Hemlock Grove – Season 2

The first season of Hemlock Grove was a singularly bizarre experience. A mish-mash of contemporary horror tropes (vampires and werewolf team ups, vague supernatural murder mystery plot, teen angst with monster mayhem), it seemed determined to shy away from predictability. While this sort of thing should be lauded, it also meant that it seemed, at times, almost wilfully unengaging. Established names Famke Janssen and Dougray Scott didn’t seem to wake up until halfway through, while the excellent Lili Taylor was mostly wasted in a thankless role. The leads veered between oddly engaging and pretty dreadful, and the storyline was a witches’ brew of horror and sci-fi that never properly gelled.

At the conclusion of season one, friendly werewolf Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) had left town with his mother after the death (during childbirth) of his girlfriend Letha. The father of the baby was revealed to be her cousin Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), heir to the Godfrey fortune. Somewhat miffed at being manipulated by his wicked mother Olivia (Famke Janssen), Roman slit his wrists. This was, however, yet more manipulation on the part of his mother, as his suicide was required to allow him to fully transform into a vampire like her. Yet more miffed, Roman refused to eat his baby and instead took a bite out of Olivia. Roman’s deformed, resurrected sister Shelley went on the run, blamed for a series of brutal murders. Meanwhile, someone or something awoke at the heart of the Godfrey institute, where all manner of odd experiments are being conducted by the creepy Dr Pryce (Joel de la Fuente).

Pause for breath. Now we’re back in town for more supernatural shenanigans.

Six months have passed and Olivia is recovering from Roman’s attack, Roman has taken charge of the Godfrey Institute, Olivia’s lover and brother-in-law Norman (Dougray Scott) is dealing with the loss of his daughter and Peter is dragged back to town when his mother is arrested. Everybody faces up to their own dark side, while at the same time a gang of masked killers are out slaughtering families for some reason or other.

The problem with Hemlock Grove is that it wants to be a 21st century Dark Shadows. We have the titular town standing in for Collinsport, albeit a Collinsport shattered by the economic downturn. We have the Godfrey family replacing the Collins clan, hated around town both for their business practices and the fact they seem to be in league with the devil. Finally we have the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the fantastical elements, and the same curious response from those involved (the townspeople of Hemlock Grove are every bit as clueless as those of Collinsport – how much proof do you need before you declare the town hellbound and run for the hills?). What Hemlock Grove lacks, however, is the focus that Dark Shadows has. While that old show eventually collapsed into a mess of camp, at the start it played everything absolutely straight, which made it work even when it shouldn’t have done. With Hemlock Grove you always feel that some tongues are somehow in cheeks, while others are not. There is a lack of overall vision which makes it a very bumpy ride.

There are high points in this second season – a tremendously beautiful gory fantasy sequence manages to outdo even the best of season one’s dreamscape moments, while an unexpected bit of karaoke is oddly touching. The awkward aftermath of a threesome is hilariously awkward, and the werewolf transformation effects are lovely. Acting-wise, Tiio Horn as Peter’s auger cousin Destiny continues to be the best thing about the show. Lili Taylor gets written out with little fanfare (though the family prison truck bust is great fun), while Famke Janssen and Scott once again snooze their way through the first half of the season. To say that they phone in their performances would be unfair, but there is definitely an odd distance there. Skyping in? The plot mechanics do not help them, as the showrunners hurl ideas at the walls until something sticks. Skarsgård and Liboiron do well enough, joined by a nicely spirited Madeline Brewer as Miranda, a character whose importance only really starts to become clear at the end. It’s nice to see Roman and Peter finally becoming something approaching the bad-ass monster fighting duo we want them to be, and the showrunners seem to have got better at working out how to make a storyline work (though occasionally you still might find yourself wondering whether you skipped an episode by mistake). Unfortunately all the good work they put in rather gets undone by the what-the-fuckery of the conclusion, a stroke of madness completely undermined by naff special effects.

We should perhaps applaud the fact that series such as this can now exist, thanks to Netflix; whereas on a network they would be cancelled within a week or two, now they at least have a chance to develop. Sadly Hemlock Grove has not yet blossomed into anything particularly special, but it still has one season left to go and three, they do say, is a magic number.

Hemlock Grove Season 2 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.


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