Hulu’s ‘Helstrom Is A Promising Start That Could Do With More Imagination – Review
The following review is based on the first five episodes of Helstrom that Hulu provided us. As there is much more that needs to unfold in the show, this review will largely cover how well the show does in setting up its story and characters.
If you take a look at the current comic book adaptation landscape, certain trends will emerge. The most prescient trend that can be attributed to the likes of Fox’s X-Men and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is this unwavering allegiance to realism. Grounding the grandeur and sometimes flamboyant nature of comic book narratives into a recognizable reality. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Helstrom falls somewhere in the middle.
Marvel and Hulu’s Helstrom follows the Helstrom siblings (dropping the other “L” in Hell is a choice), the children of, well, a very strong demonic being that is not entirely Satan but seems to be exactly that in practice. Daimon Helstrom (Tom Austen), known as the Son of Satan in the comics, is an ethics professor who is an off-the-record exorcist on his off-hours. His sister Satana (Sydney Lemmon), shortened to Ana in the series, is an antiquities seller who delves into her dark side by exacting revenge on horrible people in her spare time. The pair have supernatural powers that can only be derived from a dark entity – their father. Meanwhile, their cursed mother Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel) is held at a psychiatric institution with a demon (called Mother) playing house in her body.
There is no shortage of TV and movies that tackle themes such as possession, demons, hell and other narratives that depict these ideas of good versus evil through the Christian lens. There is also no shortage of shows that have characters directly engage with demonic beings who have grand plans of some sort and their efforts to put a stop to it. The CW’s Supernatural is a long-lasting example of such a show. So, while watching Helstrom, there really isn’t anything in the narrative or in its presentation that suggests the series is based on comic books that cross over with the likes of Ghost Rider. Instead, much of the “on the nose” elements such as Ana’s name and the “abilities” are dulled down or scarcely used. The show’s dedication to realism is also reflected in how the story unfolds. It’s a slow burn that teases rather than shows.
Granted, not all comic books have bright colourful panels with heroes and villains alike in imaginative costumes. However, sometimes a visual flare or two can do the trick to give the story the kick it needs. In this series, our characters and settings are literally and figuratively shrouded in darkness. There is rarely a moment of reprieve from the relentless bleakness of the series and it doesn’t quite feel necessary.
Additionally, the characters are also just dreary, with the exception of Ana, whose sinister sense of humour provides levity at key moments. Austen and Lemmon do a good deal to carry the show, however, they and June Carryl’s Lousie Hastings, and Robert Wisdom’s Caretaker, all walk and talk as though they are exhausted.
Ariana Guerra’s Gabriella Rosetti and Marvel’s Mother/Victoria are true scene stealers. Without saying too much about Victoria, all that one needs to know is that Marvel is here to deliver on the possession angle of the show. On the flipside, Gabriella is a young novitiate who is tasked by the Vatican to keep tabs on Daimon and Hasting’s operation and become Hasting’s eventual replacement at the institution. Gabriella has a warmth and sincerity in the show that counters the grim nature of the Helstrom’s circumstances. Guerra plays her with an inner strength that shines through Gabriella’s words, they are assured and comforting. With little in her corner, she proves to be the hero to watch out for.
It should be noted that the character is based on Gabriel, Devil-Hunter, a recurring exorcist in a number of Marvel comics. With this gender-bending, I fear that they have set the character up to be a love-interest for Daimon. However, perhaps the series writers will keep the relationship platonic. She is a promising character that can stand on her own and does not need to be stuck in a romance that never existed in the comics.
As for the leads themselves, while Austen’s eyebrows are a formidable presence, they seem to be the only thing of note. His performance is rather stilled, restrained, perhaps it can be attributed to the guarded nature of his character. In the latter half of the show, I’d expect an evolution to take place and perhaps more for Austen to really work with. His other half, Lemmon, has a rather striking look (a severe bob with sharp bangs that only she can pull off) that also carries much of the character. Ana is the more complicated character of the show, leaning into anti-hero territory with her skewed perspective of what is right and wrong. There is a severity to her that is intriguing that needs to be fully developed, however, Ana is a promising character.
Helstrom (for better or worse) is too entrenched in a recognizable reality. Yes, this is a series about the blurred lines between the human world and the demonic one, but still, the series is missing that fantastical and mystical edge it requires to differentiate itself from the likes of Fox’s The Exorcist or CBS’s Evil. The delight about comic books is that often the worlds and characters are derived from a colourful imagination and this is far too restrained to be anything more than another supernatural drama about demons versus humans.
The first five episodes are promising, laying the foundation of an interesting battle yet to take place between the siblings and their father. Hopefully, the final five episodes deliver on its promises.