Streaming review: Eye-popping effects, solid mystery make for entertaining 'Hemlock Grove'

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Early in Netflix's new original series, "Hemlock Grove," aspiring young writer Christina asks a scruffy newcomer if he's a werewolf.

"Now we know who your literary influences are," replies an amused Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron). "Are you going to find me a vampire to have a sexless three-way with?"

Anyone expecting sparkling vamps or loyal, lovesick weres had better change the channel, quickly. Based on Pittsburgh native Brian McGreevy's goth horror novel of the same name, "Hemlock Grove" is a twisting, gruesome, often darkly funny journey.

Werewolf transformation in 'Hemlock Grove'

In this promo for the new Netflix series "Hemlock Grove," a man is transformed into a werewolf. Viewer discretion is advised. (4/14/2013)

All 13 episodes of this absorbing murder mystery series are available to stream Friday.

The fictional Hemlock Grove was inspired by Mr. McGreevy's childhood recollection of the Mon Valley. The screen version becomes a little corner of Western Pennsylvania that's probably a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Unless, perhaps, you're a member of the Godfrey clan. The Godfreys are steel barons whose fortunes were reinvented through health care and biotech investments. Heir to the fortune is Roman (Bill Skarsgard), dispassionately marking time through high school: a few of his idylls include playing sick little sex games and snorting coke while soaking in a claw-foot tub.

His mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen, of the weird Continental accent, yet looking fabulous in a dizzying array of white outfits) exudes an air of preternatural superiority. A younger sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin), is sweet-natured and literally bright. She also is a walking, hulking affirmation that teen years can be hell for a sensitive soul.

Uncle Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott) is a father figure most grounded in reality. Norman is nonetheless distracted by a long-time affair with Olivia, not to mention the plight of daughter Letha (Penelope Mitchell), who insists she's been "touched" by an angel.

"Hemlock Grove" was developed for Gaumont International TV by Mr. McGreevy and Lee Shipman, adapted faithfully (at least in the first three hours available for review) from the author's densely written tale of brutal killings, family secrets, transformations and betrayals. Eli Roth of "Hostel" fame serves as producer and directed the pilot.

Coming from a rather complex, high-brow literary source, it's surprisingly accessible. Fans of the supernatural will be sated by the mythology, and one of the book's -- and series' -- smart choices is showing just how ordinary the extraordinary can be sometimes. Both Peter and Roman have loving mothers who worry, as mothers are wont to do, about their children's places in the world.

"So. Meeting a friend of Peter's," says Lynda (Lili Taylor) when introduced to Roman. "First time for everything."

Viewers craving a "Rich Man, Poor Man" tale of small town "haves versus have-nots" will enjoy Olivia's lack of self-awareness -- or is it simply disdain?

For horror enthusiasts, there are special effects that can only be described as "eye-popping," courtesy of Pittsburgh native Greg Nicotero's KNB Efx Group. A werewolf transformation video has been making the rounds online, and it's not for the weak of stomach.

There also are depictions of sex -- Roman favors liaisons in public places -- that alone earn this the equivalent of an "R" rating.

And of course, "Hemlock Grove" is at its core a mystery. It begins when cheerleader Brooke Bluebell is found eviscerated on an isolated playground. By the turn of the next full moon, poor Brooke won't be the only victim.

Naturally, all eyes are on Peter, a newcomer rumored around school to be a werewolf. He and Lynda live in a trailer in the woods, bequeathed to them after the death of Uncle Vince, who had a less-than-stellar reputation among the townsfolk.

The epithet "white trash" gets tossed around a bit, but Peter embraces his Gypsy heritage. He recognizes a strange, kindred spirit in Roman, himself an oddity who seems unaware he might be what Peter's people call "upir."

As played by Mr. Skarsgard with a sense of droll entitlement, Roman comes off more as fraternity bro than otherworldly bloodsucker. This unlikely friendship of outsiders works, and soon they are working to find the killer.

The theme of people being more than they appear is strong in "Hemlock Grove." Olivia's strange origins are brought up in a beautifully shot flashback involving her late husband, J.R. Godfrey. He refers to her as "evil," and later, in great distress, asks "What are you?"

It's the plea of a man who has lost everything. She in turn mocks him and throws one last triumphant barb in his face.

Netflix hit it out of the park with its first original series, "House of Cards," a critical and -- at least by Internet guesstimate -- ratings success. A story in London's "Telegraph" reported third-party traffic monitoring firm Procera Networks figures at least 11 percent of Netflix's roughly 25 million U.S. subscribers viewed at least one episode, and that one half of one percent of them made it to the final episode by the following day.

Like "House of Cards," "Hemlock Grove" trusts viewers will devour the series in wolf-sized bites. Given the show's ambitious reach, as well as its promise to weave myriad plot points, its success might depend on it.

tvradio

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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