Netflix review: SyFy’s VAN HELSING (season 1)

Starring: Kelly Overton (video game adaptation TEKKEN [2010], and TV shows TRUE BLOOD and ALL MY CHILDREN)

(SUMMARY)

Set three years later during a post-apocalyptic future. Vampires have taken over Seattle, Washington. In an abandoned hospital, the last Marine of his squad, Axel (Jonathan Scarfe), has been holding his position since the uprising of the vampires. His mission, to ensure the survival of a three year comatose patient, Vanessa (Kelly Overton), who has an immunity to the virus that turns humans into vampires and may hold the key to salvation.

(REVIEW)

Grr. It’s not as good as the posters make it out to be. I’ve got a lot more problems with this show than compliments, but all in all, it’s… okay.

What shall I start with?

The opening has some grim promise. You see our lone and faithful Marine Axel (Jonathan Scarfe) talking to a locked up vampire while he’s feeding her his own blood. It’s a little fucked up, but that’s what I usually come to expect from vampire stories. You’re not entirely sure if Axel’s all there mentally, but then the action starts. A group of human survivors about to be killed by a group of vampires are trying to get into the hospital that’s on lockdown thanks to some makeshift traps and barricades. He lets them in, of course, and then the first problems with the show rear their ugly heads: most of the characters are annoying as hell.

Almost immediately, the survivors are questioning Axel’s situation, exclaiming how the locked up vampire needs to be killed as well as the unconscious woman that “might” be a vampire herself, even though they haven’t an inkling of prove to back that up. For the rest of the show, that’s all these characters do. They bicker, yell, and constantly disagree. Which would be fine if it did feel like a bad sitcom the whole time. In an apocalypse, there will be disagreements on how to survive. Thing is, these people start this crap not even half way through the first episode. They barely ever show appreciation toward Axel for sheltering these people and this goes on throughout the season.

Thankfully, there’s a few characters that I liked. The three that immediately come to mind are Susan (Hilary Jardine), Mohamad (Trezzo Mahoro), and Sam (Christopher Heyerdahl). Susan, prior to the apocalypse, was Vanessa’s neighbor and friend whom has been the victim of physical abuse from asshole boyfriends that Vanessa beats the crap out of. While Vanessa’s been in her coma, she got turned into a vampire and eventually meet up after Vanessa attempts to leave the hospital to look for her missing daughter Dylan (Hannah Cheramy), but got captured by vampires. Vanessa turns her back to human, and the two rekindle their relationship, which I really enjoyed. Mohamad and Sam are the “two peas in a pod” characters that have a nice connection as well, as a pair that always looked out for each other. Mohamad’s a young man who was separated from his sister Sheema (Naika Toussaint), still locked away in a human camp overlooked by vampires and wants to find her. He’s a loyal friend to those he respects and who show him respect. He’s brave, smart, an all around breath of fresh air from all the married couple bickering. And Sam is the deaf gentle giant. Again, he’s a kind guy and his silence is, like Mohamad, a welcomed detour from the arguing.

Now for our titular character. Vanessa, for all intents and purposes, isn’t poorly written. As a character, Vanessa is tough, no nonsense, capable in a fight, but a loving mother and friend, she’s perfectly serviceable, and Overton’s performance is strong enough to carry the show, for my tastes anyway. Here’s my issue: Vanessa as “Van Helsing.” When we’re first introduced to her, she’s about to be chewed alive by vampire-Flesh (Vincent Gale), but she immediately snaps out of her coma and defends herself quite proficiently. However, she’s never quite this deadly in any other scene. She’s just a run of the mill survivor that isn’t stupid. Aside from her inability to be turned after getting bit by a vampire, and her stupid-ass ability to change vampires back to human after them biting her or her biting them (yes, that’s a thing that she does too), there’s never a moment in this show where I’m like, “Yes! That’s our new Van Helsing!” At least, not until the final episode of the season, which lasts probably a grand total of ten minutes.

I can probably guess what the structure was supposed to be and why that moment was dragged out ’till the end. It’s the “superhero” idea. Like in the TV show DAREDEVIL, the first season featured Matt Murdock/Daredevil in a borderline amateur black garb and a black mask throughout the entire first season, only giving him the iconic red suit in the final episode or couple episodes. The purpose of this, I imagine, was to create the character and build him up, getting the audience a near perfect understanding of him before going full comic book on us. But what makes Vanessa as “Van Helsing” so frustrating in this regard is that the character of “Van Helsing,” while well-known in supernatural literature, isn’t exactly a modern pop culture icon like superheroes are. Seriously, can you name a movie that came out that was about Van Helsing? I can. Hugh Jackman’s ill-fated VAN HELSING (2004), which is not considered to be a good movie. I know there’s a ton more than that, but are any of them considered landmarks of cinema or classics? Is Van Helsing truly in the echelons with Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, and the Wolf Man? No. The character truly isn’t. Not like that. So Vanessa’s development, not just as a character, but as this generation’s “Van Helsing” was crucial to make her really compelling. Instead, she’s lukewarm. Not bad, not great.

If I were to have changed anything, I would have made Vanessa a bit more of a one-woman army. Like, everything about her personality is fine. Her backstory, all that, that’s all good. But in a fight, I would have made it like a Jason Bourne type thing. Like in IDENTITY (2002), when Jason is sleeping on that park bench and the cops try to get him to show them his papers, but when they take out their batons, he instinctively goes into combat mode and efficiently takes them out, and promptly, but subtly, freaks out after with a look that says, “How the hell did I just do that?!” You never get any real sense of bad-assery in the vampire killing department. She’s obviously not useless in a fight, but nothing on the scale of “Van Helsing.” She trips and stumbles a little too much for me to take her seriously like that.

On top of my problems with the characters, the show as a whole isn’t very well-written. One set of dialog sticks out for me.

VANESSA
No offense, but go fuck yourself.

AXEL
Understood.

VANESSA
Good, then go do it!

Ugh, this script gave me an aneurysm. Thankfully, the cringeworthy dialog sort of dissipates as the season progresses, but the way it’s structured and how every event is handled is completely inconsistent and character choices are utterly stupid. Why doesn’t Axel throw the survivors out that give him a hard time? Or kill them? Why do the survivors stay with him if they don’t agree with any of his decisions? There’s this subplot that starts in episode four “Coming Back” that focuses on a murder within the group. You wanna know what’s freakin’ frustrating? This plot thread isn’t resolved until episode eleven “Last Time.” There are thirteen episodes in this season. What the actual fuck? We’re introduced to characters that have a big role early on, leave the show, and then return only to be killed off later as soon as they reappear. Incredibly forced romance subplots that go nowhere, a questionable accent by Tom Cavanagh who is only in one episode and still whispers his lines half the time, infighting with the vampires that no one gives a shit about, the vampires in this show present themselves to be more like zombies than vampires and I don’t recall a single vampire having fangs, all these problems are littered everywhere.

That’s not to say¬†some things are done right. There are some cool visuals, like there’s this one bit where a dude is being hung in a cold room, is missing one arm and a leg I think, and his intestines are hanging out, and he’s totally alive. That was delightfully sick. And there’s another little scene where you have vampire leader Dmitri (Paul Johanssen), his… lover? Rebecca (Laura Mennell), and Dmitri’s sister Anastasia (Gia Crovatin), and they’re sitting at a dinner table, drinking blood soup. I won’t lie, I sadistically giggled when Anastasia got up to get more blood and it’s from a corpse with her throat slit and pours blood with a ladle.

***SPOILERS***

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Here’s one plot point that went nowhere that I really wanted to see developed. So the group is hiding out in an underground bunker and Vanessa and Susan find themselves in bed, just being friends. But before long, they share a kiss. This was quite possibly one of my favorite relationships in the show and felt really organic to the story. Never mind that I’m a guy and watching two hot chicks making out isn’t the hottest thing ever, but that their relationship went in that direction felt right for the characters. Vanessa is very butch and independent, and Susan is a little more vulnerable. She looks up to Vanessa for her strength, but managed to come into her own when the apocalypse showed up. Both women have had lousy luck with men in their lives and Susan did seem to harbor some feelings for her, as demonstrated in the beginning of episode six, “Nothing Matters.” I liked seeing the two of them interact with each other and being friends. To see them possibly testing waters for a romantic fling, I was looking forward to that blossoming in future episodes.

But in probably the ultimate middle finger to my expectations, not only is their shared kiss never acknowledged again, either by the two characters, even to the point where Vanessa has about the most contrived romance that can possibly exist with a male character that she’s only known for less than a day, whose name I couldn’t remember for the life of me, but it’s revealed that Sam was the group murderer and he kills Susan. She was just starting to become a great character and then they kill her off. Fine, make Sam the killer, but it should have been any other character. Like Doc (Rukiya Bernard). She just sort of gets written out of the show randomly. Why not actually write her off more sensibly?

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***END SPOILERS***

Overall, this show isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen and would certainly prefer to watch it over many other shows that have been considered great, simply because it’s action, post-apocalypse, and vampires, so I’m pretty bias. I sure won’t go out of my way to keep up with the show as the episodes air on TV. I understand season two is underway. But yeah, I can’t claim this to be a good show. There’s some good things to keep myself interested, but if season two isn’t better by the time it comes out on Netflix again, I won’t care to sit around for a third season.

My honest rating for Syfy’s TV series VAN HELSING: 3/5

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