their age but come on. If you’re going to do high school drama, at least cast someone who looks like a teenager.