'Helstrom': TV Review

Helstrom
Courtesy of Hulu
Monotonously gloomy and devoid of either frights or inspiration.
10/16/2020

Hulu's paint-by-numbers demon-fighting drama, starring Tom Austen, Sydney Lemmon and Elizabeth Marvel, is based on a Marvel comic that it barely resembles.

Hulu's Helstrom is a dour and thoroughly monotonous thriller about demonic possession, a series that treats superpowers and exorcisms with all of the narrative and aesthetic pizzazz you'd expect from a chronicle of coal mining or sewer-line maintenance or TV criticism. Why not depict one of those professions then, things actual people actually do, rather than offer the umpteenth take on a genre that has been wildly over-indexed on both big and small screens in recent years?

Don't trust me, though. Trust Daimon Helstrom (Tom Austen), the show's evil-fighting main character. "Latin, holy water, prayer, they used to be the secret weapons of the trade, but now thanks to movies, TV, the Internet, they're just tropes," Daimon complains early in the series premiere.

He's not kidding. Sticking exclusively to television, the past few years have seen a prequel to The Omen, a sequel to The Exorcist, an adaptation of DC Comics' Constantine and Image's Outcast, plus items like CBS' terrific Evil, WEtv's dreadful South of Hell and several American Horror Story seasons (but particularly Asylum). That's leaving out shows that periodically dabble in possession, like Supernatural, and those that treat exorcisms as comedy, like Los Espookys (or Stan Against Evil or Ash vs. Evil Dead). Or the Satan-centric procedural Lucifer.

It's one thing, unfortunately, to be aware that the genre you're working in has all the freshness of a roadside motel continental breakfast danish. But to have said awareness and still put out a show that only rarely breaks from the mundane is all the more disheartening.

Helstrom is another comic adaptation, but after going through casting and development as "Marvel's Helstrom," the possessionary credit — everything's all about possession — vanished. Any similarities to the characters created by Roy Thomas, John Romita, Gary Friedrich and Herb Trimpe are absent as well.

As it stands now, the Paul Zbyszewski-created series focuses on the aforementioned Daimon Helstrom, a Portland-based ethics professor — don't worry if that sounds dull, because it's totally irrelevant — who periodically uses sketchily defined powers to help the Church handle cases of demonic possession, even though he isn't a priest. His new Vatican-provided partner is Gabriella Rossetti (Ariana Guerra), an aspiring nun ("novitiate," if you prefer) with big questions about the origins and purposes of Daimon's gifts.

Gabriella is right to be skeptical, because Daimon and his somewhat estranged sister Ana (Sydney Lemmon), operator of a San Francisco auction house and blessed or cursed with her own sketchily defined powers, are the children of a notorious serial killer and a mother (Elizabeth Marvel) who has been in an institution for decades seemingly harboring a demon of her own. The Helstrom kids have some dark fate or another and they're being watched over by Louise (June Carryl), head of Victoria's psychiatric hospital, and the mysterious Caretaker (Robert Wisdom).

There are episodic possessions and a predictable arc in which Something Wicked, inevitably, this way comes. It's all represented in the most routine of ways, with voices coming from people those voices shouldn't be coming from, levitation from people who shouldn't be levitating and scattered religious iconography stripped of all meaning. Critics received five of 10 Helstrom episodes, and the fourth and fifth episodes actually contain a couple wrinkles I liked. But if the choice is between praising the one or two fresh ideas in a stale show or leaving them unspoiled for a handful of viewers, I'll err on the side of the latter.

Otherwise, Helstrom is nearly indistinguishable from other entries in the genre. And by that I mean: Almost every frame is as muddy and gloomy as in all the other recent pseudo-prestige dramas that represent moodiness by having characters engage in long conversations in the dark — even when they're in a room filled with lamps or at a restaurant that, theoretically, must have been filled with customers who otherwise might have wanted to look at each other. It isn't darkly lit. It's badly lit (and I hate to keep pointing to Better Call Saul as an example of a show that recognizes that "darkness" doesn't just mean "devoid of contrast and texture"). If you Google the comic, you can see it's full of eye-popping visuals, and while I understand why nobody wanted a straightforward reproduction of the red-caped, buff, fire-bathed Son of Satan, glum and gritty was a poor substitute.

The best way to maintain interest in Helstrom is to completely ignore its narrative instincts. Daimon is introduced as the title Helstrom and his dynamic with Gabriella is presented as the show's key relationship. It's not Austen's fault, exactly, that other than inconsistent sarcasm and an inconsistent American accent, Daimon has no voice to speak of. But he's been directed never to deviate from a saturnine flatness of delivery, and the result is a lifeless performance. Maybe Gabriella will become interesting when they give her things to do other than exposition and listing arbitrary biographical details.

Lemmon (granddaughter of Jack if such things matter to you) is the show's most engaging presence. She also has been written to grumble mostly in glib sarcasm, but she sells it much better than Austen; with a striking bob and a towering stature the series directors like playing around with, she's generally interesting to watch. Ana's backstory and the way her trauma feeds the show would be a little distinctive if it were front-and-center, rather than treated as secondary for no good reason. I'd maybe even watch a show with a spotlight on Ana, Victoria (played with utter and exhausting commitment by Marvel) or Caretaker (Wisdom's attitude makes for some of the few glints of fun here).

Daimon Helstrom's early crack about satanic saturation is one of several references Helstrom makes to genre fatigue, and it has to be noted that qualitatively, the various possession shows have been a mixed lot and the good ones haven't always been successful. Given that Helstrom is already the last piece of a TV administration Marvel has moved away from, nothing here is good enough to make an investment in. Check out CBS' actually clever, actually scary Evil instead.

Cast: Tom Austen, Sydney Lemmon, Elizabeth Marvel, Robert Wisdom, Ariana Guerra, June Carryl, Alain Uy

Creator: Paul Zbyszewski from the Marvel Comics character

Premieres Friday, October 16, on Hulu.