Review: Hemlock Grove, Season 2

Hemlock Grove Promotional ImageWell. The ratio of anticipation to disappointment on this season was striking.

The first season of Hemlock Grove was original, unexpected, challenging, exciting, unpredictable, and provided a wide range of interesting female characters. This season  drew extensively on racial stereotypes, reduced the number of interesting female characters, and dramatically increased their representation as instrumental objects to serve others’ needs (especially reproductive needs). Lots of gratuitous female nudity – the plot even working to specifically enable as much of this as possible – and yet where there was male nudity it was downright chaste in comparison.

Colour me ‘Eh’ with shadings of ‘rather pissed off, actually’.

Plot (mild spoilers)

Following the events of last season, Peter (Landon Liboiron), Destiny (Tiio Horn), and Lynda (Lili Taylor) have rejoined their Roma family. We catch up with them at a wake, which is going down with a lot of drink, music, and (for Destiny) sex. The wake is disturbed by the FBI, who have finally caught up with Lynda’s years of racketeering. For legal reasons I did not exactly follow, this means that Peter and Destiny must return to Hemlock Grove to put together his mother’s defence.

Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), meanwhile, has been dealing with becoming an upir, trying to find ways of feeding without killing people, and running the family company. Oh, and raising his Demon Spawn – I mean ‘Lovely little girl with unnaturally blue eyes that no one – no one at all – ever comments upon’.

Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen) is not dead. She’s been in a coma and then recovering, with the sinister aid of Dr Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) and his new dodgy scientist side-kick, Dr Zheleznova-Burdukovskaya*, from dodgy Russia, with dodgy-but-nebulous war crimes hanging over her.

A young blonde woman, Miranda (Madeline Brewer – visually very similar to Lethe, Roman’s cousin, Peter’s girlfriend, whom Roman raped and impregnated with the Demon Spawn) is forced off the road near Roman’s house. She knocks on his door for help and he lets her phone for a tow-truck and stay with him until she’s ready to move on. Quelle suprise, the tow-truck company is the same one Peter has just got a job with.

Miranda begins a relationship with both Roman and Peter. As you do. What’s weirder is that Miranda starts spontaneously lactating, conveniently supplying nourishment for the Demon Spawn, and also affording the viewer many opportunities for close-ups on her breasts. Many. We did not need that many. We really got the picture from the milk-stains on her top. This whole thing was not subtle.

Meanwhile, Peter cons some drug dealers into thinking they are buying some magical drug, developed by the Roma people, by turning into a werewolf in front of them ‘on a bad moon’. This starts Peter off on a journey to become a vargulf (really uncool kind of werewolf that can change whenever he pleases but loses his humanity) which Destiny warns him about and he, you know, ignores her. Destiny is playing Cassandra this season.

He does this so that they can hire a lawyer for his mum, Lynda. For some reason, everyone refers to the lawyer as the ‘lady lawyer’, like this is 1950.

Meanwhile, Shelley Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and Madeleine Martin)is off in hiding, being kind of a badass and kind of really in trouble. Eventually, she returns to the fold, whereupon Dr Pryce explains about the naked blonde lady (again, very similar looking to Lethe) floating in a tank we’ve been seeing off and on throughout the season. He’d been ‘growing’ her to create the perfect human, but because he actually really does care for Shelley, he proposes copying Shelley’s brain patterns and putting them in the blonde girl, then killing Shelley’s old body, so that Shelley can live on in the ‘perfect’ body she’s always dreamed of. Which is just the bestest idea EVER.

Oh, and there are some dudes in masks who are killing families and Peter and Roman keep sharing dreams about them and that’s what brings them back into being best buddies again after the events of last season. That and a threesome with Miranda.

And Norman is still floating around, trying to work out his relationship to Olivia, and the fact that it’s really not healthy, and I wish I could care about this, because I like Norman, but it’s for that exact reason that I never bought the relationship in the first place.

Why I was displeased

OK, so let’s talk about the racism, first. Season 1 started off a little bit racist, what with Peter and family introduced as basically on the left side of the law, but that kind of dropped away as Peter went on to be awesome and basically the hero in the way that Roman really turned out not to be. I had mixed feelings about it, but in a way that was kind of ‘hopefully they will improve in the second season’. Why do I keep thinking things like this? Nobody knows.

We see a lot more Roma people, and they are framed as lazy, jobless, carefree people who party a lot and don’t work for a living. The issue of systematic racism is lampshaded when the ‘lady lawyer’ mentions that the FBI will be really going after Lynda by angling to paint the Roma people as a criminal organisation. Which could have been explored interestingly, except for the fact that, despite Peter’s protests, that’s basically how they are presented within the world of Hemlock Grove.

And then there’s the whole ‘evil scientist’ thing. Dr Pryce was already showing up for the sinister Asian and the scientist Asian stereotypes, but now we have Dr Incomprehesibly-long-double-barrelled-name which is not her only incomprehensibly long alias. And she’s an Evil Russian. Like she just walked out of a Cold War Bond movie. She even has what a friend once described (referring to a Movie Nazi) as ‘Evil Hair’ – coiffed and then held severely solid by God only knows what heinous kind of product.

As for women? We’ve lost Lethe and Clementine from the first season, and Lynda is spirited away quicker than you can say ‘The script writer didn’t have any use for this character anymore’. Norman’s wife, Maria, finds her way out of the story pretty quick** The ‘lady lawyer’ is in about two scenes, maybe three. Destiny gets more screen time, but I’m not sure she does a single thing that actually affects the plot. Her biggest scenes involve swallowing psychotropic magic poisons for Peter’s sake. The first one has a needlessly suggestive snake slithering up her nethers. The second involves three people holding her head under water until she drowns. Yup, the themes of sexual objectification and violence against women are strong this season.

Then there’s Miranda I-exist-to-spontaneously-lactate-and-sleep-with-the-leads Cates. Yes, lactation is creepy. Spontaneous lactation is creepier. It’s a horror show. I GET it. But you actually literally do get to choose what tropes you employ, and Miranda could be replaced by a sexy bag of baby formula, and that’s not in-world disturbing, that’s plain disturbing. On the plus side, it is Miranda who takes the lead in initiating the threesome, but if you had told me there was going to be a threesome involving Bill Skarsgård and Landon Liboiron in this season, I would have shown up with my popcorn and expected, well, more. We only see them sleeping afterwards. Given the amount of naked ladies in this season, and all those close-ups of Miranda’s boobs (lactating or otherwise), I was nonplussed***.

And if Miranda isn’t used instrumentally enough, there’s Prycilla, the girl Pryce has grown and whose brain he literally writes over for the sake of Shelley, and whom Dr Zheleznova-Burdukovskaya suggests to Olivia she might consume to overcome some of the difficulties she is facing. The girl exists to be used by others.

And speaking of Olivia, she is significantly powered down following Roman’s attack on her at the end of last season, and her plot is strongly focused about how, having been dominated by her son, her maternal instincts resurface and she wants to mend fences with her children and be a better girlfriend to Norman.  So, uh, not at all Freudian misogyny themed, then. It should be stressed that it’s a believable performance by Famke Janssen and the progression does work for the character, but in the context of the diminution of other female characters, the choice to take this path with her is striking.

Certainly, no women are here to fill the vacuum Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) left behind. Indeed, Clementine’s memory is reduced to fridging motivational fodder for her brother, Michael Chasseur (Demore Barnes).

Oh, and, in case you hadn’t gathered by now, absolutely no mention of Roman’s rapes is made whatsoever. There are no repurcussions for Roman for this. Roman’s redemptive arc is conducted solely against his present worry that he might hurt other people now that he’s an upir. It’s not just that he gets away with it – men get away with rape all the time, and I appreciated the ‘pretty guys you are rooting for can do this shit too’ aspect of how it was handled in the first season, but this season it is literally as though it never happened. Roman and Peter are reeling from Lethe’s death, Roman generally doesn’t like who he became under his mother’s power, but in as much as one might speculate as to his inner thoughts on the matter, any responsibility he might have taken for his own actions he seems to have shirked off, attributing it to Olivia and his upir nature. I kept expecting something to happen to reveal to Peter exactly what Roman had done. But nope. ‘Oh, Roman, why are you raising the baby when I was going out with her mother and had taken the decision to step up as the father? Why are you so focused on her being your daughter? How come that whole “impregnanted by an angel” thing is still unresolved from last season?’ Nuh-uh. Nadda. Nothing.

You can’t see it, but I am not wearing anything resembling my happy face right now.

The artistry and originality of the first season is gone. I felt none of the genre-bending ‘what am I watching’ mystery, most of the characters became less interesting, racism and sexism upped substantially, the fact that Roman is a rapist completely forgotten… It’s still well-acted and mostly well-scripted – I could and did consume this easily and quickly – but one is left, overall, with a bad taste in one’s mouth. This is not the show I was raving about last year.

*She’s not listed on either IMDB or Wikipedia, yet – I had to check the name in subtitles for the spelling – so I can’t say who the actor is.

**SPOILER: She gets fridged.

***There were instances of naked gents – Peter gets naked every time he changes, and two other guys are forced naked for torture reasons, but as I say, these are pretty chaste in presentation compared to the treatment Prycilla and Miranda get.

Review: Sleepy Hollow, Pilot Episode

Sleepy Hollow promo image

Look at these sexy bastards

Finally, something new in the visual medium to sink my teeth into. I think I’m going to enjoy this.

Sleepy Hollow is a new TV series from Fox, based (loosely, I assume) on the short story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow‘, by Washington Irvin, and not to be confused with the film of the same name.

In this latest iteration, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a British man who was serving as a spy for George Washington during the American Revolutionary War when he beheads a man on the battlefield. Having been wounded himself, he loses consciousness… and wakes up alone in a cave in the present day. At the same time, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and her partner, the Kurgan, August Corbin (Clancy Brown), are investigating a minor disturbance when Abbie discovers a decapitated body, and Corbin, alas, loses his head. Abbie witnesses the headless horseman – the same man Ichabod beheaded – fleeing the scene.

When Ichabod is found wandering the streets, obviously confused by being transplanted to the 21st century, he becomes a suspect. Something he doesn’t help himself with when he is able to provide further information about the murderer. Whilst his tale is obviously wild and taken as evidence of insanity, Abbie is intrigued by the fact that it matches the more unbelievable elements of her own story, such as the murderer’s lack of a head, which she failed to reveal to her colleagues. Despite being told to steer clear of the case, Abbie continues to investigate, with Ichabod’s help, and things continue to get stranger.

How was it?

I enjoyed this very much. A great cast doing an excellent job in what could easily have been a somewhat painful fish-out-of-water story. Tim Mison being easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt, but he also flawlessly portrays an earnestness and confidence in Ichabod that carefully skirts the potential chasm of cringe/embarrassment humour. Nicole Beharie is also great, as Abbie Mills – the intelligent and insightful cop who isn’t afraid to break rules on her hunch – and if you’ve been reading me for a while you’ll know how refreshing I find it to have a female actor in a role like this. I’m also loving the plentiful people of colour in prominent roles. Nicole, as co-protag, but also John Cho, as another cop, and Orlando Jones, as Captain Irving.

There are some silly elements. Pilot episodes tend to be prone to info-dumping, and Abbie’s opening up to Ichabod about a plot-relevant moment in her childhood seemed particularly unlikely. We get time-travel/ressurection, a headless horseman, apocalyptic portents, and witchcraft all in the first episode, an whilst I am pro those kinds of things, it’s a lot to put on the other plate of the suspension of disbelief scales. Overall, given the fantastic hurdles of its premise, I think it bears up rather well.

This is fun, reasonably well-written, well-acted, and provides plentiful eye-candy (including dishevelled-18th century-military-uniform eye-candy) – what’s not to like! Certainly a welcome new input to those of us waiting for Game of Thrones our old familiars to start up again.

Review: Hannibal, Season One

Poster for HannibalSo, this is a show, then. Wow.

In my post-Game-of-Thrones-what-do-you-mean-we-have-to-wait-a-whole-year-for-the-next-episode daze I was fumbling around for something to absorb me in my ‘off’ hours. I don’t tend to turn to trash-TV to turn off. I mean, I’ve enjoyed the odd reality TV show in my time (especially the artistic ones, like Project Runway used to be), but I know a lot of people prefer what’s sometimes called ’empty-calories’ TV. Something that’s not necessarily that good or gripping, but which goes down easy because it runs through familiar tropes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t think I’m wired that way. I prefer to throw myself into escapism full-throttle.  I turn off easier if there’s something with a fully-formed world, well-developed characters, good writing, and excellent acting with a well-paced and interesting plot going on. Which means that when I happen across a Dexter, a Game of Thrones, a Mad Men, I latch onto it and get pulled in until it’s all used up. I know some people find those to be the sort of shows they have to turn their brains on for – serious shows that demand attention – but I just don’t work that way. It’s not some kind of intellectual thing, like I even want ‘stimulating’ in my ‘off’ hours. It’s more like… the more effort someone else has spent providing something that will take my whole attention and avoid disturbing my suspension of disbelief for 45mins or an hour, the more easily I can just hand my consciousness over to them completely for that period of time. They take all the reigns of my mind and I just lie back and enjoy the show without my mind getting in the way and saying things like ‘Well, that was a bit sexist’ or ‘That line did not sound at ALL natural’ or ‘No one would really do THAT’ – because it doesn’t happen. The whole piece is primed for my smooth absorption.

Mads Mikkelsen, looking dapper.

I mean, just look at this dapper bastard.

Which is good in some ways, but can leave me feeling bereft when one really awesome thing is over and nothing is there to fill its place. It’s a good time for discovering new things.

And there was Tumblr, with a growing number of people throwing up pictures of Hannibal. Making in-jokes about Hannibal. Posting pictures of Mads Mikkelsen because ‘Ha ha – he’s so hot but he’s playing a cannibal WTF’. Even people who hadn’t seen Hannibal making PowerPoints about Hannibal to humourously explain what they had gleaned about Hannibal based on everyone else constantly posting about Hannibal.

So I thought, OK, why not give this Hannibal thing a go.

I’m rather glad I did.


Hannibal is a TV show based on the characters and events of Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, the first book in the trilogy of which the second is The Silence of the Lambs, the seminal film in which Sir Anthony Hopkins gave an Oscar winning performance as Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist cannibal who helps FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, who also netted one of the film’s many Oscars), catch a serial killer. I’m gonna hold up my hands right now and say that I haven’t read the books and I have only seen The Silence of the Lambs. A friend of mine tells me that Hannibal is more like a prequel to Red Dragon, Wikipedia says otherwise, and I’m in no position to say which is right. It’s certainly pre-Silence of the Lambs, that much is true.

So. Hannibal as a TV show is actually more about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) a criminal profiler whose extreme empathy makes him extraordinarily effective at understanding the minds of killers, but socially crippled and powerfully affected by the things he imagines when reconstructing a crime scene. At the start of the series, Will has left the FBI to focus on teaching, as he finds field work too taxing and the FBI has judged him too unstable.

That all changes when Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) calls Will back in to help with the case of a serial killer who impales his victims on antlers to drain them of blood, before cannibalising them. Knowing Will’s unstable condition, Jack asks Hannibal Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist, to covertly assess Will. A covert assessment that becomes overt after Will and Hannibal catch the killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, in the act of attacking his own family. Will shoots Garrett, necessitating a formal psychological assessment, from which point Will continues to see Hannibal on a voluntary basis, as Jack continues to employ his unique gifts and Will finds the strain harder and harder to bear.

Will insists from the beginning that one of the murders attributed to Garrett Jacob Hobbs was committed by a copy-cat, and we, the viewer, are given reason to think that it was committed by Hannibal Lecter. Of course, anyone who knows even a whiff of the history of the character suspected that to begin with. As the series progresses Will and Hannibal develop a close relationship, although one begins to suspect that Hannibal’s care of Will’s mental health may have ulterior motives. And for his part, Will notices other murders supposedly committed by serial killers that do not entirely fit that killer’s MO.

What are Hannibal’s plan’s for Will? Will Will figure out what Hannibal is? What will everyone think when they realise what was really in all of Hannibal’s fabulous dinners?

How was it?

Bloody excellent (no pun intended). I was in two minds about whether to watch it. One always is with a spin off from a franchise, but it came highly recommended, not just from Tumblr, but from people whose tastes I trust. Equally, I enjoy some police procedurals, but not others. It’s a saturated market place and a format with tropes entrenched in sexism, which I’ve written about before. Plus, I have a hella big squick for cannibalism, so whilst I’m a big fan of Dexter, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to deal with a sympathetic presentation of a cannibal. But hey, Game of Thrones was over and I had a gap to fill, so why not?

It was worth the risk. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is different from Hopkins’s, but not to the detriment of either. His almost deadpan stillness adds an alienness to him as an aloof psychiatrist. Although still charismatic, his is a charisma that draws you in – to step closer, to speak your thoughts to fill the silence. It adds an edge to Mikkelsen’s good looks that allows the watchfulness and disquiet the character evokes to prevent any impression that his handsomeness detracting from the horror of what he does. And though he is immaculately dressed in very flattering clothes, the perfection of his appearance speaks of an exactness of mind that works for a character that dissects human beings. A sense that that level of perfection isn’t quite… human.

Although, of course, Hannibal is human. And Hannibal, the TV show, never makes the mistake of demonising killers to the extent that you might think that killing like that isn’t really the act of human beings. Hannibal himself shows human affection. Although he is distant from people and has few real friends, he does seem to like Will Graham, and he affection for Abigail Hobbs (whom both he and Will become guardians of after Will saves her life by taking her father’s) seems genuine. He also expresses a wish for friendship with his own psychiatrist, Dr Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson). Similarly, his own reserved mannerisms are closely mirrored by Dr Du Maurier, and whilst other psychiatrists, such as Dr Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), show greater warmth, the sense that a certain detachment is natural to the analytical mode and a wish not to import one’s own assumptions onto one’s patient seems both reasonable and normal for a person in his line of work.

Without doubt, the psychiatry is central to the show. Not being a psychiatrist, I can’t comment with any authority on its authenticity, but as a layperson who has had cause to learn a bit about mental illness over the years it rang reasonably true. In analysing the killers, and in Will’s empathy with them, the show forces the viewer to accept their actions as those of human beings with complex psychologies whose actions have a context and thus cannot be attributed to some vague notion like ‘evil’. At the same time, through Will’s eyes, we are never divorced from the horror of the actions. Whilst the programme is certainly not for the faint of heart, there is no way that it could be said to sanitise or normalise violence. Rather, it forces the viewer towards a confrontation with horror both at emotional and analytical levels in a way that leaves little room for excuses. Human beings do do such things as these, and admitting that does not entail excusing it.

As for the cannibalism… yes, there are numerous darkly humourous moments in which it is strongly suggested (or even directly shown) that Hannibal is cooking people for dinner and serving them to almost everyone on the show. And the whole time I was sitting there going ‘Gnnnaaaaghhh! No! Don’t EAT IT’, but that’s OK. The humour is very subtly played and it is never pressed into tastelessness.

As for the sexism… it fares better than most of its genre. There are limitations stemming from the source material. Elementary has shown that you can change the race and the gender of no less a literary character than Dr Watson and not detract from the show (I’m sure there are those who would disagree, but I don’t have a lot of time for such people) but it’s possibly an added controversy that you don’t need when you’re making a show about a cannibal. So, yet again, it’s two middle-class white guys in the lead roles, and this time both of them are hyper-intelligent odd-balls who don’t play by the rules. On the plus side, the next most significant character is played by a person of colour, and there are two other people of colour in the recurring cast. Roughly half the cast are women (how bad is it that this is unusual?), they all have distinct characters, and only one of them has a relationship or potential relationship with one of the leading men.

I loved Gillian Anderson’s Dr Du Maurier, and not just because it’s always a pleasure to see Scully getting work. She was perfectly Hannibal’s equal for detached and analytical perspective, which women are rarely allowed to be on TV. There’s even a suggestion that she suspects what he does, and that she is prepared to protect him anyway, just as he once protected her in the past.

Equally, showing that women can be detached and unemotional doesn’t mean showing all female characters that way. Alana Bloom is warm and caring. Gina Torres‘s Bella Crawford is a strong and self-contained, yet still feminine woman. Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) is out-going, yet somewhat sardonic. Lara Jean Chorostecki‘s performance as Freddie Lounds is intriguingly suggestive of sociopathic, but not psychopathic, behaviour, in her aggressive reporting technique. And Abigail Hobbs presents a significant and interesting question mark throughout the series, as many wonder whether daughter takes after father, and if she’s actually a killer herself, or simply a very messed up girl. That’s what we want: not cookie-cutter Strong Female Characters who kick ass but never have a hair out of place, but rich, complex, diverse characters, who are devised and defined just as male characters are: as full people, interesting in their own rights, not specified in advance by their gender.

It’s also worth mentioning Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) who plays a slightly camp forensic scientist. I liked that we don’t know whether he’s gay or not and his slightly camp mannerisms and tone of voice are never commented on or made fun of by the other characters. It’s just how he is. On the one hand, it would have been better to have a recurring character who was acknowledged as being gay – I’m aware of the frustrations LGBT people feel at only ever being hinted at on screen – but it was also nice to have camp behaviour not being treated as exceptional, weird, or to be mocked. Whether he’s a het man who’s comfortable with being camp, or a gay guy who can be relaxed around his coworkers, it’s nice to have a character who is camp where being camp is not the entirety of what his character is about.

So, whilst there are a few areas that aren’t all that might be wished, in comparison to many TV shows that I also like and watch, Hannibal does pretty well. And those issues aside, it’s a really interesting programme with some fresh new takes on a familiar genre. By no means simply a cashing in on a franchise; rather, a well-thought out, meticulously explored gem of a show.

Review: Hemlock Grove, Season One

I have now watched all of Hemlock Grove. That’s right. All of it. Since Friday. I would therefore like to revise my original tentative assessment and say this: Hemlock Grove is basically the best and most original thing you haven’t watched yet.

Unless you have, in which case: O_O amirite?

Brief iteration of the premise

I couldn’t possibly summarise the plot, and if I tried I would have to spoil far too much. This thing is one hell of a mystery and you have to go on that journey by yourself.

The premise is this: Hemlock Grove is a small town with a lot of secrets. The rich and powerful Godfreys have secrets. The scientist Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) has secrets. The Romani family who have just returned to the town have secrets. Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) is suspected of being a werewolf. Peter thinks Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) is an upir (vampire), but also that Roman doesn’t know it. Shelley Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and Michael Andreae) is very tall for a girl, bandages her hands, glows when her emotions are disturbed, is bald, and has one eye much larger than the other. Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janseen) is mysterious, dangerous, beautiful, and bored. And Johann Pryce bolsters the wealth of the Godfreys with his research in what are rumoured to be unnatural ways.

When young girls start being killed in what looks like animal attacks (but for which no animal tracks are found) accusations fly. Peter and Roman, in particular, are suspects, and despite the enmity of their families they form a strong but awkward friendship, trying to find and stop the real killer.

Why praise it so strongly?

A foray into a new medium is an opportunity for experimentation, and Hemlock Grove uses its unusual freedom from the restrictions of traditional media outlets to its full extent. It defies pigeonholing by genre. Outofmyplanet on Twitter commented to me: ‘It’s interesting. I feel like I’m just not familiar with the storytelling style, but it’s American so I should be?‘ and I think that’s spot on. This is a melding of writing styles. The surface level American teen werewolf/vampire drama is belied by the complex plotting and sophisticated characterisation. The casual blending of the supernatural and surreal with the everyday feints towards European and Latin American magical realism. The bleak, gritty approach, drawing out the relationship between economic and social issues is reminiscent British cinema in general, and recent British science fiction, fantasy, and horror in particular (Misfits, The Fades, the original Being Human). It doesn’t challenge so much as defy expectation, and yet somehow artlessly manages to take the viewer with it.

In my review of the pilot the dominant feeling I came away with was that I was intrigued. I didn’t really know what was going on, what sort of program this was going to be, but I wanted to find out. That feeling didn’t go away. It kept me guessing as to where it was going, both dramatically, stylistically, and thematically right through the end of the very last episode. And yet every episode you feel like you’ve come to understand a lot more of what’s going on. That’s quite a feat.

You may also recall that I had some reservations about the presentation of women. I won’t go so far as to say that the representation is perfect. A number of characters voice sexist opinions and it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the voiced thoughts are intended to represent truth. What is true is that we have a vibrant range of female characters, each of whom has a rich and complex psychology.

Olivia Godfrey presents as a femme fatale, and yet she is not as cold and heartless as she seems. Her love for her children, although often cloaked by an air of indifference, even cruelty, emerges as a core element of her character in moments of crisis.

Shelley Godfrey’s hulking form is belied by her sweet disposition. Despite crippling shyness and an inability to talk in more than grunts, she proves herself articulate and even confident in her views when conversing via email with her uncle, Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott). She also avoids saccharine sweetness, displaying forgivable moments of frustration and selfishness when she fears her few vital emotional supports are threatened.

Lethe Godfrey (Penelope Mitchell) also verges on the saccharine, yet she is never meek. She’s fully capable of standing up to Roman’s suffocating affection and jealousy, and does not calmly submit to the men in her life treating her as a precious thing to be protected.

Christina Wendall (Freya Tingley), a teenage girl who thinks of herself as a novelist and a bit of an outsider, has a complex and interesting relationship with her friends and surrogate sisters, Alyssa (Emilia McCarthy) and Alexa Sworn (Eliana Jones). These twin girls present on the surface as stereotypically bitchy, ultra-feminine girls. Yet, despite their often cutting remarks, their affection – their love and concern – for Christina slowly becomes more evident. They’re just young girls doing what society tells young girls to do, the show seems to say, they aren’t to blame for it, they’ll probably grow out of their ‘mean girl’ aspects in time. They’re also interesting as fraternal twins whose behaviour seems at first so similar that you might take them for identical, yet they are allowed, in quiet moments, to show subtly different personalities.

Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure) provides an important contrast to an otherwise very femme cast. People react against ‘strong female character’ stereotypes, but I still feel like the majority of television is dominated by a feminine presentation that women like me feel alienated by. I would not call Chasseur a stereotype in any case. Chasseur is an agent of the mysterious Order of the Dragon, who are devoted to finding and destroying werewolves, vampires, and other abominations. Despite Kandyse McClure’s slender build, it’s clear that Chasseur has the muscles to back up her presentation of strength, and her character is a fascinating mix of determination and doubt. Chasseur is mentally and physically formidable, yet plagued by alcoholism, and haunted by the memory of the first werewolf she killed: a pregnant woman whose medallion of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, she wears around her neck.

Destiny Rumancek (Tiio Horn) is more problematic, as the town sex-worker and fortune-teller. She’s comfortable in her sexuality, and that’s good, but a theme of magical curing sex makes me uneasy. I’m also concerned for her representation of Romani women as promiscuous and as fortune tellers, as well as in her penchant for conning her customers. The only other Romani woman we really have to compare her with is Peter’s mother, Lynda Rumancek. Lynda’s sympathetic enough, but her only source of income seems to be in selling the drugs the late Nicolae Rumancek left in his trailer to Olivia Godfrey at an inflated price. Beyond that there’s not much to say about Lynda except that she’s a good mother. In a cast as large as Hemlock Grove’s it’s a lot to ask for every character to be complex and involved, and as someone who knows relatively little of Romani people and culture it’s difficult to judge, the Rumancek’s are certainly more sympathetic than the Godfreys, overall. There is some attempt to deal with prejudice against Romani people, and the persecution of Peter by the townsfolk is presented as unjust. Nevertheless I feel it important to highlight that some aspects of their presentation might be viewed as problematic.

It should also be noted that there is some good representation of race. Clementine and Michael Chasseur (Demore Barnes) are both played by people of colour and are great characters that I felt were well presented. Johann Pryce in some respects does reflect a stereotype of intelligent asian people with poor social skills; however, his strikingly Germanic name suggests that the role was cast without any particular race in mind, and Pryce as a character is revealed to be much more complex and interesting than he first appears – as could be said for virtually all the characters. Ashley Valentine (Emily Piggford) is also Asian, and she didn’t seem to me to match any racial stereotype.

In general, the acting is excellent. I can’t think of a single character, no matter how minor, who turns in a duff performance. Particular praise should be reserved for Bill Skarsgård whose portrayal of Roman Godfrey is strikingly nuanced. Roman is probably the most complex and interesting of any of the characters – a daunting presentation for any actor, especially one so young (gah – 23 is young to me now! Of course, he’s playing an even younger man). To detail the range required for this role would be to spoil too much of the plot, but if this man doesn’t get an Emmy he’ll have been robbed.

I can’t close this review without mentioning one of the more controversial aspects of the show, although it is difficult to tackle without touching on spoilers. I shall try to be circumspect, but if you really don’t want to be spoiled you might need to skip to the next paragraph. The matter I refer to concerns an incidence (two actually) of a character presented as largely sympathetic who commits rape. I should say that the rape that occurs onscreen is in no way presented as sympathetic. What makes the incident challenging is that the character who commits the rape goes on to, in other ways, present as broadly sympathetic. This, perhaps, was the only thing I had reservations about until the very last episode. My feeling is that this is intended to be uncomfortable. The writer intends for us to be confronted by the fact that our sympathies can still be engaged by a character who, as a rounded human being, has committed terrible things in a moment of emotional disturbance. I did not feel that the show in any way excused his action. Rather, it sought to confront us with the way our own moral compasses might be forced into muddy confusion. I do not think this is a bad handling of the subject matter; however, people who find this subject triggering may wish to avoid the show for that reason.

Challenging, original, provocative, well-written, well-acted, and intriguing. This show is giving Game of Thrones a run for its money, and then some. That’s how much I think you should watch it. I don’t star my reviews, but if I did, this one would get five.

Serene Slumber Party 2: I, Haunted, by N K Kingston

N K Kingston/Mina Kelly

N K Kingston/Mina Kelly

A black kitten sleeping My second guest to the slumber party is my good friend Nat. Nat writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction as N K Kingston, and romance, erotica, and erotic horror as Mina Kelly. She has published stories in several anthologies, as well as an m/m erotic fantasy novella, Tease. She’s currently working on an erotic sci-fi novella set in space, and she runs the space, feminist, geekery, and more space themed Tumblr It’s a Space Romance. She’s also knows more about ghost stories than I ever will, so her contribution nicely fills out a niche in this blog.

I, Haunted

What makes a good ghost story? According to M R James it boils down to three things: the atmosphere, the climax, and a realistic enough setting that puts “the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’” All solid advice, but for, there’s one more ingredient to a truly great ghost story: Death.

Morbid, I know. But death is important to a good ghost story; it raises the question of life after death. Most ghost stories revolve around hauntings – repetitious phenomena that build to a crescendo – that can’t be reasoned with. Even if a figure is seen, it cannot be asked to stop. Whatever survives post death is not a continuation of the being when it was alive, yet excludes the possibility of that being moving on wholly to another place. The narrator cannot finish the tale post mortem.

The best way to bring the point home and really get a reader shivering is by using the first person, but traditional stories struggle with this. First Person Present can pull readers out of the story (as a friend put it, “how is he finding time to type?”) but you can’t kill your narrator in First Person Past without some kind of “telling the story after death” reveal, which undermines the whole horror of killing them in the first place. Ghost stories are often told at one remove, instead. “My professor told me this tale” or “I recollect a friend of mine”, but it still doesn’t solve the problem: obviously your professor survived to tell you the tale.

So your old school short story turns to letters and diaries, a return to an even older school form of the novel. The main character usually finds these documents by chance and usually has no more connection to the characters within than the reader does. They will grow more invested, sometimes adding comments of their own or doing a little investigation to pad the tale out. And then they reach the end, but the tale isn’t resolved. Did the writer survive the final encounter? Doubtful. The lack of resolution is part of what makes death frightening.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection ‘In a Glass Darkly’ follows this format, at least at first, the narrator a medical secretary sharing unusual case notes. M R James uses it in ‘The Story of an Appearance and a Disappearance’ in which a friend who knows his interest in ghost stories sends him the letters.

When ghost stories move into television and film they struggle with the issue again. On the one hand, it’s possible to do away with the narrator altogether, which means you can kill pretty much anyone off, but on the other hand it’s still got this cosy fictional feeling. You lose M R James’s third ingredient – the sense it could happen to you – in a list of acting credits and special effects budgets. Without a narrator film can scare in ways fiction can’t, revealing things to the audience that the characters can’t see, but it doesn’t always manage to bring the horror home.

And then came the mockumentary. BBC’s Ghostwatch takes famous presenters and a very typical council house, and aired an hour and a half of terror in an era when TV didn’t rewind and the programme guide was something you got in your newspaper. A lot of viewers missed the fact it was fictional. The Blair Witch Project takes it a step further by removing the professionals. With handheld cameras becoming increasingly affordable suddenly anyone can be haunted. And the best part is the camera can keep on filming after its owner passes on, breaking from being a tool of First Person narration into Third.

We move from handheld cameras to camera phones to smartphones, and suddenly it’s very easy to upload footage to the internet. You get a kind of hybrid format: video diaries on youtube. But the internet also allows for text based story telling as well. Where before you had diaries and letters now you have blogs and emails. Some of the best stories use all of it. Hell, some of the best stories use you, the reader.

Ted the Caver is a relatively early example from 2001. It’s simple but effective, using an angelfire website as a blog (and seriously, check it out now, because who knows how long angelfire will stick around!). The Dionaea House combines multiple blogs and sites, encouraging readers to explore it in their own way. It has issues with spam in the comments now, but still packs a punch. Candle Cove began as a straight forward narrative, but some smart cookie put the episode in question up on youtube. Then there’s the various Slenderman videos. Most are ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) which mean not only are you usually following them over multiple platforms, but often viewers/readers will be encouraged to join in on some level. How’s that for making you feel like it’s actually happening to you? Personal faves are Marble Hornets and Everyman Hybrid, though both can eat up several days of your time to catch up on, and both are still running.

A lot of readers see elements of House of Leaves in Dionaea House, but to me that suggests an unfamiliarity with the genre: haunted houses are nothing new, and nor is telling a ghost story through diaries and letters. House of Leaves brings us full circle, back to a First Person ghost story told with diaries and letters, but the complexity it brings to the narrative by alternately drawing attention to its fictiveness and distracting the reader from it make it one of the most haunting reads I know.

In a lot of respects the Internet makes it easier to tell ghost stories; you can have your First Person narrator and kill them too. House of Leaves shows you can take the lessons learned from there and translate them back on to the page, and the whole is scarier than the sum of its parts. You can close the book, of course. You can turn off the TV, unplug the modem.

But you can’t quite shake the feeling, can you? If you’re not careful, something like this could happen to you.

Review: The Fades, Episodes 1-4

I wasn’t sure about The Fades at first. It was interesting and lively, but also a little bleak and slow. I often find it difficult to get into things closer to the horror end of the spectrum. It’s not that I don’t like horror, it’s just that I don’t scare easily, and the more familiar the horror tropes employed, the more likely I am to get bored simply because the fear-factor isn’t stepping in to maintain my interest. I more often enjoy horror in company – I find it easier to buy into the suspense when other people are doing so, too. So it’s not entirely The Fades‘ fault that I was not immediately gripped.

Even so, there was enough to pique my curiosity, and with other friends starting to get into it, too, I was persuaded to keep watching. And I’m glad I did.


The ‘fades’ are spectres of the dead that have failed to ‘ascend’. Usually a spirit will hang around for a bit, then, when the right moment comes, they’ll go to an ascension gateway, and if they’re lucky they’ll go on to… whatever’s next. If they’re unlucky they’ll stay in this world, having to watch their friends and loved ones getting on with their lives, unable to communicate with them or touch them, slowly going mad. So far, so ordinary ghost story.

The ‘angelics’ are human beings who can see the fades. They also have other powers, in various ranges of efficacy. Healing seems prominent. It usually involves the healer disgorging insects afterwards. We start the story with the angelics finding themselves hunted by something new that is emerging amongst the fades. This new sort of fade can affect the physical world, apparently as a result of consuming human flesh. So, we have ghosts and zombies and hunter-slayers.

Enter Paul (Iain de Caestecker) and his friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya). They’re teenagers (16/17ish), on the geeky/unpopular end of the social spectrum, at stark contrast with Paul’s twin sister, Sarah (Natalie Dormer), who’s the typical popular-bitch style girl. Mac hopelessly fancies her – I’m not sure why, he’s much cooler than her. Paul, on the other hand, fancies Sarah’s friend, the more indie/quirky Jay (Sophie Wu). Anyway, Mac, in his role as the funny, geeky friend, persuades Paul to enter an abandoned building looking for things to use in a homemade zombie movie for set dressing. Whilst there, Paul runs across an angelic, Neil (Johnny Harris) chasing the fade that’s turning into a zombie-thing. Neil realises that Paul can see the fade, and is therefore an angelic himself.

It becomes steadily obvious that Paul is no ordinary angelic, but something very special. Neil tries to persuade him to leave his family and friends and embrace his angelic nature, as sooner or later he’ll only put those he loves in danger. But Paul’s still a teenager, dealing with teenage things, and he’s not ready to do that yet. Meanwhile, he continues to receive visions of a blasted future, whilst discovering more about himself and his powers, which increasingly interfere with his attempt to live a normal life.

My Thoughts

This was described to me as something highly original, and it didn’t immediately strike me as such. It’s a pretty typical chosen-one set up. It could very nearly be Buffy. Granted, it has a washed-out, grey, Brit-indie thing going down, but in that regard it’s just the standard British grim-take on a genre that has been dominated by more brightly-coloured and optimistic American imports. Misfits was fairly original in this take, but The Fades is simply taking the same Brit style and applying it to a more horror-centric, Buffy-style premise.

None of which is to deny that what it does is interesting and well-made. I find the names ‘angelic’ and ‘fades’ somewhat jarring. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just call the fades ‘ghosts’, bearing in mind that their unusual zombie characteristics are a decidedly recent thing. ‘Angelic’ on the other hand, seems a little too on the nose for the grey-realism style of the show. Besides that, though, the writing is excellent, especially for the funny-geek friend, Mac. Yes, it’s a stereotype of the genre, but it’s very well done. He’s a lively joy to watch, and, after all, geek people watching a geek program love a well-deployed geek reference. It plays well to the audience without losing the authenticity of the character. This is thoroughly believable teenage humour as well as enjoyable witticism for the viewer.

The casting is excellent. The protagonist may be a white male, but his best friend is a black guy and the object of his affections is asian. Of course, the funny black friend is a bit of a stereotype, but at no time do I feel like Mac is meant to be funny because he is black, and the effect is to some extent balanced out by his severe, police-detective father, who believably commands respect. Mac is in no sense token. His awkward relationship with his distant father adds not only poignancy to the humour and enthusiasm with which he usually approaches life, but rounds out the character, making it clear that his significance is not solely based around his relationship to the lead white male. Daniel Kaluuya is to be strongly commended for such a nuanced portrayal of a character that could have been very one-dimensional in the wrong hands. Writing and acting come together beautifully, here.

Paul himself is interesting. He is neither conventionally handsome nor otherwise striking in appearance. He is always presented in washed out clothes, and rarely steps forward to take command of the scenes he is in. He’s very much the gawky teenager, and not the Hollywood-homely of the usual TV social outcasts. Which, I hasten to add, is not to malign the appearance of the actor himself; rather, it’s to praise the fact that he does look like a normal, gawky teenager, both in terms of his looks, his wardrobe, and how he carries himself. I never met a mid-to-lower tier social-outcast like Buffy was supposed to be who could convincingly sashay into a room like Sarah Michelle Geller.

I’m also loving the range of roles offered to women. Everything from the striking and commanding presence of the priest, Helen (Daniela Nardini), to the popular-bitch, Sarah, and the waif-like, timid fade, Natalie (Jenn Murray). I’m particularly in love with Paul’s mother, Meg (Claire Rushbrook). It’s very easy for the mother of a ‘chosen one’ to fit into a familiar role that fades into the background and requires little colour for itself. Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, initially presents just such a character, but blossoms into something much more interesting in the her later seasons. Meg is wonderful and understated as a woman who is dealing with two volatile and complicated teenage children on her own and often times doesn’t know what to do. This is not to criticise the character, her light-touch respect for her children as people is deeply endearing and very sensible, even though one senses her quiet despair that there is obviously something going on with her son that she doesn’t know how to help with. The hint that she perhaps neglects her daughter in her concern for Paul is very much an aspect of a rich character, rather than the familiar outsider-critique on motherhood that is so common in television shows that deal with family dysfunction. The issues of this family are not, in fact, insurmountable, and had Paul not turned out to be an angelic they probably would have resolved themselves in the natural course in the ways such things usually go in real life.

The thing that really hooked me, though, is The Fades‘ continuing efforts to up-the-ante of weird each week. Somehow events keep getting stranger and stranger, and yet the writing, if anything, improves. Four episodes in and we have not embarked on the painful implausibility such spiraling strangeness so often invites. It’s only getting richer, drawing its threads together as the strangeness grows, rather than fragmenting into a sprawling mess.

That’s why, at this point, I decided it was time to review and recommend this to you all. The Fades: watch it. All the episodes are still on iPlayer, for your catch-up leisure, and will be available until 2nd November 2011. Next episode airs at 10pm, Wednesday, BBC3.