Apropos of a series that pits supernatural evil against flawed virtue, Netflix’s First Kill (★★★☆☆) is very good when it’s good, and downright terrible when it’s bad.
Sometimes it’s so bad, it’s good, but this “teenage lesbian vampire falls for fearless vampire hunter” romance is far from boring.
Based on a short story by queer YA and fantasy author V.E. Schwab, First Kill blends a little Buffy, Supernatural, and Charmed with Romeo & Juliet, and a side of Heathers. But it commits admirably to its own dark mythology and wicked sense of humor in weaving the possibly tragic tale of Calliope (Imani Lewis) and Juliette (Sarah Catherine Hook).
The pair’s love-at-first-sight ardor is electric yet innocent, abetted by the connection between Lewis and Hook, who can make Calliope and Juliette seem like the only two people in a crowded room.
Usually those rooms are pretty crowded, too — between Juliette’s family, the Fairmonts, part of the Savannah, Georgia elite, though secretly vampires, and Calliope’s folks, the Burns family, part of a long line of trained monster hunters.
While the dueling deadly family dynamic is good grist for soapy drama, the accompanying supernatural horror ranges from the gnarly to the absurd.
The R-rated gore of vampires feeding, and, say, a super-fast zombie ripping out someone’s spine, is played against the dry humor of a sleepy Southern town being overrun with banshees, demons, and bloodsuckers. The moment one of the principal characters casually devours a relative whole delivers both a jolt and a laugh.
Not all the laughs are intentional, though, with some truly groan-worthy dialogue, and a few rough performances to match the awkwardly choreographed fight scenes and consistently cheesy lighting.
Schwab and company bring interesting wrinkles to their vampire mythology — Juliette’s clan are legacy vampires, day-walking descendants of a pure bloodline — but the writers leave gaping holes or unexplained questions that might vex viewers. We meet a few generations of Fairmonts, for example, but learn nothing about their aging process.
Yet, the show frequently and pleasantly surprises by escalating the conflict between families Fairmont and Burns much faster than expected. Plot twists pop up right on time to keep a viewing binge flowing.
The narrative turns that tend to work best, are those grounded closer to reality. Juliette’s lifelong best friend, Ben (well-played by Jonas Dylan Allen), is unaware of her secret, and takes it hard when his bestie’s true deadly nature is revealed. But Ben is keeping secrets of his own, as the “sidepiece” to DL straight bro Noah (Roberto Méndez), whose treatment of his hookup buddy is monstrous, even though no real monsters are involved in that relationship.
Across its 8-episode season, First Kill tries to develop its broad themes promoting tolerance and fighting bigotry. The series forces a storyline in which the Fairmonts, who’d prefer to just be upstanding, rich Southerners, start to feel victimized by “monster-phobes” who regard them only as killers.
Led by Ben’s housewife mom, Bunny (Annunziata Gianzero, not good, but a hoot), the monster-phobes form the action group M.A.A.M, Mothers Against All Monsters, after a rash of monster-perpetrated murders sweep the town.
They’re depicted as uninformed, reactionary loonies, but this time the loonies have a point. Monsters like Juliette’s ruthless older sister Elinor (Gracie Dzienny), who feeds prudently but mercilessly on guys she picks up in bars, probably shouldn’t be encouraged to go around devouring people. Society has to draw a line somewhere.
So that angle doesn’t make sense, but First Kill has fun trying to make it work, along with other outlandish details, from blood servants offering sips of their wrists at a cocktail party, to a zombie still hoping for a part in the school play. In the midst of all the macabre weirdness, it’s the incredible adventure of two girls in love that holds the center and keeps this horror show from spinning out of control.
First Kill is currently streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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