Hulu’s “Helstrom” might sport an elaborate mythology, but like many comic book stories, it ultimately reveals a simplistic core. Loosely based on Marvel comics characters, “Helstrom” follows Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana (Sydney Lemmon) Helstrom, two adult siblings with psychic powers and an intimate connection with the demon world. Both use their gift in different ways: Daimon teaches ethics by day and performs secular exorcisms by night, while Ana runs an auction house and kills violent offenders who slip through society’s cracks. They’re reunited when the demon that has possessed their institutionalized mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel), revives the Helstrom’s long-dead serial killer father who wishes to exact his revenge. On top of this, they have to deal with the numerous demons already roaming the Earth, plotting to wreak havoc at all times.
If you’ve ever seen “The Exorcist” or any other exorcism-related films and TV, then you’ll be familiar with most of clichés present in “Helstrom.” The series tries to get ahead of this in Daimon’s introductory scene, when he encounters a child faking his demon possession and lists the litany of tropes that the show presumably won’t be indulging. Nevertheless, Daimon and Ana’s powers, not to mention Elizabeth Marvel’s demonic performance, all fall neatly in line with genre expectations. Characters are often thrown against walls and ceilings by the possessed, and the show’s many demons speak in that recognizable scary baritone voice. Creator and showrunner Paul Zbyszewski turns his focus to the supernatural instead of religion, and he grounds the show in broad issues of childhood trauma, but he gives up the game whenever Daimon puts his magic hand on anyone. He might as well scream, “The power of Marvel compels you!”
Speaking of, “Helstrom” represents the last gasp of Marvel’s TV slate after President Kevin Feige folded Marvel Television into Marvel Studios and phased out the company’s television productions all together. Subsequently, Disney has tried to distance “Helstrom” and its dark tone from the rest of the Marvel name, mostly by removing the word “Marvel” from the title. But while the series features more blood and jump scares than the typical Marvel affair, “Helstrom” has the mark of the omnipresent studio almost from the beginning. Everything from the Joss Whedon-esque quippy dialogue, frequently delivered with one-note sarcasm, to the stodgy effects and fight scenes will be familiar to anyone who has dipped their toes into the MCU. A horror series in name and appearance only, “Helstrom” remains a lame-duck brand property to the core.
It’s a shame if only because “Helstrom” features enough elements to at least be derivative in a different direction. Maybe it’s because the series was filmed in Vancouver, or because Ariana Guerra plays a skeptical Vatican agent in the vein of Dana Scully, but there’s a slight “X-Files” bent to “Helstrom” that suggests a more compelling, procedural version of the show. Instead, the five episodes screened for critics confirm that “Helstrom” is a punishingly on-task origin story that slowly teases out details of Daimon and Ana’s psychological trauma, with almost every scene between and about them connecting back to this theme. On top of that, the writers have to service a seven-person main cast, which includes Caretaker (Robert Wisdom), an occult guardian; Louise Hastings (June Carryl), the head of the psychiatric hospital that house Victoria; and Chris (Alain Uy), Ana’s auction house partner-in-crime. It takes four episodes for most of these characters to team up, but in that time, they have yet to take on distinct identities.
It’s possible the protracted table-setting and myriad subplots will eventually pay off when “Helstrom” ties the threads together. However, even if that’s the case, the actual experience of watching those threads in action remains programmatic and dull, especially for a show that involves demon warriors. “Helstrom” attempts to engage with issues like chronic PTSD and unresolved mental illness, but it can only communicate these mature motivations through its self-serious tone, rarely allowing any of its ideas breathe. It constantly goes through the motions of an “elevated horror” series without at least offering any decent scares or cool monsters. “Helstrom” might be airing in time for the Halloween season, but it’s too tedious to raise anyone’s heart rate.
All ten episodes of “Helstrom” premiere October 16 on Hulu.
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