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Photo: Katie Yu/Hulu

31 Days of Halloween

‘Helstrom’: First Impressions

A devilish family drama that could use more Marvel ties.

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

With no new MCU film hitting theaters in 2020, Helstrom is one of the few opportunities to watch new Marvel content on your screens this year. Does the upcoming horror series make the paranormal corner of the universe interesting? Based on the first five episodes, it has a sluggish start but builds momentum into the halfway point developing compelling characters and relationships and building the excitement for how it all ends.

As showrunner, Paul Zbyszewski, said during the Comic-Con@Home panel, it is an original family story between a mother and her children after going through a traumatic experience with the father who is a serial killer. The mom, Victoria, is driven mad and is housed in a hospital while her kids, Daimon and Ana, are separated and undergo drastically different upbringings. The former is cared for by Louise Hastings, the head of the hospital where Victoria is a patient while the latter is in and out of foster care.

We catch up with the Helstrom children as adults living separate lives and finding their own ways to combat evil using the superpowers they inherited from their father. When their mother begins having health issues and a supernatural terror is unleashed upon the world, the estranged siblings find themselves reunited and fighting to save their mom and confront the demonic threat.

The series is initially a slow burn introducing Daimon and Ana and the main people in their lives. It dedicates time developing the characters looking how their past guilts and traumas shape their decisions in the present and their feelings about actual and found families. It explores the nature versus nurture dynamic seeing how the siblings decide to use their abilities for good but in different and sometimes, questionable ways.

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Photo: Bettina Strauss/Hulu

There are some fascinating pairings between the Helstroms and outside the family as well. Hastings and Robert Wisdom’s Caretaker fill the parental void in the siblings’ lives, and like Daimon and Ana, have their own approaches but also the same goals.

Gabriella Rossetti provides a nice foil to the eldest Helstrom. She is an inexperienced, idealistic nun shadowing Daimon on his evil and demon hunting. She serves as the show’s moral compass and actress, Ariana Guerra, brings a lot of compassion to her role. Gabriella is always trying to do the right thing and struggles with compromising her principles to deal with this new world she’s been exposed to. There’s some good chemistry between Guerra and Tom Austen, who plays Daimon. They have a Mulder and Scully vibe with a hesitant partnership that grows as the season progresses.

The overall narrative has the different characters involved in various independent events but things begin to click seeing how they are tied together. The plot becomes more interesting seeing the different links and there’s a nice build up to the fifth episode that reveals how all the moving pieces finally fit. The time devoted to the characters early on makes the viewer invested and makes these revelations and outcomes more impactful.

One way the series separates itself from previous Marvel shows is the horror and supernatural aspects. Elizabeth Marvel stands out in her role as Victoria Helstrom. The way she transitions between creepy, intimidating presence to sympathetic and vulnerable mother is seamless. In addition, the demon voice she uses always sends a tingle down your spine.

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Photo: Bettina Strauss/Hulu

Like the Netflix series, there is a darker and grittier tone and the gloomy setting of the Pacific Northwest is fitting. The show does use jump scares but the demons are most horrifying. There are some twisted and demented, fear inducing scenes and what’s shown can be as frightening than what is implied. The sound effects up the cringe factor. On another note, eyes have never been so eerie.

Despite the positives, there is a feeling of wanting more. The action sequences are great with Ana actress, Sydney Lemmon, proving she can be another in a great line of Marvel women and the Helstrom sibling team ups are fun to watch, but those types of scenes are rare in the first half. They could have really helped make the slower parts more manageable.

Furthermore, despite the use of Marvel characters, there aren’t any connections to the MCU as a whole. It’s in its own self-contained story and could have easily been a regular horror show if the names were changed. There aren’t many Easter eggs as well to pay service to the hardcore Daimon and Satana Hellstrom fans but it at least it does draw upon some elements from The Son of Satan comics.

Helstrom overcomes a slow start with interesting character dynamics and leans into the horror and psychological aspects. Though it crafts an intriguing story, there is a wanting for more action and nods to its Marvel ties.

All ten episodes of Helstrom become available October 16 on Hulu.

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