Plot: Daimon and Ana Helstrom are the son and daughter of a mysterious and powerful serial killer. The siblings have a complicated dynamic as they track down the terrorizing worst of humanity – each with their attitude and skills.
Review: What once was envisioned as part of a horror-centric branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Helstrom debuts on Hulu in time for Halloween. Without the familiar Marvel logo at the opening, Helstrom feels like a discarded property that doesn’t quite work in the MCU, like THE NEW MUTANTS on the film side of things. Without any connections to other Marvel characters, Helstrom ends up being a fairly conventional procedural series albeit a very, very dark one. And no, I don’t mean thematically dark, I mean actually so dark I could barely see some moments on my screen. Helstrom is a horror series but one that doesn’t quite leverage the unique source material at its disposal. This is a dark, dreary horror series that is just not scary enough.
The last series from Marvel Television before it was absorbed into Marvel Studios, Helstrom feels very different from any other Marvel Cinematic Universe story. Very mature and violent, this could have been a very intriguing tangent for the MCU, especially if paired with the announced and then canceled Ghost Rider series that was to be headlined by Gabriel Luna. But, this ten episode season (of which 5 were made available for this review) is likely to be the last if the fate of all non-Disney+ series bearing the Marvel name are any indication. It is a shame because had this series been connected to the MCU, it could have elevated this by the numbers story that echoes everything from THE EXORCIST to SEVEN and nowhere nearly as well as those films.
In Marvel Comics, Daimon Helstrom is also known as Hellstorm and The Son of Satan. A colleague and sometimes nemesis to Ghost Rider, Helstrom and his sister Satana were the offspring of Satan (later changed to the demon Marduk) and a human mother. Separated, the siblings developed powers that they eventually used to aid The Defenders and even the Avengers. In this version, rather than full-fledged superheroes, Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana (Sydney Lemmon) are shown to be estranged due to their father’s career as a serial killer and their mother Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel) who is possessed by a demon and incarcerated in a mental hospital. Daimon, college ethics professor, uses his power to exorcise demons to aid the Vatican and namely the nun-in-training Gabriella Rossett (Ariana Guerra). Ana deals in antiquities while using her ability to see the true nature of evil people to kill them for the betterment of mankind.
The influence of a demon on their lives and their mother’s condition pulls the siblings back to face their past and the trauma they endured thanks to their connection to evil. The crux of Helstrom as a series is the investigations that Daimon, Gabriella, and Ana undertake which all connect back to Victoria. Played by Elizabeth Marvel, Victoria is equal parts Hannibal Lecter and Pazuzu and one of the highlights of her long career. She also easily outshines both Austen and Lemmon, two talented actors, whose performances are overwhelmed by Marvel’s presence on screen. Austen’s Daimon is a bit too defeatist about evil while Lemmon’s Ana is a much more combative presence. The familial connection here is intriguing but never mined deeply enough to make it worthy of a series long deep-dive into the mythology. Supporting cast includes Robert Wisdom of The Wire as Caretaker (previously played by Sam Elliott in the GHOST RIDER movie), June Carryl as Louise Hastings, and Alain Uy as Chris Yen, Ana’s best friend.
Created by Emmy-winning writer Paul Zbyszewski (Lost, AFTER THE SUNSET), Helstrom is a slow-moving story that doesn’t really tell us very much about anything below the surface of the story. Many similar series have taken thematic chances to explore the essence of faith versus science, good and evil, medicine and spirituality, and even real medical conditions, abuse, and trauma and how they can be perceived. Helstrom wants us to believe in demons and their existence but there is no over-arching mythology put in place. As the story develops, we begin to learn more and more as to how the Helstrom family became the way they are, but it is a slog to get those answers. Halfway through the first season I still cannot tell you what is going on. Part of that could be the way the series was filmed with most scenes so darkly lit, I couldn’t tell what was going on. Even scenes shot outside during the day are gray and overcast. There is no levity in Helstrom even when the characters try to crack a bad joke.
What could have made Helstrom that much more interesting would have been a connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel stories not rooted in any sort of reality, like THOR or GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, are greatly aided in the viewer’s suspension of disbelief by showing us how the story fits in with the larger Marvel mythology. Had this series had that ability, even tangentially like Runaways or Cloak and Dagger, there would have been something distinct to pull you into this story. As it is, Helstrom is as generic as any other serial killer TV series. Everyone involved puts in a solid effort to make this a worthwhile watch, but it isn’t scary enough and it isn’t unique enough to commit ten hours of your life to.
Helstrom premieres October 16th on Hulu.