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Helstrom is exorcising horror tropes and exploring the final era of Marvel TV
Until this past summer, depictions of the Marvel Universe on screens both big and small were rather devoid of spine-tingling, blood-curdling, and hair-raising content. Josh Boone helped fill that void with his long-delayed New Mutants film, but it was just a start. More horror is coming to the Marvel world via Sony's Morbius and Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but one TV series — Helstrom — is looking to really prove that comic books can be scary as all Shuma-Gorath.
Premiering on Hulu tomorrow, the fresh Marvel series from showrunner Paul Zbyszewski (an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. veteran) takes inspiration from paranormal characters created by Roy Thomas, John Romita, Gary Friedrich, and Herb Trimpe. The story follows Daimon and Ana Helstrom (played by Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon, respectively), a pair of estranged siblings with powerful supernatural abilities that allow them to fight demons, stave off curses, and so on.
But if you saw the pilot's first 10 minutes at NYCC this past weekend, you know that Helstrom has more on its mind than your run-of-the-mill demons and ancient curses. Right off the bat, a Daimon (establishing himself as Marvel's answer to DC's Constantine) flips genre tropes on their head by debunking a young boy's "possessed child" shtick. From that moment on, we know that the supernatural exists in this world, but doesn't follow the rules laid down by pop culture. Zbyszewski cites genre classics like The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Shining as a baseline for audience expectations.
"I grew up not just loving Marvel, but also watching horror movies and trying to take a bent where you’re paying homage, but you’re also winking a little bit at the audience to let them know, ‘Yeah, we know. Bear with us,'" he tells SYFY WIRE. "And it’s a fine line because sometimes, you wanna go full horror and we do sometimes, and other times you go, ‘No, we know what the house number is. We know what everyone’s expecting.’ So, how do we then take that and turn it a little bit to add something new to the equation? That was the approach, especially in that first scene introducing Daimon. I felt it was really important to let the audience know, ‘Here’s who he is, here’s where we are, here’s the tone of our world, bear with us, we hope you like it.’"
"He’s like an exorcist/rock star/bad boy/playboy," Austen jokingly says of his character. "No, I think that Daimon has this natural kind of sarcasm and disdain for the world around him that he’s so desperately trying to save, but isn’t trying to save itself. Let’s call him a ‘bad boy,’ let’s just roll with that. I’m happy with that."
He adds that director Dana Reid "played with some really cool shots that were kind of like an homage to what they did in The Exorcist. It was really cool to play around with that stuff, but as you said, you figure out really quickly that Daimon is quite altogether different from any kind of exorcist that we’ve seen before."
Lemmon characterizes Ana (known as Satana in the comics) as "multi-layered and multi-faceted. She has a hard-as-rock exterior and it’s even down to the way that she dresses herself [and] the way that she cuts her hair. Her clothing is her armor; she’s overcome such adversity in her life, so there’s the armor of the clothing, there’s the emotional armor where you do get this icy, cold exterior. But like anybody who’s icy or cold or extremely well-dressed, usually they’re quite vulnerable."
The actress also reveals that she "perused through the comics and took so much inspiration from how Satanna’s rendered and just her incredible graphic. I let that absolutely infuse my imagination and I built a lot of her character from that. But for the most part, I wanted to meet the script from a really fresh place and allow impulses to come without having too many impressions based on [the comics]."
Austen went back to the source material, too: "It was really cool to jump into the comics and to see all the really crazy, mad stuff that happens to Daimon in them. But what I love the most was learning more about his human side, as opposed to maybe his ‘Other’ side, should we call it. I think there are some really incredible frames in the comics that tell you so much about who Daimon is as a man and how much guilt and sadness he carries with him. For me, it was so cool to see that in the source material and to be able to bring that into the work that I was doing on camera."
When the series first opens, the brother and sister haven't spoken to each other in years. Daimon resides in Washington, working as a college professor and moonlighting as a paranormal investigator, who sometimes works with the Vatican. Ana can be found in San Francisco, making her living as a high-end antique dealer, who moonlights as a sort of vigilante that punishes the wicked. At her side is Chris Yen (played by Alain Uy), Ana's surrogate brother and right-hand man, who is nowhere to be found in the comics.
"He’s something that Paul wanted for this particular storyline," Uy says. "How I approached the character was a place of truth, just trying to find where Chris Yen’s center is, what makes him tick. I was trying to answer all the whys: 'Why is he so close to Ana? Why is Ana so close to him? What are those reasons? What bonds them together?' I think approaching any character in that way, it helps ground the motivations for what’s to come."
"Ana needed somebody and she needed an equal and she needed someone she could relate to on a level where they share similar situations throughout their childhood," Zbyszewski adds. "She needed a surrogate brother because she was estranged from her brother and it allowed us to have someone in Ana’s life, in her world, that gave as good as he got and did not take her sh** and was every bit as smart and tough and cool and funny as she is."
"We became friends, moving through the foster care system and Chris Yen is really my chosen family. When you meet Ana at the top of the season, she’s far closer to Chris than she is to Daimon," Lemmon explains. "If she’s filling out emergency contacts, it’s gonna be Chris Yen, it’s not gonna be Daimon Helstrom. So I got to have the benefit of having a given brother and also a chosen brother."
We won't spoil how Chris factors into the story, but we can tell you that Uy is thrilled about Helstrom's courage to probe around the darkest corners of the Marvel mythos. "There’s other parts of the Marvel Universe that haven’t been touched yet," he says. "There are people who are looking for a show like this, looking for something a little grittier, a little bit more grounded, something that has some of that supernatural horror chilling type of vibe... It’s got so many layers, it’s got so much depth to storytelling. If you boil [the show] down to its essence, it’s about family and how you deal with family trauma, how you create your own family. All of those tensions we have at family dinners? Imagine that, but turned all the way up."
While Chris is a brand-new addition to Marvel canon, Uy still did his due diligence by consulting with his comic book super-fan of a brother. "I was uninitiated at this point in this world and he broke everything down for me," the actor recalls. "He said, ‘This is what this is, he’s connected to this person and that person.’ I was already excited about the show and then once he started breaking it down for me, it turned it up exponentially for me."
Daimon's surrogate family member is Dr. Louise Hastings (June Carryl), the head of a psychiatric facility that houses the Helstroms' possessed mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel). While rooted in academia, Louise is privy to all the weird stuff that tends to happen around the family.
"I did a lot of research on the Catholic Church, particularly St. Theresa’s, since that’s such an element of the story," Carryl says. "And I did a lot of research on her intellectual background, her academic background. I ran into the universe and sort of found out, ‘OK, I found everything I could’ and then sort of ran out again because I knew that this was its own animal and I wanted to be true to that and not try to ‘be Marvel.’ Because you can’t do that."
In terms of finding a rapport with Austen, she continues: "He was just naturally compelling and you just thought, ‘Yeah, that’s my kid.’ Even more than that, getting to play this person who is very fully human, is flawed, is funny, is serious, makes mistakes, and has to bounce those mistakes off of somebody else. I am not a mother, but I can imagine what it’s like to watch someone you care about find their way."
"This is a show that really respects its audience: ‘We know you know your stuff and so, we’re not going to give you pablum, we’re not going to talk down to you, we’re gonna meet you where you are, and then some,'" Carryl adds. "To be a part of a show that can do that so smartly and that lets an audience go on a real ride without dictating — ‘Oh you’re gonna get this, oh, you’re gonna get that, oh, you’re gonna know that’ — because the surprises are just everywhere. Those surprises were there for us, too. That’s magic!"
Like Uy says, the show is not really about supernatural threats, it's about family, and a dysfunctional one at that. Not only is Victoria Helstrom trapped in her own body by a malevolent entity, but her ex-husband, the father of her two children, is a notorious serial killer (in the comics, he's literally Satan).
"It’s the story of a couple of kids with a really bad dad and a woman who just married the wrong guy. There is something really simple and grounded in that, and the worst dad ever is the son of Satan," Zbyszewski says, seemingly confirming that Helstrom Sr. is the Devil's spawn in this version. "You can’t get any worse than that and obviously, I’m a Marvel fan and have been reading Marvel [comics] for a long time. This area of the Marvel Universe is darker, there’s the horror-thriller element to it. All of those things attracted me to the property and that’s why I jumped into it."
"As actors, there are so many different kinds of relationships that you get to play with and be a part of, but there’s something really special about playing a family," Austen admits. "So for the two of us and Elizabeth to know that we are three completely separate people who are playing this unit together, it does something to you and it brings you close really quickly. And so, we were really fortunate for that."
When the siblings reunite, however, bad things — like, end of the world bad things — start happening. Louise has to try and make sure they play nice while mentoring Gabriella Rossetti (Ariana Guerra), a nun-in-training from the Vatican, and reconnecting with Caretaker (Robert Wisdom), an old friend and fighter of evil.
"This was a person who as much as she’s seen, she still has the capacity to be surprised," Caryll says. "I think that she’s just so human, she’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it, yeah I’ve done it, yeah... what?’ What makes her interesting is what she does with the surprise. The choices she makes in the moment. And she is very much grounded in both her intellect and in psychology, but also in her faith, and she just takes things a step at a time."
Discussing her character's guidance of Gabriella, she continues: When this person comes in for guidance, I don’t give her too much. I don’t give her too little. I’m like, ‘OK, you’re gonna have to keep up, but I know you can.’ It’s a little bit of the way she deals with Daimon and even Ana to the extent that Ana will let her. And with Victoria. I’ve seen enough and I am confident enough in what I know, that I can handle it. 'If I can handle it, you can handle it. One foot in front of the other, let’s go, because there’s work to be done.'"
Along with animated Hulu projects like M.O.D.O.K. and Hit Monkey, Helstrom is part of an endangered species: the last gasp of Marvel Television overseen by Jeph Loeb. After Kevin Feige was promoted to Marvel's Chief Creative Officer last fall, Disney decided to start folding Marvel's small screen content into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Upcoming Disney+ shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and the rest will tie into the cinematic stories and vice versa. A tangential and more subtle connection to the wider universe is now a thing of the past, and Helstrom has the honor of closing out that epoch... even if it's not directly tied to the MCU in any way.
"I started back on the beginnings of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and got to know a lot of really great and talented folks over there," Zbyszewski says when we broach the topic. "That’s the part I think about more; I think about my partners in this entire journey, from Jeph Loeb to Karim Zreik. And Megan Thomas Branor, who was my right hand, my left hand, my brain, my soul throughout the entire journey of making this show in particular. They’re friends and I look at it in that way. In terms of the MCU of it, we’re not connected to the MCU, we are our own thing. We broke out and said, ‘Nah, we’re gonna have something a little different here.’"
He follows that up with: "To have the ability and freedom that Marvel gave us to be unfettered by canon, by all of the other shows and movies that came before us, to just be able to focus on our characters and tell our story, was delightful. But when I think back, again, in terms of when you say the end of the era, I think about those people. I value those relationships and those friendships and a lot of those folks have had to move on to other things, which bums me out. I will miss collaborating with them dearly because they’re really great, talented, and smart people."
Carryl echoes the showrunner's sentiments, saying: "It’s just very freeing; we are our own animal. And so, we stand on our own and it’s amazing to be invited into the world and then we run and tell our story. It’s awesome and fun. But yeah, it is liberating to feel like there’s something we have to meet because we’re just our own thing and we were allowed to be our own thing and that was a really beautiful experience."
Uy sees this show as having a duty "to carry the torch across the finish line. I’m hesitant to say the finish line, but really, it’s a continuum to our next chapter," he explains. "I think yes, in some ways it’s the end of an era, but it’s also a transition into something new. And I, for one, am all for it. I’m here for it, I’m a fan, and I’m really excited to see what comes next."
"We are actors, we are in love with these characters, we fell in love with these scripts and we fell in love with the work that we were doing," Austen concludes. "For us, that is and always will be the most important thing, kind of where the show is and who’s looking after it is always a separate thing. That’s something that a lot of other people deal with and for us, it’s about turning up to work every day, being with each other, and feeling very, very lucky to get to do the job that we do."
Lemmon believes the show might even serve as a form of therapy for some folks.
"I just think it’s great timing that 'Hulu-ween' season [is here]," she finishes. "I think our show can also be a place where people can take whatever real frustration and real pain they’re feeling in their real lives and just for an hour, focus and dump it somewhere that’s safe for them. Maybe our show can be a place where people can work through some of the hard feelings that they are feeling, given the state of literally all things in the world."
Helstrom's entire first season drops on Hulu tomorrow (Oct. 16). See what critics have been saying about it here.