'Hemlock Grove' seeks to capture feel of Western Pennsylvania

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

There are several Pittsburghs that persist in the popular mind.

First, there's the vacant, polluted industrial wastelands in the wake of Big Steel's collapse. Then, there's the shiny New Economy city of medicine, tech and finance. There's even the warm and fuzzy, family-friendly “Most Livable” city full of Mister Rogers' neighborhoods and Rick Sebak's sandwiches.

But there are other Pittsburghs out there, too, in other people's minds. Novelist Brian McGreevy presents a totally different one in “Hemlock Grove,” drawing upon Eastern European folklore and the classic gothic horror of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, where werewolves and vampires cavort in the shadows of abandoned steel mills, and tortured biomedical experiments lurch to life.

His “Hemlock Grove” novel has been adapted as a Netflix original television series, which is available starting April 19.

The show is set in Pittsburgh. It was originally slated to be shot here, but the production ended up in Toronto.

“It's a quintessentially Western PA story,” says McGreevy, a Charleroi native living in Los Angeles. “It couldn't even be Eastern PA. The town of Hemlock Grove is essentially a through-the-looking-glass version of Pittsburgh, from its economic history to its topography, to the way class lines are drawn within the town — where the distribution of wealth and the inequality of it is much more sharply drawn than in other cities.

“It is ultimately, a work of fantasy — an expressionistic version of the area. For instance, there's a very important location in the story, a biomedical tower. These different and potentially unseemly experiments are happening. The direct inspiration for that was my undergraduate experience at Pitt, where I learned that stray dogs were being killed and medically brought back to life at the UPMC biomedical tower, and thought that was the craziest thing I'd ever heard. I couldn't believe that that kind of stuff was happening in our backyard, in Pittsburgh.”

“Hemlock Grove” is a murder-mystery, a family drama and a strange high-school coming-of-age story. It begins with a high-school girl found ripped to pieces. The authorities aren't sure if they should be looking for a person or animal — or something in between.

Two Hemlock Grove teens immediately suspect each other, with good reason. One, a new-to-town Gypsy outcast, Peter (Landon Liboiron), and the other is Roman (Bill Skarsgard), the ultra-privileged and unconventional scion of the Godfrey family, whose decaying steelworks built the town, and whose biomedical research center powers its economy.

The series features a strong supporting cast led by Lili Taylor and Famke Janssen as the two boys' strange, powerful mothers. Dougray Scott is Roman's uncle, founder of the Godfrey Center for Biomedical Technologies.

Though supernatural monsters are obviously hot right now, “Hemlock Grove” is a far different beast than, say, “Twilight.”

“This sort of paranormal romance/mystery trend was not something that had hit when I started writing the book, which was the Spring of 2006,” McGreevy says. “It was just a lifelong affinity with the subject matter, and wanting to put my spin on it.”

The novel is written in a loquacious, quasi-literary style, with many allusions to its classic gothic-horror predecessors. It's also really dark and bloody, which is right in the wheelhouse of director Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever,” “Hostel”), who helped push the Netflix series forward.

“This isn't like anything Eli has done before, but in terms of the rhythms of it, and giving it visual expression, that's all Eli,” says McGreevy. “It definitely has some moments of extreme violence, as does the book. But it's not torture porn (like “Hostel”).

One image pretty much lets you know what you're getting into with “Hemlock Grove.” There's a trailer online that shows the werewolf's transformation. It's not pretty. Eyeballs pop out and fall to the ground, human flesh is ripped off and devoured by the wolf underneath.

There was a lot of interest in “Hemlock Grove,” says McGreevy, but going with Netflix — who had a hit on their hands with their first scripted series, “House of Cards” — was an easy choice.

“We pitched it to some television outlets, and there were some offers on the table immediately, but they were all secondary to Netflix,” he says. “Netflix was the goal. Let me put it this way — conventional television is the Titanic and new media is the iceberg. We're choosing a side.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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