Back when I was young and the world was new and only one kid we knew had a (very small, black-and-white) TV in his room, my cousins, my brother and I used to put on plays in the basement. We were big fans of “Night Stalker,” so these were often quite violent plays, involving pentagrams, blood rituals and monsters constructed with whatever we had on hand — my mother’s old hula skirt got a lot of use, as did her sheared raccoon coat, a ratty old “That Girl” wig and the fake blood we breathlessly purchased with Our Own Money from the back of comic books.
The narrative was unforgivably skimpy; mainly, we just wanted to kill or be killed and then play a bunch of people looking anxious and/or mysterious as they tried to figure out what was going on. Which is why I cannot bring myself to completely dismiss “Hemlock Grove,” Netflix’s latest attempt to overthrow the world of episodic television, made available in its entirety Friday.
Let me be clear: As a for-profit visual arts experience, “Hemlock Grove” is terrible in ways that mock the meaning of the word “terrible,” with clunky acting, tra-la-la transitions and at least one monster that walks like a bad Frankenstein and appears to be wearing the very same wig/hat we used.
It is also terrible in ways that are less amusing — Lili Taylor costars, and in her (far too infrequent) scenes, viewers get a glimpse of what might have been — an arch but still eerie contemplation of our current preoccupation with small-town rot and the troubling assumption that many of us are not quite human.
Unfortunately, Taylor is not the centerpiece — a bunch of attractive young people are — so “Hemlock Grove” simply wallows in its own guts, serving up the predictable chorus line of pretty girls to be disemboweled for your viewing pleasure while the guys hunch around their cigarettes and try not to look too vulpine or lupine or whatever the monster vernacular is these days. Frankly, it’s difficult not to laugh, or yawn, and then wonder nervously whether you have Become Dangerously Inured to Violence, just as all those parental groups warned.
Not to worry; it’s just a case of derivation overload. Never mind the now-canonical “Twilight” series or even “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — the wonderful world of monsters and idyllically creepy towns is everywhere you look these days: HBO’s “True Blood,” A&E;'s “Bates Motel,” FX’s “American Horror Story,” NBC’s “Grimm,” the CW’s “Vampire Diaries.”
“Hemlock Grove” is based on Brian McGreevy’s novel by the same name, and the only thing it has going for it is director Eli Roth (of “Hostel” fame) and no rating system whatsoever — original drama on Netflix is not officially television. Actually, by “Saw” standards, “Hemlock Grove” is pretty tame, at least in the first three episodes. There’s nudity, slavering sounds, plenty o’ fake guts and a pretty disgusting/amazing transformation scene — in other words, nothing we haven’t seen before, increasingly on the Big Four networks.
The story begins, as so many do these days, with the murder of a young woman, only this time just as a mysterious pair of gypsies — Taylor and Landon Liboiron — have come to town. They take up residence in a deserted trailer nestled in the woods behind the stately manse owned by an Addamsian family that appears to rule the former steel town of Hemlock Grove, Pa. There’s the seductively sinister matriarch (Famke Janssen), the arrogant troublemaker (Bill Skarsgard) and the mute giantess (Nicole Boivin), who has one enormous eye and skin that glows blue.
The discovery of everyone’s true nature is what propels “Hemlock Grove,” which vacillates between being a monster mash version of “Glee” and a hard-R rip-off of “Grimm.” The scenery is evocative enough, and every once in a while, a truly chilling moment will unfold. It may turn out to be campy enough to catch on, but mostly, “Hemlock Grove” has a straight-to-Netflix feel that diminishes rather than promotes its “original series” aspirations.
Though it is always fun to play monster in the basement.
When: Available Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)