Helstrom Review: Marvel's Scariest Thing Yet Is Perfect for the Season

What was once supposed to launch its own subsection of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Helstrom will hit Hulu in a matter of days as a series that's entirely on its lonesome, one which features a pair of Marvel's most macabre characters. It's the last live-action offering from Jeph Loeb and Marvel Television, and as such, is quick to fall into the same pitfalls other television offerings have — tiresome exposition, reduced budgets, and the like. Even then, Helstrom's undoubtedly the most unique thing Marvel Television has put forth to date, a beginning to something fans of horror would fall in love if it wasn't for Marvel Studios smothering it like an unwanted fire.

From the first frame of the series, the tone for the narrative is set. Rain pours down upon an asylum in the Pacific Northwest as a thunderstorm rages on, the cinematography and production design very reminiscent of something ripped straight from The Exorcist. It's here we see one Dr. Louise Hastings, played by the delightful June Carryl. Here, she runs the asylum where Victoria Helstrom (Elizabeth Marvel) is being held and serves as a surrogate mother to the Helstrom siblings.

Hastings, of course, is a character from deep within the Ghost Rider mythos and her characterization is changed some for the series. Nonetheless, there's still a relationship with Robert Wisdom's Caretaker, though that's neither here nor there. Carryl's performance is most certainly one of the first bright spots in a show that proves just how much it wants to push the boundaries.

Interestingly enough, the spooky vibes are almost interrupted immediately by the campiest of horror tropes as a spirit pushes Carryl away from her computer, using her keyboard to type the same phrase over and over again. Even as someone who isn't grossly embedded in the world of horror programming, the moment solicited a chuckle instead of fear or shock. Luckily for horror fans, it might be the only such trope in the series that doesn't land well.

Before long, we're introduced to the rest of the show's ensemble, including Tom Austen's Daimon Helstrom and Ariana Guerra's Gabriella Rossetti. It's here, believe it or not, we see the first usage of superpowers — something Marvel Television has notoriously avoided throughout the years. Quite frankly, it's something that sets this show apart from the more grounded streaming shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

Even though Helstrom remains, dare I say, grounded and gritty in its approach, it doesn't implement plot devices that take away the abilities of its leads so the production office can save a buck here and there. There's plenty of fire-throwing and soul-sucking throughout to at least partially whet the appetite of fans. That said, if you were hoping to see Daimon and Ana face off against Mephisto in the pits of Hell, you should know to temper your expectations by now. We are, after all, still talking about a Marvel Television production.

But again, that's one of the strongest parts of the entire series here — it continually pushes the boundaries to set itself apart from other things Marvel's done. There are moments the show is downright terrifying, there are times the content within is almost entirely all too gruesome. There's one moment earlier on in the series that's so over the top and out of left field, you temporarily forget you're watching something from the Marvel umbrella. In fact, it's probably the one moment where you'll realize, "Yeah, this might be why Marvel Studios couldn't put their logo on this."

After two episodes of serious Exorcist vibes, the tone begins leveling out to things you've seen elsewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For a slight moment, we see something very similar to Marvel's Daredevil with the night shots and street-level crimefighting. Though the detour itself is discouraging for someone hoping to see something all supernatural, all the time, things soon get turned on their head as it jumps into an ice bath with full-on horror.

Right around the half-way point of the series, things go from unsettling to grounded to full-on jump-scare horror goodness. Without giving too much away, one could probably add major bloodbaths along the line. Coincidentally enough, when the show goes full-on horror is the exact same moment where fans are reminded just how much of a superstar Elizabeth Marvel is. The biggest name on the cast, Marvel's performance here is exceptional.

Marvel's character arc as Victoria Helstrom requires a certain range and, in a sense, the ability to play multiple characters at the same time. Surprising few, she nails it every time. It might be too cliche in the year 2020 to continue calling someone a scene-stealer but, Marvel steals every scene she's in. She dominates the screen and demands your attention every single moment she's involved, making it likely she'll go down as an all-time Marvel Television great.

That's not to discount the performances of the other cast members in the slightest. Though neither Tom Austen nor Sydney Lemmon necessarily look the part of their comic book counterparts, they each bring a fresh adaptation that should satisfy fans of the comic characters and those entirely new to the property alike. Austen's Daimon is well-reserved and level-headed as he works to navigate a world he really doesn't care to be a part of.

Then there's Lemmon's Ana, an ace casting choice that is certain to become a favorite. The series is quite dark through and through and Lemmon's able to inject a certain sense of levity throughout with quippy one-liners and insanely sarcastic remarks.

It doesn't stop there, however. In addition to the aforementioned Carryl, you have an ensemble that each adds their own flare to this show, a flare that lets them all stand out on their own rather than becoming supporting characters that blend into the background. You've got Alain Uy's conniving Chris Yen, a schemer who adds an incredible amount of conflict to the show, palpable tension that leaps off the screen every time he pops up. Then there are characters like Robert Wisdom's Caretaker, a fan-favorite supernatural character from the comics whose adaptation is sure to excite many; or Ariana Guerra's Gabriella Rosetti, whose faith adds a whole new layer of complexity to not only the lore of the show but the overall message of faith across the entire MCU.

Helstrom carries the same pitfalls other entries from Marvel Television properties do. It remains grounded, but in a way that makes the most amount of sense. The series continually one-ups itself to see just how far the boundaries can be pushed and the end result is something fans of the MCU have never seen before. There are times Helstrom is truly terrifying and it has the potential to serve as a cataclysm as it makes fans realize horror content is a necessity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


Rating: 4 out of 5

Helstrom hits Hulu on October 16th.