[This is a review of the Van Helsing series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although the Syfy channel may be best known for its B-movie creature features along the lines of its Sharknado franchise, the network has made strides into original television programming in recent years. Among Syfy’s lineup are its take on the zombie apocalypse in Z Nation, bounty hunter space adventure Killjoys, young adult adaptation The Magicians, and comic book brought to life Wynonna Earp. Now, Syfy is diving into a different kind of fantasy lore with its newest series, Van Helsing.
Following the descendant of classic literary and film vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, Syfy’s new drama kicks off in a near distant future where vampires have overridden the world, forcing humankind to wait on a savior who would defeat the monsters. Enter Vanessa Helsing (Kelly Overton), who awakes in a room of a deserted hospital while the marine that had been guarding her, Axel (Jonathan Scarfe), and a band of survivors fight off a group of vampires.
Based on the Van Helsing comic book series published by Zenescope Entertainment and developed for TV by Neil LaBute (Hell on Wheels), Syfy’s new show debuted with a double premiere. In ‘Help Me’ – written by LaBute and directed by Michael Nankin – Axel takes in a group of survivors while Vanessa wakes up and begins to learn of certain powers she possesses that will help her fight vampires. Then in the second half of the premiere, ‘Seen You’ – written by Simon Barry and directed by Nankin – the show flashes back to the events that found Vanessa, Axel, and Doc (Rukiya Bernard) stranded in the hospital.
The first two episodes of Van Helsing are effective in establishing the show’s particular lore of its vampires and the apocalypse that has befallen the world. Through a prologue at the beginning of ‘Help Me’ and exposition courtesy of the characters as they join Axel in the hospital, viewers learn that vampires have overrun the human population and civilization has fallen – leaving many to act in desperation in order to survive. Though that was likely enough back story, ‘Seen You’ is an entire episode taking place before the events of ‘Help Me’ following first Vanessa, then Doc, then Axel through the end of the world.
‘Seen You’ serves to offer better back story for the three leads, showing Vanessa’s relationship with her daughter Dylan (Hannah Cheramy) as well as the heroine’s fighting ability and tendency toward standing up for those in need. ‘Seen You’ also doubles down on the reveal at the end of ‘Help Me’ that Vanessa’s blood will revert a vampire back to their human form. The episode follows this particular storyline through to introducing the vampire leader Dimitri (Paul Johansson). As for Doc and Axel, their part of the story plays out just as Axel explained in ‘Help Me’, though with some indication that their superiors had an inclination Vanessa may be important.
However, of the first two episodes, ‘Help Me’ is the stronger – bringing viewers into the action first thing before slowly peeling back the layers of Van Helsing’s post-apocalyptic vampire-ridden landscape. It’s largely a bottle episode, staying within the confines of the hospital while there’s conflict among the band of survivors, Axel, his former marine buddy Ted (Tim Guinee), and – once she wakes up – Vanessa. The pacing of the episode, paired with the fact that the viewer doesn’t know much about what’s going on, give ‘Help Me’ a level of excitement that ‘Seen You’ fails to achieve.
That said, both ‘Help Me’ and ‘Seen You’ work toward world-building and introducing characters, adding in action and bloodshed wherever possible in order to keep the viewer entertained. While that mentality leads to ‘Help Me’s brutal opening battle sequence, which makes good use of Van Helsing’s 10pm timeslot, the show arguably takes the horror a step too far in ‘Seen You’ with the reveal of the experiments being performed on a vampire who reverted back to human form. Still, Van Helsing has undoubtedly established itself as an action/horror series that will include plenty of brutal fight sequences and bloodshed, which will certainly appeal to many of Syfy’s regular viewers.
For the most part, Van Helsing seems to be borrowing elements from fellow Syfy series while adapting the story from Zenescope’s comic. The show combines the brutal action and bloodshed of Z Nation, a female spin on a classic male character in the vein of Wynonna Earp, and a personality that’s the result of Van Helsing’s stars. Although the comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer may seem inevitable, Vanessa Helsing is a new kind of vampire hunter. In fact, Van Helsing seems to be taking a zombie show-style approach to its vampire lore – setting up the spread of vampires as a kind of viral outbreak. But, the show diverges from survivalist sci-fi when Dimitri is introduced, returning to the classic archetype of a council/leadership of the vampires.
The script and story of Van Helsing often lends itself toward cheesiness – particularly in Johansson’s scenes as Dimitri. However, Overton, Scarfe, and Bernard bring enough charm to their characters that the premiere episodes are fun to watch without crossing a line from so bad it’s good to simply bad. Still, based on ‘Help Me’ and ‘Seen You’, Van Helsing will be walking that line throughout the entirety of its season, which may either help or hurt the series depending on how its cheesiness is employed.
All in all, Van Helsing will certainly appeal to fans of Syfy series like Z Nation and Wynnona Earp, though it remains to be seen if the network’s vampire drama will be able to strike a chord among viewers as its other series have. All the pieces may be in place for Van Helsing to be an entertaining addition to the lineup, but the show’s success will largely depend on the dynamic between its main characters. While ‘Help Me’ and ‘Seen You’ certainly hinted at what fans can expect from the ensemble in season 1, Van Helsing largely used its first two episodes to set up the series.
As a result, Van Helsing hasn’t yet shown viewers exactly what the series is capable of, since the characters and the narrative have been restricted by offering exposition in order to build the show’s world and establish its unique vampire lore. So, while Van Helsing has the potential to be another hit for Syfy, viewers won’t know exactly until the series settles into itself – which it hopefully will in upcoming episodes.
Van Helsing continues with ‘Stay Inside’ Friday September 30th at 10pm on Syfy.