'Van Helsing': TV Review

Courtesy of Syfy
It's got bite.
9/23/2016

Syfy's vampire series, created by Neil LaBute, takes some unconventional approaches to its timeworn tale.

A Syfy channel vampire serial overseen by provocateur playwright-filmmaker Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men). Who says life still can't surprise you? Bigger shock: It's pretty good… or is at least, to quote that old critic's saw, "better than it has any right to be." But what do rights (or wrongs) matter in the evocatively realized post-apocalyptic near-future conjured by LaBute and his collaborators?

The year is 2019, three years since a volcano exploded at Yellowstone, covering most of the West Coast, if not the entire world, in sun-obstructing ash. No natural light means that an underground nation of vampires, heretofore hidden from mankind, can now walk the earth, sucking blood at will and turning humans into fellow exsanguinators. The LaBute-penned first part of the two-hour premiere episode (that and an additional third hour were provided for review) opens in media res, specifically at a Seattle hospital where a ragtag group of survivors hide from their toothy adversaries and a mystery woman (Kelly Overton) lies comatose.

She's Vanessa Van Helsing, a character who is purportedly a descendant of Count Dracula's worst enemy, but who spends much of these early installments in varying states of confused terror after a ravenous vamp gives her a wake-up call. Odds are good that by the finale of this 13-episode season, Vanessa will be giving Buffy Summers a run for her money in the roundhouse-kick department. For now, she's mostly a bewildered enigma (especially to herself), though the second part of the premiere does reveal how she came to her current circumstances.

It shouldn't be a shock that Vanessa's powers include the ability to reverse the vampiric process. One taste of her blood turns monster back into man, though you're unlikely to find a more reluctant savior. She's much more interested in seeking out her long-lost daughter, who was there when Vanessa slipped into her coma, and who is sure to feature more importantly in future episodes.

For the moment, though, the action is primarily confined to the medical facility that steadfast military man Axel (Jonathan Scarfe) has decked out with booby traps and other hellion-slaying ephemera. You'd think this would lead to all manner of generic story beats. But LaBute and his writers (as well as stalwart TV director Michael Nankin, who does some truly terrific, atmospheric work in these first three installments) manage to give the material a distinctive tweak or two.

The first hour, especially, proceeds like one of LaBute's stage works, allowing a bunch of disparate personalities — one of them a bloodsucker (Rukiya Bernard) with whom Axel has a somewhat intimate relationship — to bounce off of each other. The men are testosterone-fueled and the women do what they can to keep up with or counteract the machismo. Even in this genre-heavy context, you can sense LaBute doing his usual play on and prodding of gender stereotypes — habits that have earned him as much scorn as praise.

However, there's something challenging about these tendencies here; the trashiness of the tale, along with the copious, graphic gore (shades of the showrunner's own 2000 black comedy Nurse Betty), actually complements the standard LaButeisms and deepens them. (The ensemble more than rises to the thematic challenges, despite the tawdry trappings.) LaBute's concerns with manipulation, miscommunication and abject cruelty — and maybe, just maybe, a modicum of hope — are well applied to a story of full societal breakdown.

Creator: Neil LaBute

Executive Producers: Neil LaBute, Chad Oakes, Mike Frislev, Simon Barry, Daniel March, Evan Tyler, Dave Brown, Zadoc Angell

Cast: Kelly Overton, Jonathan Scarfe, Christopher Heyerdahl, David Cubitt, Paul Johansson, Vincent Gale, Rukiya Bernard, Trezzo Mahoro, Aleks Paunovic, Laura Mennell, Hilary Jardine, Terry Chen,

Music: Rich Walters

Cinematography: Brendan Uegama

Premieres: Friday, September 23, 10 p.m. (Syfy)

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