I’ll be honest right off the bat and say that when Hulu announced Helstrom alongside a Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider adaptation, I was excited for Ghost Rider and had no interest in Helstrom. When Ghost Rider got canned, I wasn’t horribly interested in tapping into the darker parts of the Marvel universe without Reyes in tow. Then the first trailer for Helstrom dropped and I was immediately pulled in. I need to preface this review by stating that I have no background in reading the source material from which Helstrom, a Hulu Original, was adapted. Instead, I came into the series as fan of horror, especially of religious horror, exorcism stories, and all manners of demonic things that go bump in the night. From that perspective, Helstrom exceeds expectations.
From showrunner Paul Zbyszewski, Helstrom stars Tom Austen, Sydney Lemmon, Ariana Guerra, and June Carryl and is based on the Marvel Comics characters Daimon and Satana Hellstrom. As a standalone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a rarity these days – the series roots itself in themes of religion and morality with a focus on Catholic mythology about concepts of evil. It tells the story of the Helstrom siblings, the children of one of the most dangerous serial killers, as they hunt down the worst horrors that plague humanity to offer.
From the first episode, the series dives right into the horror of its setting and themes by subverting and exploiting exorcism tropes. While the series does ground itself in Catholicism with the inclusion of a nun in the main story, the siblings themselves live in a world of magic that runs adjacent to those beliefs and reveals hidden truths behind the way we conceptualize those elements that are common in horror. Damian and Ana’s supernatural abilities are well-crafted and their power is never in question.
Following a monster of the week format with a serialized overarching narrative, Helstrom pits the siblings against all manners of beasties that push the siblings’ relationship and sense of morality to the breaking point. The dynamic between Austen and Lemmon as they bring Daimon and Ana to life feels both antagonistic and compassionate. The two actors maintain chemistry that showcases a pair of siblings trying to reach each other with empathy across a gap of animosity. Their childhood and their relationship to a dangerous serial killer are present throughout the season and each of them has to deal with it on their own, while someone finding the space to be there for each other. Additionally, given the nature of their powers, they have to confront the evil they come from with the good that they do. Helstrom has two strong elements: the way that it utilizes religious myth to build out its world and how the two main actors are able to bring emotion to two characters whose coldness and callous natures seem to define them.
Like most stories in the horror genre, Helstrom tackles huge issues in the human experience. Helstrom explores themes of abuse, the complexity of sibling relationships, the moral gray areas we all wade through, and the way religion can exploit and hurt as much as help. Though abuse plays only a minor role in the overarching plot of Season 1, it is essential for setting the tone. For Ana especially, fighting the monsters isn’t about saving the world. Sure there is a part of her driving towards goodness by exterminating evil, but the real reason is a drive for cathartic release. She is fighting her abuser by fighting the monsters she can defeat.
The most important element that Helstrom stumbles over is the portrayal of mental health in relation to things like possession and violence. While there is nothing extremely offensive, the show relies on mental health tropes in a very shallow way. Any commentary available on mental health is incidental and poorly thought out as a part of the larger narrative. This is a real missed opportunity given the strength the show displays when confronting and subverting other tropes, especially those tied to large, important themes.
Additionally, Helstrom misses the opportunity to represent latinidad in its storytelling. Actress Guerra (who is of Mexican descent) plays the role of Sister Gabriella, a nun who joins the Helstrom siblings. There is nothing in the character or the writing to indicate that she is Latina. This ambiguity may be intentional. It is true that the character’s full name, Gabriella Rosetti, is vaguely Italian. It is also true that historically, an Italian actress would be hired to play a Latina character, not vice versa. Because the ethnicity of the character is ambiguous and the actress is Latina, it seems reasonable to read the character as Latina, as well. It is a small complaint when set against the rest of the series, but when set against the rest of the series, but the way the majority of Latinx Catholics explore and experience their religion would deeply impact how a character with that background would react to supernatural evil. However, Gabriela isn’t impacted by it all. Instead, she plays out like any nun in a horror story dealing with Catholicism when confronted with evil. It seems is a small ask to include the impact of cultural backgrounds.
One of the best examples of horror integrating latinidad through religion for the larger narrative is Fox’s now-canceled The Exorcist series. While the character is the lead, his Mexican identity impacts how he views the world. His grandmother’s image of perfection and religion impacts how he views his career and his identity as a priest. While Gabriella isn’t the focus of Helstrom’s story, it seems reasonable to ask that the show acknowledge the distinctive elements of Latin American Catholicism. There are moments of the series that focus specifically on Gabriella’s religiosity, such as Episode 4, “Containment.” Unfortunately, these moments treat her as belonging to a generic Catholic tradition that seems to lack cultural identity.
But while Helstrom has its missed opportunities, it makes up for them not only in its strong representation of the main sibling relationship, but also in how the series uses music, lighting, and color. The series feels cold from start to finish, and the costuming of each character exemplifies their personalities and somehow seems vibrant in shades of black, navy, and grey. The season features a wonderful opening that juxtaposes hellish charcoal illustrations with a smooth and relaxing popular song, To save the surprise when you hit play, I won’t name the song.
While I can’t render a verdict on Helstrom’s authenticity to its source material, I can proclaim how well it showcases elements of horror that make it perfect for October viewing. As a part of Huluween, Hulu’s spooky month programming, this is a series that will make horror fans happy and adds to the growing list of excellent horror on television that I hope continues to gain momentum.
Helstrom is available to stream exclusively on Hulu.
While I can’t render a verdict on Helstrom’s authenticity to its source material, I can proclaim how well it showcases elements of horror that make it perfect for October viewing. As a part of Huluween, Hulu’s spooky month programming, this is a series that will make horror fans happy and just adds to the growing list of horror on television that I hope continues to gain momentum.