Perhaps it’s when the young girl in a pristine white dress saws off her own devilish tail. Or maybe it’s when a pair of eyeballs plop onto the ground like bloody Ping-Pong balls during a human-to-werewolf transformation. Or even when a character mutters, ”She looks like a walrus with a UTI.” Chances are, at some point during Netflix’s 13-episode series about mothers and sons, vampires and werewolves, murder and medicine, sex and…more sex, you’ll think to yourself: Is this campy good or campy bad?
It’s a high wire masterfully crossed by executive producers Eli Roth (Hostel) and Brian McGreevy, who wrote several episodes and the novel on which the series is based. In case you thought this was going to be a tepid Twilight rip-off about creatures of the night in high school, guess again. (Any comparisons are shut down via a ”sexless three-way” barb in episode 1.) ”This is a strange town. You can feel it in your balls,” says scruffy gypsy teen Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), who, alongside his adoring mother, Lynda (Lili Taylor), rolls into the small Pennsylvania burg just before a girl is savagely murdered (”lady parts first”). All eyes turn to the newcomer after high schooler Christina (Freya Tingley) starts a rumor that he’s a werewolf. (Without spoiling too much…of course he is. His transformation is epic, creepy, gross-out television.) Peter is cautiously befriended by town richie Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård, brother of Alexander), a dashing heir with his own demons — he slices his skin during sex, hypnotizes foes with his gaze, and has a rather complex relationship with one hell of a mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen), whom the local newspaper calls ”the most beautiful and hated woman in Hemlock Grove” (with an accent that refuses to decide if it’s British or Midwestern society). Roman reserves his warmth for his cousin Letha (Penelope Mitchell), who claims to have been knocked up by an angel, and his sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin), a deformed gentle giant whose skin glows like E.T.’s heart when she’s touched. (A thousand roses to Boivin, who brings tremendous tenderness to a girl who speaks only in grunts unless her computerized voice machine is helping out.)
Hemlock Grove takes its time with story lines, ensuring that each one has plenty of room to ripen. It carries out every dastardly deed with gusto, but still offers enough moments of levity. (Sometimes you just need a Dirty Dancing reference to lighten the mood.) Not once during the 13 hours was I bored by the characters (a testament to strong performances) or their stories (even the Roman-Peter-Letha teenage love triangle seemed fresh), though it occasionally felt like Hemlock held back. A secret experiment by the town’s sadistic scientist Dr. Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) turns out to be disappointingly predictable, while an oft-repeated reference to a Confucius quote — ”I have seen the dragon” — is explained without enough fire. And though the sordid world is captivating, I’m still grappling with aspects of the conclusion, which oozes with old-school misogyny that savagely punishes every girl and woman who dares to own her sexuality.
When all the blood is mopped up, Hemlock, like so many horror flicks before it, is about the monster inside all of us and the human bonds that prevent us from becoming our beastliest selves. ”There’s no magic in the world stronger than life itself,” says Lynda, the unwavering voice of wisdom. ”And life is love.” Yes, even a series that features a werewolf digging decayed human fingers out of a possessed cat’s gut can have a beating heart. B+