I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into when I decided to jump into Hulu’s newest horror offering Helstrom. So, I sat down to do a little digging before I tuned in.
What The Hel Am I Watching?
See what I did there? Anyway, turns out, we’re watching the leftovers of what was once the Marvel Television Universe. Remember the last decade when shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Inhumans, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage (takes deep breath), The Punisher, Iron Fist, The Defenders, Cloak and Dagger and The Runaways promised us myriad adventures taking place elsewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all the while occasionally (if at all) loosely connecting to the main film series?
Yeah, Helstrom is that. The last of its kind. A dying breed. From a time before Marvel Television was absorbed into Marvel Studios.
Well, it is, and it isn’t.
The initial production came out of what was Marvel Television, and it’s based on everyone’s favorite 1970s occult Marvel hero: Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan! For the uninitiated (myself included) Hellstrom originated in 1973’s Ghost Rider #1 and primarily appeared in other characters’ stories. Though he did have his own title for a brief period in the early 90s when his name was changed to Hellstorm because reasons.
But I digress…
What you need to know is that Helstrom the Hulu series, while based on a Marvel property, has zero connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And perhaps that serves the show better than trying to shoehorn it in.
The casual Marvel viewer may not know that occult characters have regularly appeared alongside your favorite heroes on the comics page for decades. It’s a smart move by the studio not to introduce the concept to the MCU in a fringe property on Hulu. Sony’s Marvel branch (which may or may not be part of the MCU?) is making their first foray into the genre with the Jared Leto vehicle Morbius next year, and Disney/Marvel has already announced plans for a new version of Blade.
So, What About The Show?
At first glance, Helstrom appears to be an effort to take up the reigns where popular WB programs like Constantine and Supernatural left (or are leaving) off.
The Pilot starts off promising enough, with a cold open that hooked me with promises of ghosts or demons or… something nefarious and unseen, tormenting the living. The animated opening credits/theme are thoroughly creepy and set the spooky mood.
Then we meet Daimon Helstrom, played by Tom Austen who first broke out in 2012’s The Borgias. Immediately it is clear that the character is supposed to be one of these charming assholes with a heart of gold, ala Tony Stark. Austen’s performance is… passable. Thought I’m always hesitant to blame the actor for a poor final product as footage tends to change so many hands between filming and air. The writing is a bit clunky, and though in his first scene Daimon rips on so-called tropes like Holy Water and chanting in Latin, the show itself seems to rely heavily on what we already accept as commonly used occult themes.
Oh yeah, and Daimon has magic or something. Basically he’s Constantine. Come at me Marvel and DC fanboys!
And then there’s Ana Helstrom, played by Sydney Lemmon whose CV boasts a series of one-off TV credits and shorts. Lest you think this young woman was simply plucked from obscurity, know that she’s Jack Lemmon’s granddaughter, has a Master’s in Drama from Yale and has performed on Broadway alongside Uma Thurman.
Ana comes out the gate with a (literally) seductive performance in which she brandishes her own variety of terrifying magic.
Lemmon’s character and performance already have me hooked more so than Austen’s. From the wardrobe to the hair to the attitude, maybe it’s just that I like the character better, but Ana definitely gives me more of those comic book antihero feels than I got from Daimon.
Veteran actress Elizabeth Marvel plays the Helstrom sibling’s demon-possessed mother Victoria, who is locked up in a sort of religious sanitarium run by one Dr. Louise Hastings, played by June Carryl (last year’s Mindhunter). Hastings, it is eluded to, is Daimon’s adopted mother and mentor in battling the occult, much of which seems to center around the powerful demon inhabiting Victoria.
My Likes and Dislikes For Helstrom
Ultimately I started to lose interest around the 15 minute mark. Disappointingly, Austen’s performance doesn’t get any better, whereas Lemmon continues to excel. Her snarky back-and-forth with confidant Chris Yen (played by True Detective’s Alain Uy) is entertaining and charming. It’s what drew me back into the story.
The pilot gives us brief tastes of occult magic, ethereal visions, some gore and even a full on cyclops-demon skeleton. It all culminates in some demonic rage from mama Helstrom unleashed on poor Sister Gabrielle Rosetti (played by Ariana Guerra).
So what did I think? I’ll give it a fair shake. Maybe three or four episodes before I decide if it’s for me or not.
I appreciate that Helstrom doesn’t try to spoonfeed the audience a bunch of worldbuilding but instead just drop us into the story. At the same time, the pilot doesn’t let me know exactly what the show is trying to be.
Is it trying to be a “Marvel show?” It certainly doesn’t feel like it. What Helstrom does feel like, is that it’s trying to take itself too seriously. It’s lacking the fun of Constantine or Supernatural or really any Marvel property, yet it has all the gloom of February in Portland or Prisoner of Askaban. I mean, there’s some fun in the witty sarcasm and genuinely cool occult themes but it’s almost lost when blended with the odd level of drama that’s just trying way too hard.
The Verdict On Helstrom
Was I entertained? I guess. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve seen.
What will keep bringing me back is the character of Ana Helstrom. She’s interesting and Sydney Lemmon crushes the role. I sincerely want to see where she goes in this story.
The supporting cast is good enough to make up for Austen’s somewhat wooden performance. But again, I am hesitant to blame that on him.
All ten episodes of Helstrom are streaming on Hulu now.