Do you like werewolves and also body horror? Are you into sulky Skarsgårds? Do you enjoy shows with well-developed characters of color and disabled characters? Have you always been somewhat convinced that Southwest Pennsylvania is just an inherently creepy place? If so, then I have a show for you! Check out Hemlock Grove, a Netflix original series. Follow me as I introduce and discuss the first season of this macabre masterpiece; I’ll try to keep major plot spoilers to a minimum, but some are inevitable. Minor spoilers and a trigger warning for an ethnic slur after the jump.
The fact is, plot may be the backbone to this show, but it often seems to take a backseat to setting and character study. As such, the plot itself is really rather straightforward: Peter Rumancek, a high schooler of Romani descent, moves to the small town of Hemlock Grove right around the same time a series of brutal, animalistic murders are taking place. Naturally, suspicion from the narrow-minded townsfolk falls on the “Gypsy”, including rumors that he is a werewolf! Well, turns out, he is a werewolf, but he’s not the one what’s been slaughtering girls. With vested interested in proving his innocence, Peter begins to investigate to find the real killer, with the help of his new friend, Roman Godfrey. That’s it in a nutshell. This hunt for the killer smolders its way through all thirteen episodes of the first season; there are a few tangential subplots that weave around as well, but it all mostly comes back to the hunt.
As for the setting: you know those books referred to as Southern Gothic? I would definitely classify Hemlock Grove as Pennsylvania Gothic, maybe even Southwest Pennsylvania (SW PA) Gothic to be more specific. The show thrives on creating an unsettling atmosphere that emphasizes the macabre and the grotesque, with heavy elements of the supernatural and magic realism, all with a distinctly SW PA flavor. As someone who has lived in suburban/small-town SW PA for nearly nine years now, I can attest that the show captures the eeriness of the area perfectly (even if it is filmed in Canada). I think a key element of SW PA Gothic is the sense of disrepair: this sense of former glory days contrasting with present-day dereliction informs the aesthetic of the show. The fictional town featured in the show used to have a booming economy due to the local steel mill, which has since been shut down, taking the money with it. Not only does this express the reality of so many small towns in the Greater Pittsburgh area, it also mirrors the rise and fall of the Godfrey family on the show. Also, we have really creepy woods and backroads here, and they managed to find some places that look just like it for the show.
Now on to the characters. Peter Rumancek is our main protagonist and more or less the audience surrogate. We see the town of Hemlock Grove mostly through his eyes as an outsider. Being a werewolf doesn’t get in the way of him being an audience surrogate; his lycanthropy at time feels like an incidental point, and more often than not, he just comes across as an average high school loner. In fact, sometimes too average. Okay, he can be kind of boring. Luckily there’s no shortage of shenanigans while investigating a murder spree with his new BFF, the mysterious and gloomy Roman Godfrey. (Fun fact: Roman is played by Bill Skarsgård, brother of Alexander Skarsgård, better known to horror fans as Eric from True Blood!) Roman is a spoiled rich kid with no real friends except his sister and cousin, but he forges an unlikely connection to Peter, who is from the “wrong side of the tracks”. Roman is also unknowingly a vampire (or “upir” as Peter casually mentions to his own mother); something not explored too much, but heavily hinted at with Roman’s penchant for bloodplay in his sex life as well as his power of compulsion.
But have faith, cishet white (well, white and mixed Romani—I think Peter says he is half-Italian at one point) guys in their no-homo bromance are not the whole show! There are surprisingly well-developed diverse characters on the show that I found to generally be much more interesting than our main duo. First we have Dr. Johann Pryce, played by Joel de la Fuente, an American actor of Filipino descent. Dr. Pryce is the resident mad scientist at the Godfrey Biomedical Institute. In addition to being employed by the Godfreys, he is privy to, not to mention involved in, their deepest, darkest secrets, which gives him unique leverage to keep some secrets of his own, including the mysterious experiment he’s running called “Ouroboros”. I also found him to be a fascinating character free of most stereotypes; though some might say “scientist” is a stereotyped career for an Asian character, Dr. Pryce was not all lab coats and pushing glasses up the bridge of his nose. Also, in stark contrast to stereotypes of scientist characters and/or (non-kung fu) Asian male characters being weaker than others, Pryce is not just physically strong: he’s superhumanly strong, thanks to a physiological malfunction that gives him adrenaline-charged muscles at all times.
Next we have Dr. Clementine Chasseur. Don’t let her darling first name or petite frame fool you: Dr. Chasseur is part of a shadowy organization of werewolf hunters, called in to investigate the killings in Hemlock Grove. She’s also Black, queer, a former Marine, currently part of the Fish & Wildlife Services; she’s definitely one of the most developed and complex of any of the characters on the show. We know she has strong family ties (not to mention some family drama) when we are shown her brother as well as a father figure from her werewolf hunting secret society, and we even see a poignant flashback to how she got into the society in the first place, giving us further insight into her character. Chasseur is portrayed by Kandyse McClure, whom genre fans might know from Battlestar Galactica; while I haven’t seen that show, I can tell you she does a phenomenal job in her role on Hemlock Grove.
Possibly the most impressive characters of all is Shelley, Roman’s sister. We are introduced to Shelley first as a shape, a massive, hulking figure some six or seven feet tall. It is revealed that she wears her hair the way she does to hide the disfigured side of her face, which we see more of as the season wears on. In addition, Shelley cannot speak, and her hands are heavily bandaged, making sign language impossible. It is not clear if she was born this way, or something transpired shortly after her birth; Dr. Pryce is her personal physician, so it is implied that some of his mad science may be involved. I was extremely worried that, given the show’s love for the gratuitous grotesque, Shelley was going to be more a prop than a character, something to set the mood for the show. But she is so much more than that. Shelley’s main mode of communication is the smartphone-like tablet she wears around her neck and she types out her words with a stylus; through her dialogue, she shows a kind and sweet disposition and even a little bit of wry humor.
The character’s depth is even further shown in the lengthy e-mails she sends her uncle, Norman Godfrey. Read through voice-overs, they let us see just how eloquent she is and what a brilliant mind she has. The show also does not divorce her from the very real prejudices and ignorance of the people around her; the students at school are afraid of and mean to her, and once she frightens a group of small children at a library just by walking by. At the same time, we do get to see Shelley build up a friendship with a local girl who actually treats her as a person and equal, neither fearing her nor acting out of pity. “The one who looks least human is revealed to be the most humane on the inside” sums up one aspect of the role characters like Shelley play in horror fiction, but I don’t think the character was necessarily cliché. The nuanced performance (by actress Nicole Boivin and various body doubles) was one of the most captivating parts of the whole show.
Does Hemlock Grove do everything right? Unfortunately, no. Roman’s cousin Letha is a pretty young blonde thing whose main purpose is to drive a wedge between the Peter-Roman bromance, and she also has to suffer through a mystical pregnancy subplot. Sorry, Letha. Due to his all-consuming drive for science, Dr. Pryce is still portrayed as more sexless than the other characters, which is unfortunately a trope associated with male Asian characters. I honestly do not know the current state of Romani culture in the U.S. well enough to say whether Peter and his family constitute a good or bad portrayal overall; they are nomadic, speak a few phrases here and there in the Romani language, and are looked down on as “Gypsies”. His cousin, in fact, works out of her house as a psychic—this does seem like an instance of Romani stereotypes, but it’s also a somewhat common occurrence here in Southwest Pennsylvania in general. I haven’t read any responses, positive or negative, from the Romani community about the show, but I intend to research that (possibly for another post)!
Despite these and various other more minor flaws (such as Famke Janssen’s attempted British accent, which was so bad it often distracted from an otherwise good performance as Roman’s mysterious, domineering, and sinister mother), I highly recommend this show. A word of caution: this is not a show for the very squeamish, as it is heavy on the gore and gruesome. I like to think of myself as a moderately big horror fan, and I once said that Hemlock Grove has levels of horror presentation that, in my opinion, rival Hannibal and American Horror Story. Also, I have not seen Season 2 yet, so I can’t speak for developments there.
Have you already seen at least the first season of the show? Let me know what you think in the comments below. If you haven’t seen it yet, but this post has inspired you to, please stop back with your thoughts and comments during or after watching it!