‘Helstrom’ Curses Its Demons and Heroes With Mundane Plotting
Slow-burner shows have increasingly been taking on the form of endurance tests. They want to see how devoted you can be through the dragged pacing and moody camera work, awaiting the appearance of a point. Hulu’s “Helstrom” suffers such a fate. It is being billed as a Marvel-produced thriller, featuring all the ingredients comic book aficionados are expected to want: Supernatural foes, demonic possession, women with dark lipstick huskily speaking. But here we must add a “but,” because while the show has these elements, it’s at a constant battle with the sleepy pacing.
Daimon Helstrom (Tom Austen) is the kind of ethics professor who looks slick while teaching a class during the day and at night performs exorcisms, or a semblance thereof. Daimon also carries a duel identity, he is gifted with special powers that allow him to sense or detect demonic activity. He works reluctantly with Gabriella (Ariana Guerra), a Vatican agent who mostly reports to Dr. Louise Hastings (June Carryl). Daimon’s sibling, Ana (Sydney Lemmon), who deals in rare artifacts, also has the same gift. While Daimon does exorcisms, Ana’s own secret identity consists of tracking down and killing violent predators. The siblings carry quite a bit of family baggage. Their father was a serial killer, while their mother Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel) is currently institutionalized at a hospital run by Hastings. Inside Victoria lurks a demon ready to unleash chaos. Its scheme becomes evident when an old crypt is unlocked by agents of a secret society, and a powerful force is released. Now Daimon and Ana have to stop this force, confront their past and also battle other demons roaming the world.
“Helstrom” arrives as a TV orphan. Originally part of Marvel’s TV slate, it was left floating around when studio head Kevin Feige shut down the television department. Now appearing on Hulu, the show is an odd attempt at combining comic book plotting with a dreary slow burner rhythm. Visually this is the kind of series that if binged, will leave any day in a depressed mood. All color is drained out of every frame, leaving exteriors and interiors in the same, grey tones. It’s a throwback to oldies like “Brimstone,” where the showrunners believe making everything colorless somehow makes it more atmospheric.
The show’s greatest weakness is in the plotting. Every new series seems to think it needs to stretch its episodes to the 58 minute mark, and so “Helstrom” delivers chapters that feel eternal because they take so long to reveal the simplest details. The first few episodes are mostly introducing us to Daimon and Ana, as well as their surrounding circle. There’s a lot of dialogue about how Daimon scoffs at Gabriella and the Vatican, feeling annoyed that he keeps getting called to perform exorcisms only to confirm the afflicted is probably just insane. He’s the classic anti-hero who is running away from his own dark roots. There are many flashback scenes to his troubled childhood, and Ana also has brief memories of their dad dragging some corpse away into the woods. How it all ties to the unleashing of new dark forces will take you at least six episodes to figure out, if one has the stamina.
A saving grace for the show is the stellar cast, who do well with bringing some pathos to a preposterous storyline. Tom Austen has the same, brooding personality as Dominic Cooper in “Preacher.” He spends half the show in dark jackets or coats, speaking Latin to “possession” cases he’s called to assess. Ariana Guerra is the independent-minded counter who is a skeptic about all the supernatural happenings. Sure, she works for the Vatican, but she has to bring a rational judgement to events like treasure hunters killed by a crypt, or a demonic skull that seems to absorb people’s blood to fuel the return of a dark spirit.
The rest of the characters are all retreads and recycled personas from other shows and movies. That’s the true flaw in “Helstrom,” that while it’s obviously produced by people with talent and resources, it never literally tries to do anything new or even energetic. June Carryl’s Hastings does the same old number of being the wise boss telling Daimon to get along with Gabrielle. Victoria is possessed by a demon and so Daimon spends much of the show battling against this force, which is also linked to a plot to bring back his dead serial killer father. Ana is dealing with all this while running her artifacts business with Chris (Alain Uy), who inevitably runs across an artifact linked to all this demonic intrigue that pulls him into the supernatural drama. The season finale culminates with a cross between “Supernatural” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” as someone gets pregnant with a demon baby and a ritual ensues. Whoever gets control of the child will then get to unleash hellish forces in the next season. The finale is also, unsurprisingly, the most exciting episode.
“Helstrom” is a bland last gasp for Marvel Television. Not because of its brand, but because of the execution. It isn’t just “dark,” but so moody you’re bound to be more depressed than entertained. The year has already had enough share of despair. We don’t need our heroes to be just as hopeless.
“Helstrom” season one begins streaming Oct. 16 on Hulu.