Way back in 2012, author Brian McGreevy was the talk of the literary world. His debut novel, Hemlock Grove hadn't hit bookshelves yet and it was already being made into a television show for Netflix with a pretty big horror name attached to it. Eli Roth, still riding high on the Hostel franchise and being everyone's favorite baseball bat wielding anti-hero was very vocal about his excitement to be a part of this upcoming show. Heralded as "an exhilarating reinvention of the gothic novel", Hemlock Grove is a unique mix of classic horror creatures, various religions and cultures and some wacky scientist stuff. Vampires, or Umpirs as they're known in Hemlock Grove, werewolves, eccentric characters for miles, mysteries upon mysteries and a giant white tower where an innocuous looking man plays with nature and science as though he is God; this is what Hemlock Grove is made of. Though the book was uneven and not many of the characters were particularly likable, the prospect of Roth taking on all of these elements and turning it into a series sounded promising.
Midnight of April 19, 2013 saw the premiere of Hemlock Grove on Netflix. It is at this point that I feel compelled to remind you that Netflix ordered a 13 episode series in December of 2011. The novel was released in March of 2012. A debut novel was already optioned for television before the book was in stores. I could only interpret this to mean that we were about to see one of the best things to happen to horror television or it was going to be a real shit show. Basically, the fictional town of Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania is under the thumb of the Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Technologies. The Godfrey family is ruled with a black heart by Olivia (Famke Janseen); a woman who cares only for herself, she pays little to no attention to her daughter Shelly, a deformed and mute giant, and she expects far too much from her son Roman (Bill Skarsgard). Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), a roma boy, has just arrived in town amidst rumors of being a werewolf and we also have a Human Centipede-level crazy scientist, Dr. Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) who happens to have super strength. There are a ton more characters, but it's much easier to focus on the core group because they are confusing enough as it is.
Having read the novel, I was cautious, but still scheduled a weekend of binge watching. Most series' start out a bit wobbly, but if you really want to give a show a chance, I believe you need to watch at least three episodes. So, while not immediately captivated, I was all in after Peter's werewolf transformation scene. I remain unapologetically in love with this transformation. The mix of practical and CGI effects were spot on and the overall tone was a perfect balance of horror and awe. Eating the skin?! I fucking loved that detail.
Every time it seemed that the show was finding it's groove, it would stumble and try to gather itself up again which just led to even more confusion. Skarsgard, Liboiron and Janssen are ridiculously beautiful human beings and they all have that certain "something" that keeps you interested, but this is not enough to save an entire television series. If I were to be really honest with myself, I don't know that I would have continued watching the series if I didn't have a crush on these three actors. However, there was also a certain level of, "how much more wacky and unbelievable can this story get?" that kept me coming back.
Watching Roman and Peter's friendship develop was mostly awesome; just forget that little tidbit about Roman raping his cousin Letha, who also happens to be Peter's girlfriend. Because Letha was under the mental control of Roman when this occurred, Letha believes that she is pregnant with an angel from heaven and this isn't even the craziest thing that happened in the first season.
A lot of the background and explanations of various events that occurred in the first season were murky at best. Hemlock Grove requires and expects you to understand everything that they throw your way regardless of whether or not it makes any sense. At all. It seems a lot of this can be blamed on the obvious influence of David Lynch, or more specifically, Twin Peaks. There is an entire episode in the first season that is the equivalent of watching a film student's love letter to Mr. Lynch and it's not pretty. My logic told me to quit the show after this, but I just couldn't. I simply had to know where all of this was going.
It was all going......nowhere interesting. Season one ended with the death of Letha, the presumed death of Shelly, the exile of Peter, the birth of Roman's child and an extremely volatile fight between Roman and Olivia. Hemlock Grove's first season is a cray-cray display of confusing story telling, blundered opportunities, some inventive visuals and some exceptionally beautiful people and I still can't decide if I love it or hate it. Despite the mostly negative critical response and very mixed reaction from fans, Netflix announced that a second season was imminent.
Really? I have to subject myself to this for another full season?
Going into season two, the new show runner, Charles "Chick" Eglee was very candid and more than willing to address the major complaints surrounding the first season and promised to improve upon what was already a great bone structure. His enthusiasm was palpable so, again, I was optimistic. Indeed, the second season was an overall improvement but it still suffered from an inability to keep so many wackadoo story lines coherent and, at times, even remotely engaging.
It took far too long for Roman and Peter to be reunited, a new character (Miranda) was introduced, for what seemed to be the sole purpose of being annoying, Olivia's diabolical power was neutered, Shelly had some sort of bizarro Hodor/Bran story going on and Peter's mom was arrested for stealing circus animals. Oh yeah, and there was a strange cult killing children that Peter and Roman were psychically linked to.
This second season was much more comfortable in it's skin and it wore it's campiness as a badge of honor. With some really stunning sets, interesting lighting choices and a more direct narrative, this season was so much more palatable on so many levels. Not to be outdone by it's predecessor, this season also presented us with another visually beautiful transformation scene. Watching Peter's human hand come out of his lycan mouth and touch that drug dealer on the face was brilliant. Later in the season, we were treated to another epic werewolf moment that transpired between Peter and Roman; it would be impolite to ruin it, so I will leave it at that.
Miranda (Madeline Brewer) was an extremely polarizing character. Basically, she was a random girl who started living with Roman, hooking up with Peter and nursing Roman's secret baby. The enigmatic Dr. Spivak (J.C. MacKenzie), who couldn't have been a more obvious homage to David Lynch's character in Twin Peaks, claimed to be helping her, but was actually some sort of creature from V who turned into a gargoyle and flew off with the demon baby. Yeah, something like that.
The child killing cult story was wrapped up using some of the best detective work this side of Baker St. When the assumed hostage requested a pop from Roman and Peter, Peter knew she was lying about being from California. Yes, on the west coast, we call it soda; not pop. This moment was so unintentionally hilarious that I watched it a few times.
To describe the shenanigans that were going on at the white tower under the direction of Dr. Pryce is far too monumental of a task; just know that Dr. Pryce and Dr. Heiter were probably great school chums and I would give my left pinky toe to attend a dinner party with the two of them.
The second season of Hemlock Grove was definitely a huge improvement, but that's a lot like putting lipstick on a pig, isn't it? I know that there is a fiercely devoted fan base for Hemlock Grove, but I just can't fully understand why. My own personal need to watch any and all things campy and train-wreck level-awful is what kept me glued to the television, but that's not really a positive statement or any kind of glowing recommendation, is it? To sum up my feelings for Hemlock Grove I will quote a Real Housewife. "It may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it's pretty."