The tale of Van Helsing is one that we’ve seen trotted out time and time again. Whether we’re talking about the mediocre Hugh Jackman vehicle, the cult anime franchise Hellsing, or the dungeon-crawling Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing series, people can’t seem to stay away from the legendary vampire hunter. Now, SyFy is finally taking their crack at the bat (stake?) in 2016. It’s a good thing, then, that Van Helsing is the most radical reinvention of the modern folktale yet.
Van Helsing takes place in 2019, when the entire world has gone to the dogs, or more accurately, to the vampires. The sun is blotted out, city streets are devoid of life, and the only humans you’ll find on the surface are bloodsucking fiends. Much like a typical zombie yarn set-up, the remaining humans have banded together in small, separate factions, clinging to their humanity and attempting to survive.
Luckily, there’s more than enough intrigue in the first episode to prevent Van Helsing from feeling like old hat. Your typical “ragtag group of survivors” winds up in a secret underground bunker housing a former military officer who is safeguarding both a ravenous vampire and a mysterious sleeping woman. The woman is the titular Vanessa Helsing, who wakes up during a vampire attack and ends up brutalizing the creatures with her bare hands.
While Vanessa herself acts as more of a setpiece than a character for about half the episode, what we do see of her is promising. She has no memories of the vampire apocalypse happening at all—or so it seems, at any rate. All she knows is that she has a daughter and a life she wants to return to. But with the earth in ruins and overrun by bloodsuckers, it seems like she’ll have her work cut out for her.
This pilot sets the stage for what’s to follow, both in terms of narrative and tone. Tonally, Van Helsing fits right at home with SyFy’s stable of mid-tier programming. It has camp in spades, from the endearingly hammy dialogue to the very silly cursing. The violence is over-the-top and ridiculous, with scenes like Vanessa attacking somebody with a knife that’s already been stabbed through her hand. That’s to say nothing of the budget, which is clearly shoestring and in line with other things you’d find on the network.
These might sound like knocks against Van Helsing, but they’re actually anything but. Television today is, in my opinion, very self-serious and po-faced. It seems rife with dour and cynical shows full of edginess that do nothing other than feel like middle schooler’s notebook “poetry.” I miss cheesy and fun stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Charmed, and even stuff like Nightman (bonus points if you remember that one.) Basic cable shows of yesteryear that weren’t pretentious “art” wannabes are sort of my jam, and Van Helsing is very much one of these. It’s a dumb, silly, campy vampire show, and it’s not trying to be anything but that. I respect that—and even admire it.
Basically, Van Helsing isn’t going to win any Emmys, and I don’t think it’s trying to. Instead, I feel like we’re going to be watching a violent, campy and vamp-y bit of entertainment with the whole show. Vanessa is a strong and compelling lead, and I am genuinely intrigued as to why she’s in the position she starts in. Is she a vampire? A human? Something in-between? I want to know.
If you’re in the market for television that’s in the business of entertainment and no-frills fun, Van Helsing seems like it’s heading in a positive direction. I’ll definitely be picking it up in September, and look forward to watching something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.