In the comic books, brother-sister duo Daimon and Satana Hellstrom (not “Helstrom,” which was changed for the new Hulu TV show, for some reason), created by Roy Thomas for Marvel Comics back in 1973, share between them powers and abilities ranging from standard to supernatural, an ancestry that traces back to Satan himself, and a level of devilish flair befitting their heritage. Daimon rides a flaming chariot drawn by winged horses and wields a hell-forged trident. Satana, when she’s feeling spicy, sports a pair of horns and sucks out men’s souls because that’s just what succubi do. Their adventures are, put mildly, vibrant on the printed page.
On the screen in Hulu’s “Helstrom,” adapted from the comics to function as a standalone tale within the presently hobbled Marvel Cinematic Universe, replace “vibrant” with “dismal,” and cut out everything else about the characters that’s exciting at the same time. “Helstrom” is a capital-S, Serious show. It’s so Serious that Paul Zbyszewski, a producer and writer for the fifth season of “Lost,” even dropped an “l” from the title and the first three letters from Satana’s name, perhaps because he figured that he might as well go for gold after taking out the trident, the soul-sucking, the chariot, and the genre components that made Thomas’ original work so beloved. Elevated horror is enough of a bummer when spun from whole cloth. “Helstrom” isn’t so much based on Thomas’ IP as much as it’s embarrassed by it, and hurriedly jettisons the defining aesthetic material from its source in the rush to transfer that source to its new medium.
Here, Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana (Sydney Lemmon) are severely estranged from one another as adults following their childhood separation. Blame the parents: Their mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel), is a serial killer bricked up in a psychiatric ward in Portland, and their father is absent to everyone’s benefit. Bad as Victoria is, the series proposes without much hesitation that their late daddy dearest might be worse. He might also be back from the beyond and in search of his distant, quarreling brood, this being the peg that “Helstrom” hangs its narrative on. But Zbyszewski and his team of writers—among them Blair Butler and Maggie Bandur—take their sweet time getting there from the pilot until the third episode, “The One Who Got Away,” when the viewer is actually given the precious gift of background about “Helstrom’s” protagonists. By then, the sluggish pacing has taken its toll; instead of a gripping horror comic show, the authors have compressed the plot into a Ambien.
It cannot be overstated that “Helstrom” is thunderously dull. Falling asleep reading a good, scary story is an age-old pleasure for people with a proclivity for giving themselves the willies at what’s subjectively the worst time to do so; “Helstrom” promises the first but fails to deliver on the latter. How a show about the human spawn of Satan, or if not Satan then at least some incarnation of the Devil, grown-up into dysfunctional adults in need of intense immersive therapy, manages to be this staid is a twisted miracle: All of the “stuff” of a good, creepy, serialized pseudo-superhero tale is there, but “Helstrom” fails as a cousin to shows like “Supernatural,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Constantine,” or even Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy” films. Zbyszewski’s treatment doesn’t even rise to the level of “Grimm,” which despite its many flaws at least has a sense of style.
Perhaps the absence thereof in “Helstrom” is at the root of its woes. There’s a restraint imposed on each episode as if letting loose a little with, say, color would somehow lower the series down to unflatteringly cartoonish levels. In fact, color and flair would on their own given “Helstrom” a pulse. Grant that a big chunk of the story unfolds in Portland, and that Portland is stereotyped by out-of-towners as a place of perpetual rain and gray. Grant also that Hulu and Zbyszewski could’ve taken a few more cues from Thomas’ concept, embraced the Mephistophelian, and spared a bit of fun instead of wallowing in misery both in tone and in text. Austen and Lemmon are both saddled with the burden of lightening things up with sarcastic, aloof banter, whether they’re bickering with each other or pouring contempt on everyone around them. The latter happens more frequently than the former; the show takes more than an hour of its collective duration to get them in the same room, which leaves Daimon with Louise Hastings (June Carryl), both his foster mother and the chief of the hospital Victoria calls home, and Gabriella Rossetti (Ariana Guerra), Hastings’ new hire and an agent of the Vatican, to poke and prod and look down on.
Whether it’s Austen’s performance or the show’s general mien, the hotshot act doesn’t work. Likely it’s a combination of both. Lemmon, for what it’s worth, doesn’t fare much better as an auctioneer who uses her vocation as a cover for avenging women; we meet her tricking a man to a rooftop, using her psychic talents to reveal that he’s a misogynist murderer, and then shoving him to his death. That’s character! But it’s short-lived, too, and a shame at that because she’s far more interesting upfront than a half-assed demon hunter who pays the bills teaching college ethics classes. The show’s failure to imagine more for its leads than flimsy cutout personality types is nearly crippling. After a point, the blame slides off of Austen and Lemmon and onto the writing itself. Asking them to patch holes in “Helstrom”s foundations is a big ask.
Less of an ask is for Zbyszewski to stick a little closer to the blueprints given him instead of embellishing so much that “Helstrom,” the series, is void of everything that defines “Helstrom,” the comic. This is an ongoing problem with comic book shows and movies: The endless search for respectability and gravity in stories about superpowered people fighting evil in spandex. Here, the search ends with pouting dourness and tedium. [D-]
All 10 episodes of “Helstrom” premiere Friday, October 16, only on Hulu.