This Helstrom review contains no spoilers.
The first episode of Hulu’s final Jeph Loeb produced Marvel series (aside from the upcoming animated offering M.O.D.O.K.) Helstrom has everything you’d expect from the kind of straight-to-streaming exorcism movie you stumble across on a boring Sunday afternoon and immediately regret watching. There’s expository newspaper clippings about terrible crimes, fake exorcisms broken down by a cynically droll demonologist, a new fresh out of the church Vatican believer who wants to do good, creepy diary entries that look like they’ve been scrawled by demonic child, and a lot of sepia toned flashbacks. From the outset there’s a distinct lack of imagination that makes the newest Marvel show feel dated and derivative, which is fitting because the first three episodes are just that.
Diverting from the delightfully deranged and often bright and colorful comics that it’s (very) loosely based on, Helstrom goes for the Netflix MCU palette of grey, black, and shadow. Another thing that differs here is the setup. In the comics, Daimon Hellstrom is the son of the Devil. In fact, when he first debuted he was literally in his own comic titled Son of Satan. Here he’s a sad exorcist whose father was a serial killer; but as we find out he’s probably supernatural… so maybe he was the Devil after all? He also has a sister, Ana, with a sharp haircut and emotional issues who may or may not have helped her father commit his terrible crimes. If that doesn’t sound much like a fun comic book romp that’s because it isn’t. It’s also not a good horror show, feeling far more like a network attempt at supernatural horror from around 2011.
The script is filled with couldn’t be bothered gems like “what you think you know, you don’t” and “we all have baggage” that hint at the fact someone somewhere knew the show wouldn’t last longer than a season. That isn’t surprising because from the outset it feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. Ironically, when there are moments with glimmers of interest they come from mostly fleeting scenes with a decidedly rip-off Hannibal aesthetic. But those short highlights are never to do with the characters and their boring conflicts. Those conflicts primarily revolve around the Helstrom siblings’ mother who is apparently possessed by some kind of demon. Her possession is connected to the sins of their father, so at least Helstrom found a new way to incapacitate a woman for the sake of a male character’s progression.
Speaking of Hannibal, much of the show seems to have been written by a fan of Bryan Fuller’s transgressive and brilliant serial killer series. Ana’s story reflects that of Abigail, a young girl who was party to her father’s killings and may or may not have been a willing participant in luring the victims. Of course, Hannibal can’t take credit for the procedural setup, which is a primetime TV staple. But the shadow of Fuller’s show hang heavy over the early episodes. Interestingly, despite ending up on Hulu, Helstrom never really commits to the horror Hannibal got past NBC or even the dark devilish monsters that CBS’ Evil conjured up. In that way, Helstrom struggles to decide what it is, a supernatural serial killer series? An exorcism procedural? A comic book show? After the first three episodes I definitely didn’t know and wasn’t too worried about finding out.
Though it may become more procedural, the first three episodes are a mess of exposition about the Helstroms: they’re dark, they’re moody, they maybe have special powers (??), and a demon of the week subplot which varies in success. The third episode features an inexplicably long sequence of a man dying in a car crash who is also possessed by a demon. Meanwhile, Ana is beating up her possessed mum to try and get her to not be possessed, a real Ghost Adventures approach to demonic possession that could have been funny if it wasn’t played so dreadfully straight. That sums up one of Helstrom’s biggest problems: it’s not fun.
That’s not to say anyone should have expected a full-on ’90s extreme Helstrom series–though I wish they would–but that horror can be fun; whatever tone you’re going for it should still include enjoyment for the viewer. Helstrom seems to eschew that for over explaining lore and over done tropes. The most chilling and good part of the series is the animated opening which sets up a level of childlike terror which never appears in the text of the main show. There are touches of an interesting plot in the first couple of episodes when a random side character gets killed by an evil giant Cronos-style machine, but what does it have to do with anything? We’ll never know. Is there a greater Indiana Jones plot about evil artifacts? Maybe, but I will likely not bother to find out as the familial drama at the center of the show just doesn’t appeal in any way.
With the recent massive success of CBS’ Mike Coulter-led exorcism horror series Evil, the failure of Helstrom feels even more obvious. Maybe this show would have fit in a Phase One MCU world or a time when Inhumans was the level of quality Marvel was shooting for with their TV series. But now it comes across as an afterthought, which–as one of the final entries into the now defunct Marvel Television division–I suppose it was.