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What the Hell Is Helstrom?

Photo: Bettina Strauss/Hulu

The first season of Marvel Television’s supernatural thriller Helstrom is now available in its entirety on Hulu, and boy, is it hard to tell where it fits with other Marvel Comics television adaptations, including other Hulu-distributed titles like Runaways and Cloak & Dagger. It’s also hard to tell where Helstrom’s character-focused, plot-light narrative is going (Hulu only made the show’s first five episodes available for preview). The series, which stars Tom Austen as ethics professor/exorcist Daimon Helstrom, is based on the “Son of Satan” character that debuted in Marvel Spotlight #13, and was co-created by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich and drawn by Herb Trimpe. Helstrom also co-stars Sydney Lemmon as auctioneer turned vigilante Ana “Satana” Hellstrom, Daimon’s estranged sister. After a few episodes, Ana and Daimon put aside their differences and team up to stop their mysterious father, an unnamed demonic cultist and serial killer.

Watching Helstrom certainly doesn’t require a deep, canonical knowledge of this adaptation’s comics history, but it certainly helps to have a baseline knowledge of the character and narrative dynamics at play. As such, here are five more things you should know before watching Helstrom.

1) Not Your Daddy’s Son of Satan.

Helstrom creator Paul Zbyszewski’s take on the Helstrom siblings is more emotionally grounded and less flamboyant than the decades of comic books that have previously featured them in impractical but fashion-forward costumes, including Daimon’s signature pentacle-and-six-pack lewk, and Satana’s cleavage-and-belly-revealing onesie. In Helstrom, Daimon and Ana wear sensible, drab clothing, and hunt their abusive father with the help of skeptical Vatican rep Gabriella Rossetti (Ariana Guerra).

Unlike most iterations of these characters, Helstrom isn’t an episodic, monster-of-the-week type of series, but rather a long-form drama about family trauma and, yes, demonic possession. The show’s first season seems to be focused on the Helstrom siblings’ reconciliation, as well as the rehabilitation of Victoria Helstrom (Elizabeth Marvel), Daimon and Ana’s possessed and therefore institutionalized mother. So fans of Son of Satan’s issue-length horror and/or superheroic exploits — including time spent as a cloak-and-spandex-clad member of super-teams like the Defenders and the West Coast Avengers — should adjust their expectations since Helstrom is, in one character’s words from the pilot, “not here to hold hands, or save a cat from a tree, or respond to false alarms.”

2) But, Wait: Who Is His Daddy, and What Does He Do?

The identity of Daimon and Ana’s father is unclear, based on the show’s first five episodes, despite the fact that Helstrom features comic book characters who respectively began their lives as the “Son of Satan” and “Satan.” Still, at the moment, it seems like the Helstroms are not literally hellspawn, but rather the children of a demon-worshipping human. Victoria, on the other hand, is much more prominent in Helstrom than she has been in any of the previous comic books, including the goth-y, Hellblazer-esque, and very ’90s Hellstorm: Prince of Lies comics, which expands Victoria’s backstory so that she is, unbeknownst to Daimon, a victim of human trafficking, and the object of Satanic worship and grooming (See: Hellstorm #16). By contrast, Helstrom’s version of Victoria is a tortured anti-heroine whom Daimon wants to reconnect with, despite Ana’s objections. That tense family dynamic is presumably explained by a major plot twist that Austen hinted at during the show’s Comic-Con panel (somewhere around mid-season, about episode six). So while Papa Helstrom seems to be the show’s main antagonist, he might not be later on.

3) Somewhat Familiar Monsters

Most of the possessed and/or supernatural creatures from Helstrom’s first five episodes appear to have been created just for the show, so anybody looking for Daimon to fight mermen, giant snakes, or, uh, Trog are bound to be disappointed. There are, however, some Easter eggs and callbacks scattered throughout season one, including a reference to Sam Elliott’s version of the mentor-like “Caretaker” who is, in Helstrom, played by Robert Wisdom. In the pilot, Wisdom is shown holding a shovel, which Wisdom has said is a callback to Elliott’s version of Caretaker from the non-MCU-related 2007 Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider movie.

There aren’t many other specific Marvel Comics callbacks, though horror movie buffs might be interested to know that Elizabeth Marvel’s performance was partly inspired by Anthony Hopkins’s version of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. That’s not exactly the kind of fan service that MCU buffs are used to, but then again, Helstrom, like Ariel, is not part of that world. Not yet anyway.

4) Out of This Universe!

In May of 2019, Marvel TV chief Jeph Loeb said that Helstrom was supposed to be part of a now dead-in-the-water line of programming that he called “Adventure Into Fear.” Loeb said that these shows would have been in the same spirit of, but otherwise unrelated to Marvel TV’s Netflix series, including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and The Punisher. Helstrom also has no direct connection with Hulu and Marvel TV’s upcoming animated projects, including Howard the Duck and M.O.D.O.K.

There was only one other show that was announced as part of the Adventure Into Fear universe: Ghost Rider, which was to be overseen by The Punisher showrunner Steve Lightfoot and headlined by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Gabriel Luna, reprising his role as the demonically possessed car mechanic Robbie Reyes. That said, despite a mutual cast member, plans for the Ghost Rider series were said to be donezo since last September, about a month after the Loeb-produced Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was officially canceled. At the time, Luna was under a three-year contract.

By April of this year, Marvel TV terminated the contracts of both Lightfoot and Zbyszewski. Zbyszewski participated in and talked up Helstrom during a Comic-Con International event in July, but it’s hard to say what Marvel TV’s future plans for his show are given the “creative impasse” and mid-COVID-19 restructuring/cuts that took Ghost Rider out of commission (Loeb had also already announced his departure from Marvel TV by October of last year).

5) Oh Yes, There Is (Some) Blood

As promised in its ads, Helstrom features some bloody violence, which makes sense given the show’s grim tone and Portland, Oregon setting. Then again, if it makes any difference for concerned parents: Helstrom’s violence is mostly visualized with computer graphics — lots of people get thrown into bookshelves and other furniture — and while bloodletting is a semi-regular occurrence, it’s also mostly tame, like when a vampiric/haunted cyclops skull repeatedly (but modestly) bites the arm of Chris (Alain Uy), Ana’s pal and professional confidant.

That said: Daimon and Ana’s father is the most grisly thing in Helstrom’s first five episodes: his rib cage opens up to reveal some kind of demonic maw, which he uses to eat people. Thankfully (or unfortunately, if you’re a gorehound), Father Helstrom is only seen briefly or from a distance whenever he uses his stomach-mouth (in episode two). There’s probably a lot more where that came from, but at the moment: Helstrom is less grisly than Marvel’s Netflix shows, though that, too, might change after the show’s big midseason twist since Daimon and Ana’s story is, and always has been, subject to frequent revision.

What the Hell Is Helstrom?