With October’s list of horror streaming offerings longer than ever, you might be surprised to learn Marvel has also jumped into the fray with the upcoming Helstrom.
Premiering on Hulu on October 16, the show is a horror drama created by Paul Zbyszewski and based on the Marvel Comics characters Daimon and Satana Hellstrom (spelled differently for the show).
Although the show was created within the now shuttered Marvel Television production company that made shows like Daredevil and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., don’t expect it to fit inside that world. It’s evident from the five episodes made available to critics that the stand-alone show is more interested in making its own canon.
For some Marvel fans the lack of tie-ins to the larger Marvel Universe may disappoint, but the independent nature of the story also opens up the show to a broader audience of horror fans.
Like many horror stories, the show follows a family with a dark secret, focusing on siblings Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana Helstrom (Sydney Lemmon) and their mother Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel). While Daimon, Ana, and Victoria all have their demons, figurative and literal, the real black sheep of the family is their father, a notorious serial killer whose source of evil is supernatural.
Although the show is much coyer about their father’s nature than in the comics where he’s portrayed as actual Satan, it’s made very obvious from the start he’s not human either.
Also in the mix is a cadre of allies privy to the Helstrom family’s dark secrets. These characters, including the only other comic character Robert Wisdom’s mysterious Caretaker (also referred to as Henry in the show), largely serve to expand the mythology of the show.
In the case of Caretaker and his sometimes colleague Dr. Louise Hastings (June Carryl), they also know more about Ana and Daimon’s potentially doomed fate than they let on to their former wards which adds some suspense.
The main conflict of the show comes less from the demonic enemies they must team up against and more from the clashes between the siblings themselves. Daimon, who works alongside the Church in exorcising demons and as a professor of ethics, is the “good” sibling, who suppresses his baser nature whereas Ana embraces her dark side in the form of vigilante justice.
On the page, the character of Ana may seem a little cliche. She uses her own experiences with evil to justify her less than moral behavior.
But Lemmon manages to balance out the damaged bad girl stereotype by bringing in a level of vulnerability. She’s compelling to watch as Ana’s trauma cracks through her polished veneer of designer suits and sleek haircuts.
Austen’s Daimon, unfortunately, doesn’t get as much depth in the show and when he does get to explore his inner life, it comes off as uneven. Even in his theological arguments with Gabriella Rosetti (Ariana Guerra), a nun-in-training from the Vatican who works as his partner, the character lacks conviction.
Unlike Ana, Daimon’s struggles rely too much on telling you instead of showing you and will leave you unconvinced.
By giving Daimon two foils, his sister and Gabriella, the show seems confused about what the character stands for. He’s cynical towards Gabriella’s faith, yet quickly embraces righteous morality when confronting his own sister.
A Different Sort of Evil
The show successfully explores the family drama angle when focusing in on the siblings and their fraught relationships with each other and their mother. The same can’t be said for the show’s work with horror elements which often seem muted.
This works in the favor of viewers with a low tolerance for scares but also leaves the actual conflict between good and evil feeling anticlimactic. In a landscape of boundary-pushing horror shows like Lovecraft Country or The Haunting of Hill House, Helstrom fails to make its mark in the genre.
Despite several characters in the show pronouncing how horrible a full Helstrom family reunion would be, the first half of the season does little to prove those stakes.
Without spoiling any specifics, there are some callbacks to Marvel horror comics that hint at the potential for an interesting new mythology. Unfortunately the show’s decision to keep explanations about the nature of demons and their origins vague waters down the potential of the concepts.
Instead of forging its own path, the story beats often feel reiterative of other stories told about demons that involve the Catholic Church (for a recent example, see CBS drama Evil).
Visually, the show’s Portland setting (filmed in Vancouver) and bleak lighting do create the right chilling atmosphere for the show. And the practical and special effects used when the show does lean into horror check the thrills and chills boxes, especially in regards to the possessions shown.
Elizabeth Marvel’s physical and vocal performance as the possessed Victoria will impress viewers, with her caustic voice making your throat itch just to think about it.
Helstrom is a slow-burn horror that could afford to turn up the heat now and then. The first half of the season takes its time establishing a world of evil but risks losing viewers in the process by stretching out the main plot.
Instead of fully embracing the characters’ unique origins and abilities, the show minimizes those elements turning to more conventional horror tropes.
While horror fans may turn to the show to add a few more scares to their October programming, the show’s slow pacing and low stakes keep it from being must-watch TV.
The full first season of Helstrom premieres on Hulu on October 16, 2020.