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).
“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.
(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.