Review - Hemlock Grove


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Review - Hemlock Grove
A new horror series rears its lupine head. But is it any good?
Hemlock Grove (2013)
Eli Roth
Landon Liboiron, Bill Skarsgård
Release Date:
Age Rating:
A new horror series bows this week, and we’ve been watching. Find out my thoughts on Hemlock Grove below.

Based on the book by author Brian McGreevy, HemlockGrove is the story of a strange town in Pennsylvania where the investigation into the murder of a teenage girl starts a chain reaction which leads from the wealthiest local family to a new clan of gypsies and into darker places than you can possibly imagine.

McGreevy’s novel was picked up for development and comes to your small screen as their second original series after the recent success of House of Cards. With a big name Executive Producer in the form of Eli Roth (the director of Hostel) and some recognisable stars, it’s clear that Hemlock Grove is intended to fill the horror niche ahead of comedy titan Arrested Development.

I recently had the chance to catch the first three episodes of the show ahead of the full series release on the 19th of April and there are good and bad points for those in need of a genre fix.

Coming to a new series is always hard work, trying to establish a connection with characters when you’re so used to experiencing familiar faces in other shows. But HemlockGrove keeps things pretty simple for its pilot episode, entitled Jellyfish in the Sky. This introduction, which was directed by Eli Roth (read our interview), throws in some primary characters and gives the audience a hook with the early murder of a young woman.

There’s a definite Twin Peaks vibe about proceedings, with the promise of an investigation and some seriously weird vibes about the town. Overshadowed by the imposing Godfrey Tower, owned by the richest family in town, Hemlock Grove is a strange place, filled with whisperings of unusual creatures and now what looks to be a serious animal attack. Mysterious sorts flit around the edges of the narrative, like the Order of the Dragon (also the name of the third episode) and there’s a recurring reference to the symbol of the ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail.

Through it all, we’re led chiefly by leads Landon Liboiron (Peter) and Bill Skarsgard (Roman). One is a gypsy and the other heir to the Godfrey fortune, setting up a contrast which feeds into the slow evolution of their friendship. They’re supporting by some more familiar names, including Famke Janssen as the Godfrey matriarch, LiliTaylor as Peter’s mother and Dougray Scott as a man hopelessly tied to Janssen’s Olivia.
Refreshingly, HemlockGrove doesn’t take too long to confirm that it’s a full-on supernatural series, with that much published werewolf transformation taking place at the end of the second episode. As in this moment, the effects are above average for TV, with the prosthetic work naturally trumping the CG efforts.

In terms of narrative, the first three episodes are focussed on establishing the relationship between Peter and Roman, while also following the police investigation – which is eventually aided by a department of fish and wildlife agent (played by Battlestar’s Kandyse McClure) who seems oddly unfazed by talk of preternatural beings. Throw in a sub plot about a virginal girl who believes she was impregnated by an angel, flashbacks to the twisted history of the Godfrey family and Roman’s slow realisation of his own unusual heritage and there are plenty of reveals yet to come – especially as the rich kid and the gypsy team up to find who, or what, is killing these girl.

There’s enough material lurking in the wings to make me curious about the rest of the series but there are also some serious stumbling blocks. While it’s always going to take a while for actors to find their characters, some of the performances here are distractingly bad. Skarsgard (son of Stellan and brother of Alexander) is strangely inconsistent, lending serious weight to some scenes and seeming dull and emotionless in the next moment. Liboiron fares better, adding much needed lightness to his scenes and Janssen is strong, while Scott doesn’t seem to quite have a handle on the character.

It’s the smaller roles where the quality takes a more significant dip, with background players taken from some local pool of mediocrity. It’s not helped by basic and forgettable dialogue and some conflicting narrative threads. The flashbacks in particular are often jarring, with no real sense of what information they are supposed to be imparting and clash with the numerous visions to create even more confusion.

Technically, Hemlock Grove is shot well, including a nice mix of POV angles and some sheen to the colour grading. But it also sometimes feels a little low rent, the sets and set ups less slick than you would expect from a show with a rumoured budget of $45 million. Again, most of the effects are solid and add to the creepy tone but the production as a whole feels a little bit shaky.

With small doses of sex and less violence than you might expect, Hemlock Grove doesn’t go out of its way to grab audiences in its opening three episodes. There’s potential in the vast amounts of story left to reveal but the slow creep of significant reveals and the introduction of new characters every episode takes away from the momentum – though arguably that’s less of an issue when the entire series is available at once. I’ll certainly be checking out the rest of the run, mainly to satisfy my own curiosity, but I can’t see voracious viewers devouring it in a single sitting.

6 Stars
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