September 24, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Van Helsing”


VAN HELSING:  Friday 10PM on Syfy – Change the Channel

The playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute has dabbled in genre before, although he may prefer not to be reminded of his disastrous remake of The Wicker Man.  Still, it’s odd to see him as the creator of Syfy’s postapocalyptic vampire saga VAN HELSING.  It makes a little more sense after watching the pilot hour, which takes place almost entirely in one location, the Seattle hospital where a small group of soldiers are watching over the comatose Vanessa Helsing (Kelly Overton), 3 years after bloodsuckers have overrun society.  In that confined space, they bicker and betray each other in a fairly theatrical way.  LaBute sets out the basic situation and conflicts efficiently enough, but this is far from work one would identify as his.

The mythology is familiar.  (It’s another show based on a graphic novel series.)  Like many post-Walking Dead vampire stories, the creatures seem as much like zombies as vampires, roaming the streets in packs and losing human consciousness as soon as they’ve turned.  Vanessa is the latest version of The Chosen One:  when, in the pilot’s flash-forward prologue, she’s bitten by a vamp, she wakes from her coma, and the vampire who bit her becomes human again.  Also, she instantly heals from all wounds, a useful ability.  All that naturally makes her a target of the sentient vampires, and explains why the military unit, led by Axel (Jonathan Scarfe), has been ordered to protect her.

Syfy ran the show’s second hour back-to-back with the pilot, and that one, written by Executive Producer Simon Barry (both episodes were directed by Michael Nankin), is a deep dive into flashback, showing the origins of the vampire epidemic 3 yeas earlier, and explaining how Vanessa went into her coma, Axel’s unit was sent to guard her, and why Axel is feeding the vampiric Doc (Rukiya Bernard) with his own blood (she was the doctor who originally realized that there was something special about Vanessa).  Our heroine, for her part, was given a daughter who’s been missing for the 3 years of the apocalypse and will be the subject of her quest, and also established as a badass who served justice even before her super powers were known.

Despite LaBute’s name in the credits, Van Helsing is very much a typical Syfy show, especially in its paltry production values.  (The green screen effects are sparingly used, and even so jarringly bad.)  The particular model seems to be Z Nation, which makes sense since it’s the network’s biggest scripted hit, and its echoes are felt in the small group of laconically violent heroes, the Chosen One storyline, and of course the low-rent visuals, although so far Van Helsing lacks Z Nation‘s gonzo humor.

Since Z Nation serves as Van Helsing‘s lead-in, the combination may work.  Even if the ratings are decent, though, Van Helsing is another brick in the wall identifying Syfy as the home of cheap, undemanding horror, a brand that only The Magicians has recently managed to crack.  In a pop culture largely defined by the fantasy genre, Syfy continues to aim low.

NETWORK FINAL:  More Dead Than Undead.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."