The strange case of Hemlock Grove

A few weeks ago, I started watching the Netflix supernatural series Hemlock Grove on a whim. Somehow I managed to get through all 13 episodes of the first season. Still, I’m not sure if the show is a brilliant mess or a well-meaning failure.

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Hemlock Grove, based on a book by Peter McGreevy (who also created the show), is a riff on the vampire and werewolf takes we all know by heart. It’s set in a fictional Pennsylvania town that is typically mid-America in all ways (with a touch of Twin Peaks), except for the monsters that roam its streets and woods.

The action begins, harshly, as a girl is brutally attacked and disembowled on her way to rendezvous with her high-school teacher. From there we meet the locals. There’s the powerful Godfrey family, headed by matriarch Olivia (played by X-Men’s Famke Janssen), and her teenage children: brooding, spoiled Roman (Bill Skarsgard), and the awkwardly disfigured Shelley. And we also meet the Rumanceks: Lynda (Lili Taylor) and her teenage son Peter (Landon Liboiron). And then there’s Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), his teenage daughter Leetha and his wife (no name; she doesn’t matter). Norman is Olivia’s brother in law, and Roman and Shelley’s uncle.

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So that’s the basic setup of Hemlock Grove. Simple enough, except that none of it really makes sense. Everything about the show — from the acting to the writing to the basic plotting — seems off. I could write several blog posts about the strangeness of this show, but here are just a few examples.

–The locals quickly tag Peter as a werewolf because of his “excessive body hair.” The actor who plays Peter, however, has not that much body hair at all. But he really is a werewolf after all (!)

HG transform

–The wildly over-the-top Olivia Godfrey is supposed to be English, but her accent slips and slides all over the place. And Roman’s accent as well is bizarre (it turns out the actor is Swedish)

–Dougray Scott must be pissed off at having to play on this show. He mopes through every scene, as if all he’s thinking of is cashing the next paycheck. At least Famke Janssen gets the joke; she camps it up in every scene she’s in

–There’s some seriously strong gay subtext in the friendship between Peter and Roman. It is not at all subtle, though it doesn’t do much in terms of developing their characters. It’s basically pointless

Peter Roman

–The high schoolers are written way more adult. Roman, for example, zips around in his classic sportscar as he hires hookers, chain smokes, and drinks in bars. And school seems optional

It took me a while to figure out what the hell was up with Hemlock Grove. It’s weird and surreal. It’s badly written and unevenly acted. But I couldn’t stop watching. Then it clicked. It’s produced by Eli Roth, the man behind Hostel. I remember watching Cabin Fever, directed by Roth, years ago. Cabin Fever was a grade B horror flick, nothing groundbreaking about it. But it was so damned weird. And Hostel likewise was just plain bizarre. Apparently Eli Roth has developed his own freaky genre.

Hemlock Grove did manage to wrap up its main story lines by episode 13 in a mostly satisfying way. And it was definitely entertaining as I felt whiplashed between the weirdness and the awfulness.

So would I recommend watching Hemlock Grove? My advice would be to proceed with caution.

Read this story: Wolverton Station

If you’re a fan of horror fiction and haven’t heard of Joe Hill, get yourself to the nearest bookstore now. For starters, check out his short story Wolverton Station. What you’ll get from Hill—and this story—is solid (if not a little workman-like) heart-thudding chills.

wolverton stationThe plot: Saunders is a corporate hatchet man traveling the rails in England. He’s off to scout out new sites for a Starbucks-like chain called Jimi Coffee. He’s greeted not only by protests, but wolves as well. Soon enough he finds himself trapped among the wolves.

I read this story cold. All I knew was that it was horror, and I enjoyed Hill’s book Heart-Shaped Box, so I gave this one a try.

First, the good:

–Hill manages to create a complex, if not entirely likable, character in Saunders in a brief amount of time. I could not say that I liked him, but definitely felt for him.

–There’s some deft sleight of hand that Hill manages to pull off. At first it seems as if the story is classic horror, then it veers away from that, only to return with a vengeance. One of the hallmarks of good horror is to keep the reader always off-balance. I could never find my footing in this story, so well done.

–As the story rolls along, the tension reaches 10 out of 10. One of the most intense scenes took place on a train with no exits.

And the not as good:

–My main criticism is that Hill’s writing is, as mentioned earlier, workman-like. There’s nothing particularly new or innovative in his work. He is not forging new pathways in horror fiction, but he’s staying on the well-worn trails. But this is just a minor criticism.

So for some good horror thrills, check out Wolverton Station, and the rest of Joe Hill’s works.