With the third season of “Stranger Things” set to premiere on July 4, it won’t be long now before the smash-hit series returns to give fans another strong dose of 1980s-style sci-fi horror. But, in the meantime, those missing the show can still get plenty of monsters and mysteries — albeit of the more gothic variety — with another scary Netflix Original, “Hemlock Grove.”
Not unlike “Stranger Things,” the events of “Hemlock Grove” take place in a small, outwardly innocent American town where otherworldly forces appear to be at work. There are strange things happening in Hemlock Grove, from sinister experiments taking place underneath the Godfrey Tower to the gruesome murders of innocent young women, apparently by some kind of wild animal.
There is a new kid in town, Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), who is rumored to be a werewolf. But that might just be prejudice talking considering the Rumanceks’ Romanian origins make them prime targets for derision by the town’s excessively xenophobic residents. Unfortunately, Peter’s status as a “gypsy” also makes him a prime suspect in the murders.
While Peter seems to be a mostly good person, regardless of the fear and growing suspicion that follows him, the wealthy and enigmatic Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) is another story entirely.
Despite being popular among his peers, there is something a bit off about Roman. Why, for example, is he so interested in the image of a serpent devouring its tail, to the point where he is compelled to draw it on the women he sleeps with in his own blood? And how is it he can make people do what he asks just by looking them in the eyes?
Roman is not the only member of the Godfrey family who seems to be hiding something. His mother Olivia (Famke Janssen) is as secretive as she is arrogant, and his abnormally large sister Shelley (Nicole Boivin) always keeps her face and hands covered, shying away from onlookers.
The only normal Godfreys seem to be Roman’s uncle Norman (Dougray Scott), a psychiatrist, along with Norman’s wife Marie (Laurie Fortier) and daughter, Letha (Penelope Mitchell). While the family seems to be the most normal of the Godfreys, Letha begins to claim that an angel impregnated her. Norman worries something worse has happened, and his daughter is repressing some terrible trauma.
Despite all of the weird things going on in the town of Hemlock Grove, the recent murders are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, particularly Dr. Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure), who has arrived in town to investigate the animalistic killings. Interestingly, while the local authorities dismiss the werewolf rumors as nonsense, she seems to take them seriously and Peter Rumancek has caught her eye.
Worried by the significance of the killings and wishing to clear his name, Peter begins his own investigation. He receives unexpected help from Roman, who claims he wants to prevent his cousin Letha from becoming the beast’s next victim.
As the young men continue in their search for answers, they soon find that they share similar dreams, including of the Ouroboros, the symbol that has been haunting Roman. While neither boy is certain he can trust the other, both realize their destinies must be intertwined.
Willingly or not, Roman and Peter are bound together by fate, yet what will become of them, in the end, is uncertain at best — at worst, horrifyingly ominous.
‘Hemlock Grove’ tells a much darker story than ‘Stranger Things,’ one where there is not as much cheer or optimism to balance the more grim and disturbing elements. The titular town is a place where prejudice runs deep, where urban legends take on terrifyingly real life and where corruption reaches even the most innocent of people.
If Hawkins, Indiana is for a representation of the lighter, sunnier aspects of small-town America, then Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania illustrates the more shadowy facets, from the elite scheming behind the scenes to the average citizen eyeing strangers with fear and disgust.
Not surprisingly, “Hemlock Grove” borrows quite a bit from gothic literature, although it manages to update the material in a tasteful fashion.
Shelley Godfrey, for instance, aside from sharing the name of the author of “Frankenstein,” is obviously inspired by the monster from Mary Shelley’s famous gothic work. Like the creature, Shelley is intelligent and eloquent but is tragically rejected by others because of her deformities.
The show draws a fascinating parallel between the struggles of a teenage outsider and Frankenstein’s melancholic monster, whose haunting lamentations Shelley echoes through her own erudite, romantic prose.
The Godfreys as a whole seem to embody the classic gothic trope of the powerful family that has fallen into decline. Olivia’s husband committed suicide over a decade ago and, between Roman’s growing frustration with his mother and Shelley’s personal struggles with her condition, the family appears to be gradually falling apart.
Much like the infamous families of gothic literature, such as the Ushers or the Pyncheons, the mistakes of the past are keenly felt by the Godfreys in the present, leaving whatever future they have dubious at best.
Even though darkness lays thickly over Hemlock Grove, there is still light to be found. Peter, for all his cynicism, genuinely cares about those closest to him, even the strange and irreverent Roman. Conversely, while Roman remains somewhat morally ambiguous, he shows love towards Shelley and Letha as well as kindness and respect for Peter.
Furthermore, Shelley and Letha both manage to shine on their own, whether by providing emotional support to the troubled Norman or friendship to outsider Peter. Really, there are many examples to be found of people finding comfort in one another in the dreary Hemlock Grove, whether it be the sheriff with his twin daughters or Peter with his mother, Lynda (Lili Taylor).
It makes sense for this light to exist. Without it, there would be nothing for the shadows that stalk the town to threaten, which is where the greatest horror in the show comes from. Like ‘Stranger Things,’ the characters of “Hemlock Grove” all have something or someone dear to them that they must protect, even if they are forced to pay a terrible price.
And for Peter and Roman, the price to save those they love will be high indeed.