TV Review: Derivative ‘Hemlock Grove’ Goes Down Slowly

'Hemlock Grove': TV Review, Netflix Series

Without providing much supporting evidence, Netflix has proclaimed “House of Cards” a success, which is plausible (if a trifle irritating) given mostly favorable reviews and front-page stories about whether the distributor’s binge-viewing format would reinvent TV as we know it. From a subscriber standpoint, “Hemlock Grove” — a horror concept from director Eli Roth — might be an even surer bet, although the series itself is undistinguished, playing like a slightly saucier version of the CW’s supernatural youth-skewing soaps. Disemboweling teenagers is a tried-and-true horror staple, but beyond dedicated genre fans, a few sips of “Hemlock” will more than suffice.

Novelist Brian McGreevy developed his book as a series with Lee Shipman, and the first three episodes rather slowly disgorge secrets, while oscillating between teens and their parents to provide multigenerational froth, much like gothic soaps ranging from Fox’s “Point Pleasant” to CW’s “Secret Circle” to CBS’ “Harper’s Island.”

As is so often the case, a grisly murder sets the narrative in motion, unleashing suspicions in a small one-time steel town in Pennsylvania (OK, really Canada). Soon enough, it’s apparent all is not what it seems, starting with wealthy family matriarch Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen), who dotes on her privileged, skirt-chasing son Roman (Bill Skarsgard).

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“What are you?” Olivia is asked in the premiere directed by Roth, during a flashback sequence filled with striking imagery that feels like an homage to the old black-and-white classics directed by James Whale.

If you’re eager for answers, though, be prepared to wait until well into the second episode for anything approaching a lightning strike, such as finding out more about the gypsy mom-and-son (Lili Taylor, Landon Liboiron) whose arrival seems to coincide with the murder; and Olivia’s tightly wound brother-in-law Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), whose family also figures in the multipronged plot.

Sometimes in these instances, bad can be sort-of good, and that certainly applies to Janssen’s performance. While alluring as a femme fatale, she affects a stilted accent that sounds like a weak Katharine Hepburn impersonation. Nor does it help that Scott’s character is named Norman, so every time she addresses him, you half expect her to exclaim “The loons!” or some other “On Golden Pond”-ism.

Of course, those aforementioned teen-horror TV shows shared a common fate, having all been canceled rather quickly due to poor ratings. Netflix, however, is operating on a different plane and business model, one calculated to serve varied subscriber interests, including those who like gore, nudity and (given the mix of the macabre and high school) rent “Twilight” movies. The series obliges on the second front by somewhat uncomfortably staging most of its sexual encounters in cars, bathrooms — just about anywhere except a bed.

If the underlying formula is as old as “Dark Shadows,” there’s still a need for more narrative momentum than the 13-episode series initially delivers. So while one can understand why Netflix would augment its original slate with this mix of talent, “Hemlock Grove” remains a mere niche confection, one likely to play best among those genre fans who can’t see the forest for the trees.

 Hemlock Grove

(Series; Netflix, Premieres Fri. April 19)

Filmed in Ontario, Canada, by Shinebox SMC in association with Gaumont Intl. Television. Executive producers, Eli Roth, Brian McGreevy, Lee Shipman, Mark Verheiden, Deran Sarafian, Eric Newman, Michael Connolly; co-executive producer, Daniel Paige; producer, Lynn Raynor; director, Roth; writers, McGreevy, Shipman, based on the novel by McGreevy; camera, Fernando Arguelles, Steven Poster; production designer, Drew Boughton; editors, Jim Munro, Ron Sanders; music, Nathan Barr; casting, Denise Chamian, Ania O’Hare. 50 MIN.

Cast: Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Bill Skarsgard, Landon Liboiron, Penelope Mitchell, Freya Tingley, Lili Taylor.

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  1. Ufraf says:

    Fernando? I concur, he is an asshole.

  2. Old dear friend says:

    That jerk is a prickly pervert. His nickname on set given by the actors was uncle fester the child molester

  3. Smith says:

    Very interesting, I am looking for that Loser Fernando the Director of Pathological L….. I mean photography. He is 2 farts short of a walking butthole.

  4. AL says:

    The director of pornography…. I mean photography is the smartest moron on this planet.

  5. Rick says:

    I’ve seen 8 episodes ,I will watch the rest I got hooked and have to see how it ends

  6. The author of Hemlock Grove the book, Brian McGreevy (also an executive producer on the show), is doing a Reddit AMA today (4/24) at 2:30 eastern, in case anyone’s interested.

  7. Z says:

    I am a HUGE fan of Vampires, Zombies and Werewolves. I saw the trailer and thought, great finally something about werewolves. I watched him turn and I was like, yeah, yeah, turn baby, turn, eyes popping out, teeth popping out, YEAHHHHHH, finally… WT….. a DOG (Wolf) ??? A DOG (Wolf) ??? Are you kidding me??? What a HUGE disappointment. If only Netflix would have used actual werewolves the show would have been a much bigger hit, but no they had to use dogs (wovles). This show is not going to last. Lost us when we saw the guy turn into a freaking dog (wolf). Get it together movie and show makers, get it together!!! Thumbs completely down for Hemlock Grove. BUT on the bright side, LOVE Famke Janssen, awesome woman.

    • John says:

      @Z: I felt exactly the same. I think it is an insult to the werewolf genre to mention werewolf in the same sentence as this TV Series. The guy turned into a pooch. I will complete the series as there is some other characters of interest. How sad is this though that the most interesting parts about a so-called werewolf movie is everything but the werewolf. Netflix rating 1/5 stars for worst werewolf ever and failed effort in trying to make a movie about a scary pooch! The Hound of Baskerville was scarier than that!

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