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Netflix goes horror with 'Hemlock Grove'

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

A teenage girl runs through the woods, crying out in fear. She is chased by a darkened, ominous figure. Upon reaching an open playground, she takes solace in a small toy house. Unable to contain her cries, she is found and pulled from the structure, her lower body violently torn apart. The small town of Hemlock Grove will never be the same.

Following on the heels of the commercially successful series House of Cards, Hemlock Grove is the poor soul chosen to bide Netflix subscribers’ time until the new episodes of Arrested Development hit its streaming service. Based on the novel by author Brian McGreevy, and helmed by horror master Eli Roth, Hemlock Grove is the second of seven original content shows to debut by the streaming giant.

McGreevy’s outspoken disgust for modern vampire and werewolf pop culture is encapsulated in his essay on Vulture entitled “Why Don Draper Is A Far Better Vampire Than Any Of Twilight’s or True Blood’s.” McGreevy famously alludes to these genre stalwarts of today as “essentially what you would get if a Tennessee Williams play fucked The Rocky Horror Show Picture Show.”

Hemlock Grove is the writer’s attempt to pump the blood, fear, and violence back into the genre, while reinstating its Romantic literary tradition. McGreevy’s intentions are noble, but the series falls short in nearly every attempted ploy laid out. The root of this futility might best be traced to the fact that the series tries to do far too many things at once.

Let’s run the list: gypsies, aristocratic life, mythology, religion, drugs, high school vulnerability, secret societies, the occult, sex, science, money, and power are among the many explored themes. With a more narrowed vision, a select few of these could be carried out with gusto. However, viewers are dealt a bum hand that they’ll fold before bets are on the table.

What the series suffers from most is its characters, in both casting and writing. Where McGreevy denounced the emasculated vampires of today, the character Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) may be ripped from the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, but aside from the lines of coke, he is as shallow and overdramatic as Edward Cullen.

Perhaps it was the brilliant performances of Edward James Olmos laced throughout, but I can’t remember feeling Kandyse McClure’s acting being this troubling to watch on Battlestar Galactica. Her fellow Battlestar castmate Aaron Douglas makes the best of his otherwise static character in local sheriff Tom Sworn.

Famke Janssen’s character Olivia Godfrey is haunting and methodic, a testament to classical stereotypes. She may feel displaced among the rest of the cast, but her performance stands as most notable.

Hemlock Grove does deliver in one area — the gooey red stuff. Box cutters to the torso of a dead girl? It’s got that. Sacrificing a pet cat? That’s fair game. Nude and mutilated girls’ bodies? Roth delivers there too. There’s no shortage of intestines spewing from abdomens. Though clearly allocated to specific scenes, the budget provides some top-notch transformation sequences as well.

With only slight critical reception, it is surprising that Netflix officially announced more viewers watched the series on its opening day than the much-lauded House of Cards. Hemlock Grove is among a welcomed range of original content for Netflix, but it will be interesting to see if the series, like House of Cards, is picked up for a second run.

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