TORONTO – Netflix series “Hemlock Grove” is shying away in its second season from the campy lore it introduced in its first season but continues to deliver plenty of gore — as shows about werewolves and vampires tend to do.
Chunks of flesh and streams of blood won’t surprise audiences familiar with Eli Roth’s work — the “Hostel” series filmmaker brought the Brian McGreevy novel of the same name to life as a show last year. The quality of visual effects earned the series an Emmy nod for its first season, including those in the particularly horrific scene in the finale when, in a fit of rage, rich teenaged brat Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård) tears off his mother Olivia’s tongue with his teeth and spits the bloodied flesh out onto the floor beside her.
“I fast forward through those parts,” Famke Janssen, who plays the mysterious matriarch Olivia, said with a laugh during an interview at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel.
Janssen, known for her roles in “Nip/Tuck” and as Jean Grey in the X-Men series, describes her character as not just manipulative but “diabolical.”
“Olivia is very unlike from anyone else I’ve played,” said Janssen. “She’s challenging in a way where you’re giving emotions to a character where you never truly know whether she’s putting them on to achieve something or if she really means it.”
The show, shot in Toronto and set in a former Pennsylvania steel town, follows the grisly murders of teenage girls, which leads to an unlikely bromance between Roman and Peter Rumancek, the new kid in town who also happens to be a werewolf, played by Canadian Landon Liboiron. The pair teams up to find the creature perpetrating the crimes, a journey that doesn’t end well for any of the characters.
The trauma Olivia endures at the end of the first season is both physical and emotional — her teenage daughter Shelley has gone missing after being blamed for the murders, her close relationship with Roman is severed after she tells him he’s a vampire, and his vicious response to this revelation leads to Olivia being hauled away in a body bag. Her rebirth in Season 2 is in the hands of the mad doctor Johann Pryce (Joel de la Fuente) at the ethically questionable Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Technologies.
“She’s not in the best shape that we’ve seen her in, but she has a way of crawling out of anything and everything — she’s a survivor,” said Janssen.
Her crippled state transforms her, evoking unfamiliar emotions in Olivia.
“I like the whole vulnerability aspect we brought to her this season because that’s more who I am,” said Janssen. “I am not an evil, manipulative character by nature so those are the parts that are a little bit more challenging but certainly fun.”
After the first season answers the question “What are you?” — which both the audience and Olivia’s late husband ask in a flashback — the show takes a turn away from mythology.
“This season was about exfoliating the characters more, peeling back the layers of the onion to see what was underneath,” said Charles (Chic) Eglee, the series’ new showrunner.
Eglee, who also wrote for and produced “The Walking Dead” and “Dexter,” said he is primarily interested in exploring characters’ motivations and following “good rules of storytelling.”
“Certainly the characters witness horrific things, they find themselves in horrific situations, some of them may have even committed horrific acts,” said Eglee. “But the horrific moments, the horror moments come out of an emotional context, a character context.”
Despite describing elements of the show as “horrific,” Eglee said he doesn’t classify “Hemlock Grove” as a horror show, adding he isn’t familiar with horror or the tropes used in the genre.
This may prove to benefit the show since its first season received lukewarm critical reviews partly because of its reliance on tropes, including “serving up the predictable chorus line of pretty girls to be disembowelled for your viewing pleasure,” as Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara wrote.
This season’s plot follows a string of murders made to look like accidents that Peter is determined to solve, trying to enlist Roman’s help. Both are also entangled in family struggles — Peter is trying to get his mother Lynda (Lili Taylor) out of prison while Roman deals with his mother’s attempts at reconciliation. The show elevates the significance of characters like Peter’s cousin Destiny (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Dr. Pryce while introducing Madeline Brewer as Miranda Cates, a new girl in town who has caught the attention of Peter and Roman.
All 13 episodes of Season 2 of “Hemlock Grove” are now streaming on Netflix.