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TV Series Review: “Hemlock Grove”

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Hemlock Grove is the much-anticipated, Netflix-exclusive

Hemlock Grove wolf hand

Do I have something stuck in my teeth?

series that focuses on the most painful transformation that a person can go through in their lives.

You guessed it, that would be high school.

You thought I was gonna say changing into a werewolf, didn’t ya?

Well, you’d be right in thinking that, since Hemlock Grove– a thirteen-episode bingefest – is based on a gothic horror novel by author Brian McGreevy, which pits good versus evil, joins pseudo-vampires and gypsy werewolves together as a supernatural detective service, and depicts the class struggle of  Pennsylvania steel ghost towns.

However, there is just as much of a focus on teenage angst, adolescent love, incessant bullying, and maternal/paternal issues, that (dare I say), it is almost too “Twilight”-y for the hardcore horror fan that they were primarily trying to rope in with this series. But, the monsters and the gore and the overall creepiness more than makes up for the soap opera moments that occur quite a bit more than I would have liked.

I’m not saying that at any given moment I expected Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart to grace my screen, but it did cross my mind – during the first few episodes – that I might not be able to finish the eleven-plus hours of story line that the series spewed forth.

Did I mention there was monsters and gore, yet?

As a fan of the genre, there were enough gross-out moments to keep me coming back for more. Some of the early standouts include a cringe-worthy werewolf transformation scene – complete with bloody eyeballs dripping out of eye sockets and a transformed werewolf gobbling up a pile of steaming skin that fell off during the process of changing – as well as the opening creature attack, in which a high school cheerleader gets her “lady parts” eaten while hiding in a playground “mini-house.”

Hemlock Grove creates a sense of balance for viewers because it falls somewhere near the center of the tween-romance readers and the blood-and-guts set, without pissing off either opinionated group of fanatical fans. Starting towards the end of Episode Two, the mystery that dwells within the series will wrap around the viewers’ psyches and won’t let go; like a snake eating its own tail. The Executive Producers – “torture-porn” pioneer Eli Roth (who also directed Episode One), along with author McGreevy himself – have created a well-structured, modern day fairy tale: one with such familiar faces as the valiant knight, the ferocious “dragon,” the wicked stepmother, the lowly pauper and his princess, the spoiled heir to the throne, the court magician, and (last, but not least) the misunderstood giant.

These are all represented by the characters that dwell within the

werewolf transforms in Hemlock Grove

Oh man, skin cream will NOT fix it this time.

fictional town of Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania. However, this is not your average, run-of-the-steel mill neighborhood. The town is shadowed, both literally and figuratively, by the legacy of the Godfrey family. It seems that the Godfrey clan has been running this little town for as long as it was…well…a little town, period. The Godfrey Steel Mill used to be the primary source of income for the bustling industrial center, but that was some time ago. The mill has long been closed and abandoned and now a new Godfrey endeavor hovers over the town like a bad omen.

The townsfolk have nicknamed it “The White Tower,” but in actuality it is not a tower at all. It‘s a giant skyscraper that houses experiments of the biotechnological variety – and anybody who knows the state, knows that every small town in PA has a twenty-story building within it – just like every town conducts biological experiments, duh.

Ridiculousness aside, the Godfreys, pretty much, own the town and that’s the way they like it. The family dynamic consists of Olivia Godfrey (played with a “now you see me, now you don’t” British accent by Famke Janssen), an overtly horrible human being who gets her kicks from making everybody’s day as cloudy as she can damn well make it. This, of course, includes causing as much misery for both of her children as she possibly can. She is pure evil, plain and simple. What kind of evil? Well, that’s the million dollar query that drives “Hemlock Grove” to the very last minute of the very last episode.

As far as the children go, first, we have the teenage, silver spoon-

Godfrey family portrait

The cast of Silver Spoons…I mean, Hemlock Grove.

sucking Roman (smugly and slyly played by Bill Skarsgard), who drives around in a red sports car – picking up chicks, smoking more cigarettes than Robert De Niro did in “Casino,”  and insulting the locals. Did I mention that he pokes at his skin with razors during sex and can make other people do his bidding just by staring into their eyes for a long enough time? No? Well, he can. It’s not exactly normal high school behavior, but he’s a Godfrey, so no one questions it.

His sister Shelley… ummm… not so normal either. See, Shelley (played by a FX-laden hybrid of young newcomer Nicole Boivin as the “face” of Shelley and the “World’s Tallest Model” Amazon Eve as the rest of Shelley – which is pretty cool in my book) is around seven-feet-tall, has broader shoulders than The Rock, and has feet that are bigger than Shaq does – and that’s not the weirdest part. She hides half of her face behind her hair (which is a wig, by the way), because half of her face looks like a cross between a lemur and Sloth from “The Goonies.” Oh, and her nickname happens to be “Glowworm,” for the way her face glows-blue when she blushes.

Where’s the father, you ask? Well, you’ll just have top watch the show to find out.

On the other side of the creek, literally, we have the Rumancek family – Peter (played by Canadian “eh”-lister – sorry -Landon Liboiron) and Lynda (a criminally misused Lili Taylor – she’s in every episode, but is only listed as a “guest star” in each one, for pete’s sake!). The writers of the show really want you to never forget that they are gypsies by nature, since the word “gypsy” is used more than any other word except the word “Vargulf” – which I will explain the origin of later. They have moved into a small trailer on the edge of the Godfrey property line and it seems that they have a few secrets that they’ve brought with them in the process.

Peter is a hairy teenage boy (although, I really didn’t see all that much hair on him, I mean he’s no Steve Carell, that’s for sure) who is mysterious and empathetic. Apparently, the girls are noticing this about him and he attracts the attention of young weirdo Christina Wendall (played by an annoying Freya Tingley) who stares at him while he sleeps in his hammock. This attraction turns out to be detrimental for Peter, as she starts a rumor at school that Gypsy Pete (I made that name up, sorry) is a werewolf – because his index and middle fingers are the same length. Maybe she should be a writer – or at least an investigative journalist – because Peter is a werewolf, after all.

Quick Side Note: Peter is the one that changes to a wolf in Episode 2. So make sure, even if you hate the first episode and don’t want to watch another second of the series, that you watch this particular scene. It is gross AND it is awesome!!!

There are so many characters in “Hemlock Grove,” I could write Part Two of the book just listing all of them. I’ll just speed through a few more of the more pivotal ones. There is Roman and Shelley’s uncle, Dr. Norman Godfrey (played with a wide emotional spectrum by Dougray Scott). There’s Uncle Norman’s daughter – not to mention Roman’s uncomfortably-close cousin Letha (confusingly played by Penelope Mitchell) – let’s just say it – this character was stunningly underdeveloped.  Then, there’s the enigmatic Fish and Game Warden, Dr. Clementine Chasseur (played with reckless abandon by “Battlestar Galactica” star Kandyse McClure) – that’s all I’m giving up regarding this character. There’s the out-of-his-depth Sheriff Sworn (also a “Battlestar” guy, himself, Aaron Douglas). There’s also the isolated mad scientist who works in “The White Tower” actually he’s got a little bit of Igor in him, as well – Dr. Johann Pryce (yet another M.D. – this one’s played by Joel de la Fuente. stop.) And last, but not at all least, my favorite character – the gypsy fortune teller/sex therapist/town hooker/cousin of Peter, Destiny Rumancek (played by Kanietiio Horn). The scene where she eats a nasty-ass worm that had been feeding on a jar of intestines, just to get some “answers” is awesome – awesome and gross.

The plot line, however, can get a little overwhelming at times. Yeah, I know it’s a long series and they need intersecting stories and character arcs to take up 50 minutes every week. That being said, there were certain times when I would be watching and a situation or character was mentioned and I literally had to rack my brain to remember who or what it was. The main artery in the main body of Hemlock Grove is Peter and Roman chasing after the Vargulf, though. See, I told you that word would come up again. It is a gypsy word for “rogue werewolf” and the amateur Hardy Boys are convinced that it’s doing all of the killing in the town, of which there is quite a bit of – mostly of the female variety. The rest of the storylines are interesting and mysterious, especially the secretive nature of Olivia and her motives, but the Vargulf plot keeps the show going. It just takes a minute or so, at times, to remember that there’s a Vargulf running around at all.

The most appealing thing about Hemlock Grove is not the characters, however. It’s not the eventually riveting narrative (give it at least until Episode Three, people) or its unique take on a played-out mythology. It’s not the “awesome and gross” gore of the transformation scene or the sometimes playful nature of the dialogue.

No, the best thing about Hemlock Grove is the fact that you can watch the whole series, all thirteen episodes of it, in one weekend – or one day – or one sitting, even.

Yes, Hemlock Grove is just what I said it was earlier – a bingefest. Just like “Band of Brothers” (the best bingefest of all-time) before it, I sat and watched this whole saga unfold in the span of a Saturday/Sunday, one-two punch – and it was glorious. The best part about it was that I didn’t have to wait a whole, agonizing week between episodes. Nope, I got to watch one-after-another-after-another-after-another.

However, after the final frame of the series was all said and done, even though the last couple of episodes tied most of the plot lines up sufficiently (and in some cases, spectacularly), I was still left wanting more.

Well, maybe that had something to do with the way they chose to conclude it, but if I told you what the ending actually was, it would simply be too much spoiling for one man to partake in.

You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.  That is, as long as you belong to Netflix. But these days, a household without Netflix is like a town in Pennsylvania without werewolves, gypsies, and biological tampering, right?

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  • Gini Jones

    Hey, Shawn,

    Loved your review. Your mom told me about your reviews and sent me the link last night. You’re a talented writer! I love your sense of humor.

    Best of luck in your new career!

    Gini Jones