Comics On TV

Five Things You Need To Know About Horror Series Helstrom

It is based on Marvel characters, has a family at its center, is snarky as hell, and more to know about Hulu's terrifying new series.

by | October 16, 2020 | Comments

On a gray day in February 2020 — which feels like a decade ago thanks to subsequent events — Rotten Tomatoes spoke the right incantation and materialized on the Vancouver set of Hulu’s Helstrom. Though based on the Marvel Comics family of characters, the show definitely has more in common with The Exorcist than, say, Marvel’s Runaways. And as we learned while touring the large asylum set — including a padded cell set aside for Victoria Helstrom — and speaking to the cast, there is something different about the show, a difference which may be inspired by the comics themselves. Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Victoria, even went as far as to call the Helstrom stories an “artisanal Marvel comic.”

So join us for an exploration of Helstrom and the five things you need to know before diving into the series.

1. Helstrom Is Based on Marvel’s Son of Satan

Marvel Spotlight #13: Son of Satan

(Photo by Marvel Comics)

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In the early 1970s, Marvel began to toy with horror comics — a genre it actively opposed 15 years earlier — with The Tomb of Dracula and Ghost Rider. Sensing the phenomenon could be repeated, Stan Lee suggested a title called “The Mark of Satan,” but editor Roy Thomas talked him down. He believed even the hip Marvel audience of the time would balk at a story in which the hero was the Prince of Darkness. Lee then suggested something else, a story centering on the son of Satan, leaving Thomas and artist Gary Friedrich to dream up the rest during an initial run in Marvel Spotlight.

Born Daimon Hellstrom (or Helstrom depending on the decade) to mother Victoria and, well, the Devil, Daimon learned upon her death the true nature of his family. Armed with the ability to command hellfire, a pentagram etched into his chest, and a pitchfork, the character aimed to give Satan a lot of trouble. Complicating matters, though, was his more outwardly demonic sister, Satana and the increasing number of horrors subsequent creative teams added to the Marvel canon.

And to take one look at the son of Satan, you might wonder why he would be a good anchor for a television show. As executive producer Paul Zbyszewski told Rotten Tomatoes in a Zoom call some months after our visit, the emotional story of the Helstrom family is ripe for TV, and it is there from Daimon’s first story.

“It was one specific panel in Marvel Spotlight #13 … where Daimon is reading his mother’s journal, and he’s in his full-on cape and bare chest with the pentagram and everything,” he recalled. “And he’s crying because he’s reading the story of his mother and how the mother met the father and sort of who the father really is … and that’s a lot of emotion. That’s a lot of baggage.”

Zbyszewski, growing up in the Catholic tradition while reading the early Helstrom appearances, became enamored with the baggage.

“This was a very emotional story about a couple of kids who had the worst dad ever,” he said. Plus, the thrill of reading about the son of Satan offered his comic book diet a sense of the taboo and danger. “You go, ‘Ooh, that’s dark.’ And then when you pick it up and you’re a little bit older, you’re like, ‘Oh, OK. I kind of see this [emotional tale].’”

The sense of cool and the family underpinnings made Helstrom a must-make concept.

2. Helstrom Is An Unlikely Family Drama

Alain Uy and Sydney Lemmon star in Helstrom

(Photo by Katie Yu/Hulu)

Though the series begins with Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana (Satana renamed for television) having spent years apart and estranged, the show leans into the notion of family very quickly thanks to the unique dynamic between Ana (Sydney Lemmon) and Chris Yen (Alain Uy).

“[My] chosen family is Chris Yen,” Lemmon said during our time in Vancouver. “We met in the foster care system and just fused and became best friends. [He] became almost more of a brother to me than Daimon and then down the road, business partners.”

Chris and Ana are introduced with a peek at their lavish life, including San Francisco apartments and a thriving antiquities dealership. To Uy, that clean, ordered world is the best place for Chris. The character is “a very in-control type of person and likes things in a specific way. Some ways that is the yin into Ana’s yang,” Uy explained.

That yang includes a handful of supernatural abilities Chris may or may not be aware of — “I think he’s got some knowledge,” Uy teased.

“The night you meet her, she is hosting a huge auction and you encounter a powerful business lady,” Lemmon said. “Then everything goes sideways, and she gets pulled away from everything and has to deal with her past, which is something that she’s been running from.”

Elizabeth Marvel and Erica Tremblay in Helstrom

(Photo by Katie Yu/Hulu)

Which leads us back to Daimon.

“[We’re] ripped apart at a young age,” Lemmon explained. “So we’ve led completely separate lives and have totally different bags of trauma, and when we come together, it’s really, really hard to find the common ground.”

Perhaps the siblings can find common ground with their mother, Victoria, who is still alive in this version of the story, but not entirely herself. Marvel — whose name did not get her the job, by the way — tackles a difficult mix of mental illness and not being alone in her head.

She called the work “actor’s candy,” adding “this landscape of the Marvel universe, and the powers and the things that they’re wrestling with, they’re so huge. But as theater artists, we do the Greek [plays], and we do Shakespeare, and we are used to taking these massive cosmic issues and domesticating them. And that’s something that I think we get to do very interestingly in this Marvel Universe.”

From what we’ve seen of the show, these cosmic issues will lead Daimon and Ana back to the pain caused by their home life with Victoria and their father.

3. The Show Can Deviate From the Comics

Robert Wisdom in Helstrom season 1

(Photo by Bettina Strauss/Hulu)

Like Victoria’s continuing presence in the mental ward of a Portland area hospital, Helstrom takes certain liberties with the comics. Ana, for instance, is quite different from her curvaceous and horn-headed comic book counterpart – Lemmon recalled thinking “Oh! OK, um, so we’re going to be using wigs, prosthetic body parts apparently” when she first saw art of Satana – and a couple of the characters more tied to Ghost Rider comics add a generational aspect to the show.

In the series, both Caretaker (Robert Wisdom) and Dr. Louise Hastings (June Carryl) have been involved with the Helstrom kids for a long time. Dr. Hastings essentially raised Daimon while Caretaker looked after Ana from afar. Their roles here are quite a departure from Marvel lore — Hastings is a fairly obscure name from an early ’90s comic book series — but Zbyszewski viewed them as different ways Marvel characters can be used in a television adaptation. Caretaker, who is part of a secret society holding the line against evil in the comics, featured “a natural element in the original storytelling” the producer knew could fit into his plan for Helstrom.

For his part, Wisdom views the character as a cross between “Nick Fury and Indiana Jones” and thinks Marvel fans familiar with the character will be surprised by how much he cares for Ana.

“They’re going to be taken with the relationship,” he said. “She’s like a bolt of lightning, and I’m trying to wrestle with [that].”

Wisdom referred to it as a “dance” which may, in the end, lead to a surprising change in Caretaker himself, but also teased, “Who knows what Caretaker’s real motivation is?”

June Carryl and Elizabeth Marvel in Helstrom

(Photo by Katie Yu/Hulu)

Dr. Hastings “fit in a little bit differently” according to Zbyszewski.

“Sometimes the backstories in the comics are not deep enough or rich enough to mine to give your characters arcs,” he explained.

As a result, Dr. Hastings benefited from a major expansion, although elaborating might constitute a spoiler. We can say she is the head of the hospital’s psychology department and one of the few people Daimon trusts.

“There’s a practicality to Louise that I think gets a workout,” Carryl said back in February. “When something kind of goes off the rails and into another realm, there’s a ‘Huh. OK. I’m going to have to put that in the hopper, and it’s going to pop for a [moment], and we’ll deal with it later.”

As a result, the character lends the show an added sense of reality. When we asked Carryl about that aspect of Dr. Hastings more recently, she said the supernatural is “not old hat yet” to the character despite raising a child who can summon hellfire.

4. Daimon Helstrom Knows His Abilities

Helstrom stars Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon

(Photo by Katie Yu/Hulu)

In one of the more obvious departures from other Marvel television shows, Daimon and is quite accustomed to his powers.

“He has the ability to control energy from what we call the ‘shadow side,’” Austen explained. “So he has the ability to manipulate the energy that is on the other side that we don’t see and bring it into this world.”

It makes him both a telekinetic and, naturally, able to ignite a blaze whenever he needs it. He can also “remove energies that have taken over people from the shadow side” and send them back. It plays into an interesting aspect of the series teased during the show’s New York Comic Con panel: Daimon’s adversaries are merely thwarted by what we’ll call an exorcism. They can return with new powers and tricks.

Austen and the rest of the crew in Vancouver played very coy about the character’s signature branding, cloak, and pitchfork, of course. The pentagram, or something like it, appears in a handful of the show’s teasers, and Austen jokingly said the cloak is “a wax green barber jacket that has very limited billowing.” While perhaps less theatrical than his comic book counterpart, Austen felt this version of Daimon would pare things down to “a decent pair of boots, a coat, and some comfy jeans” as a more contained sense of fashion suits the major aspects of his life.

Ariana Guerra and June Carryl in Helstrom season 1

(Photo by Bettina Strauss/Hulu)

During the day, Daimon spends his days as a college professor. But the night sees him acting as an exorcist in concert with the Church. Joining him in that effort as the series begins is Gabriella Rosetti (Ariana Guerra), a new take on Marvel’s Gabriel the Devil Hunter, who appears here as a novice nun fresh from the Regina Apostolorum. She is quite well-read in regards to the horrors Daimon faces, but is less ready for the man himself.

“I don’t think anyone can prepare you for Daimon Helstrom. There’s no textbook for that,” Guerra said, adding that their earlier interactions are “very tense.”

“I feel like he is not trusting of me, and I’m skeptical because of what I’ve been told about him,” she said.

Nonetheless, their rapport builds and plays into one of the program’s greatest strengths.

5. Snark Is a Superpower

Helstrom stars Sydney Lemmon and Tom Austen

(Photo by Katie Yu/Hulu)

From everything we heard and saw in Vancouver, it was safe to assume Helstrom might be one of the darker shows debuting this month. But, as Zbyszewski put it, “it wouldn’t be Marvel” without some snark. Despite the evil and the deep personal wounds the Helstroms and their surrogate families will face, they counter it with cutting remarks and some satisfyingly snappy banter.

“You need humor,” Zbyszewski explained. “Humor makes it more real because we are humorous in our daily lives. We have the ability to look at something and go, ‘Well, that’s f—ed up’ … we all have that component in our personalities. And so, we did try to give all our characters a little bit of levity at times.”

He was quick to credit his writing staff as the source of the series funniest barbs: “I stole from them whenever I could … because snark is not the strongest tool in my toolbox.”

Lemmon added, “The snark is alive in our show, and I am to blame for a lot of that.”

Uy and the others agreed having a balance between the horror and the snark is “integral” to a series like Helstrom.

“I’m British, so I just brought mine with me,” Austen said, adding that the banter plays into the major theme of the series. “[Daimon and Ana] have been through some dark, messed up stuff, but they are ultimately brother and sister. They fought as kids, they fight as adults,” he said.

Helstrom is now streaming on Hulu.

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