Drama: Looking for fresh blood? Hemlock Grove Season 2
Vampires, sex, Gore and bloodshed . . . is netflix's supernatural horror just another outing for a tired, overworked trope?
Like TV production sets the world over, the vast Toronto soundstage that is home to Hemlock Grove is a hive of controlled chaos. Every which way you look, SFX crew are working on prosthetic masks with actors; other crew members have been tasked with making torrential rain fall indoors, while others again tweak endlessly elaborate models of corpses.
A huge model of a beautiful woman in a tank – a central figure in the upcoming second season, we are told – takes pride of place on the studio floor. Each crewmember certainly has their work cut out for them: after all, many different variables go into creating Netflix's supernatural horror. After the runaway success of Netflix's other home-cooked offerings House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, the pressure is no doubt on for Hemlock Grove's sophomore season to follow suit.
For the uninitiated, a quick recap: the action is set in the small Pennsylvanian hamlet of Hemlock Grove, awash as it is with gothic mystery, foreboding and secrets. At its dark heart is the Godfrey family (matriarch Olivia is played by Famke Janssen), who run Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Technologies; rumoured to conduct sinister experiments on townspeople. When two girls are murdered in the town, 17-year-old local gypsy – and rumoured werewolf – Peter (played by Degrassi actor Landon Liboiron) is the chief suspect. In a bid to prove his innocence, he joins forces with Roman (Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and brother of Alexander) – the Godfrey heir – to solve the mystery. And from this jumping off point, expect vampires, gore, sex, drugs and bloodshed. Twin Peaks meets True Blood, in a word.
As tropes go, surreal murder-mystery is as old as the proverbial hills. What's more, stories about vampires and werewolves seem a bit ... well, five years ago.
But make no mistake: for all its overworked familiarity, the similarities with True Blood and Twilight appear to end there. Eli Roth – the king of bloodcurdling horror, best known for Hostel and Cabin Fever – is in the driving seat as executive producer, for a start. And, as you might expect from the director deemed 'the Tarantino of horror', Hemlock Grove's gore is every bit as relentless and visceral as you might expect (a Season 1 high point, according to fans, is the scene where Peter transforms into a werewolf).
Still, was there not a suspicion among cast members that the whole vampire-werewolf moment had passed?
"This is something completely fresh and new," notes Skarsgard, acknowledging that his brother Alexander is putting in similar spadework over on the set of True Blood. "I hope people appreciate this as something that's completely different."
Adds Liboiron: "Bill and I both expressed the same nervousness for that whole (Twilight) thing, but it was the writing, and the heart underneath it all that really spoke to us. The blood, the sex and the gore are there strictly to carry the story forward in an interesting way.
"Twilight's an interesting thing," he adds. "It took away the 'Halloween' aspect of (the genre) and made it about desire and lust that you can't control or can't have."
While critics have been divided (often downright uncharitable) in their praise of the show's first season, the ratings pretty much speak for themselves. Hemlock Grove was viewed by more Netflix users globally in its first weekend than the first season of House Of Cards. Twinned with the sex and the gore, the ongoing friendship between Peter and Roman – and their respective struggles with their identities – has been surefire catnip for teenage fans.
"It's strange how much Peter and Roman mean to young people going through these growing pains," says Liboiron. "They both feel that they don't necessarily fit in, and to give people encouragement that it's okay (to be an outsider), that's really rewarding to me."
Happily, the two actors are firm bromancers off-screen, hanging out together in downtown Toronto when they're not filming.
"Bill and I became really good friends last year as all of our scenes were together," explains Liboiron. "We were pushing each other around (on camera), which was offset by us being in a city that we don't live in, so we discovered the city together."
Scottish actor Dougray Scott, who plays the town's psychiatrist Norman, is also getting used to working on location for long periods in Canada: "It doesn't get any easier, being away from family and friends, but on one hand I'm used to it," he explains. "Even if you're not naturally a gypsy, you become one. There's no point in complaining about it."
As is often the way with Netflix shows, Hemlock Grove's makers have managed to keep plots and spoilers on a tight leash. Ask any of the cast members on-set about what fates their character may encounter in the upcoming season, and they all have gracious evasiveness down to a fine art.
What we do know is this: Season 1 ended with many of its characters meeting a grim fate by dint of a bloody massacre. Starting on that haunting note, Season 2 promises much of the same plot twists and bloodshed, with a fresh focus on character development and mythology. According to Joel de La Fuente (who plays scientist Pryce): "There will be so many more surprises and mysteries in Season 2, and a lot of the questions raised by the Season 1 cliffhanger will be addressed and answered right off the bat. So it will be satisfying from the get-go."
There's also a new showrunner in town: TV veteran Charles 'Chic' Engless (Dexter, The Walking Dead) is now on board as executive producer. Buoyed by this safe pair of hands, there's also fresh blood in the cast. Battlestar Galactica stars Kandyse McClure and Aaron Douglas are on board, while Orange Is The New Black's Madeleine Brewer plays a graphic novelist newcomer who's likely to upset the delicate equilibrium.
Whatever the future holds for Hemlock Grove's inhabitants, it will be interesting to see whether the delicate tug of war between hard-nosed critics and devoted fans will tip in either way. Skarsgard, for his part, is unmoved: "I can't put too much thought into that at all, I try to avoid feedback, whether they praise or hate it," he says. "I don't want to be too self-conscious of what people think of me or my performance. Praise can affect your acting, but people getting down on you is bad for your self-confidence, too. I try to keep a sane mind about it all."
Hemlock Grove Season 2 premieres on Netflix on July 11. See www.netflix.ie for details.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent