I think by now I should resign myself to disappointment. When I got an early-morning email from Netflix telling me about a lady-led Van Helsing adaptation, I was pretty stoked. Having finished Wynonna Earp (which is amazing, by the way), the thought of a badass dame taking on the infamous vampire hunter moniker sat well with me. I’ve loved vampires since before I knew what they were and have a long history of investing in whatever I could get my hands on. I read Interview with the Vampire behind my mother’s back at age 13.
In hindsight, this probably explains a lot about me. I have high standards for vampire fiction.
I have to say when I initially got the email, I believed Van Helsing was a Netflix-created show. I was incorrect: the American-Canadian series created by Neil LaBute originally aired on SyFy in the United States in September of 2016. The Canadian premiere was aired on Netflix in December. Based on Zenescope Entertainment’s graphic novel, Helsing, the entirely male-produced show—there was one woman on the team as the editor as far as I could tell—follows Vanessa Seward (Kelly Overton), who wakes to find herself in a hospital in a world overrun by vampires.
It was all very Resident Evil when it started, with a dash of The Walking Dead thrown in. You have Vanessa on a morgue table, unconscious, and a Marine named Axel (Jonathan Scarfe) guarding her. The hospital is breached by the vampires, and while Axel fights, a group slips through and attempts to kill Vanessa. Surprise, surprise—ingesting Vanessa’s blood either kills vampires or turns them human. And let me tell you, this show is bloody and gory and not in a way I like.
At this point, I’m waiting. Most shows take a couple of episodes to hook me in. You can’t explain everything right off the bat, and I’m usually fairly patient. Unfortunately, the more I watched, the less it made sense.
Episode two is essentially a flashback to “before it all went wrong,” which, sure, that’s fine. Vanessa and her daughter, Dylan, are attempting to celebrate Dylan’s birthday when a call from Vanessa’s (ex?) husband ends in disappointment. Vanessa tries to cheer Dylan up with cake, but someone breaks into their home. After a long struggle, Vanessa dies. But she’s not really dead, as Doc (Rukiya Bernard) soon discovers. Vanessa isn’t showing any post-mortem developments, earning her the codename “Sleeping Beauty” (because of course it does). Doc asks her sister about the weird stuff going on in Vanessa’s blood, and suddenly there are armed men in the cafeteria, and then there’s something about a geyser going off and ash clouds blocking the sun.
Do you have whiplash yet? I sure do. The show steadily begins falling apart like a feral vampire zombie thing.
First of all, I fail to understand the vampire origins, which is a little bit important. Apparently, they were always around. In fact, there are “ancients” who are the oldest vampires and control the whole world. Cool, so when did that happen? Because your timeline says it’s only been three years since Vanessa “died” and was resurrected. The convenient ash cloud blocks enough of the sun to let them walk free during the day. Vampires who don’t feed turn into ferals, with elongated piranha teeth and the temperament of rabid dogs. Several of them are on leashes as “pets.” Then there are two factions battling for dominance and also wanting control over Vanessa. How did they know about her? And then there’s Rebecca (Laura Mennell) who’s a vampire in a sleek leather catsuit who displays the typical overt sexual dominatrix thing reserved specifically for “evil women” but doesn’t actually serve a purpose to the plot.
This is so all over the place, I almost need to draw a map.
Then you have the survivors: Axel the Marine, Doc (who was a vampire and now isn’t, thanks to Vanessa biting her), Mohammed (Trezzo Mahoro), a deaf man named Sam (Christopher Heyerdahl), another former vampire turned human called Flesh (Vincent Gale), and a couple people who died in the first episodes. Your typical ragtag bunch of clashing personalities and cultures. Doc’s involvement is pretty straightforward: she was the medical examiner. I can only assume Axel was one of the Marines who showed up that first day and decided to stick around. Why? Hell if I know. I think they were trying to make Doc and Axel a thing, but . . . didn’t commit to it. Of course, he and Vanessa then kinda have a thing, but not really.
Out of all of them, I liked Mohammed the best, but he wasn’t a well-developed character either. We discover that he has a sister he’s trying to save more than halfway through the season, but he’s funny, smart, and self-reliant, which I adore.
Like any post-apocalypse nightmare land, a group of people try to take the hospital, a couple people show up murdered, and they, of course, exile Mohammad even though they all know he’s not the killer.
This takes us to about episode five (there are thirteen total), and I’m really feeling like they threw some plot lines at a wall, shrugged, and said, “whatever.” It’s an absolute mess of a show. The badass lady vampire slayer doesn’t outweigh the complete absence of character development, the hodgepodge plot, and the poor storytelling in general.
Vanessa’s origin alone switches between “we don’t know why you’re different” to “you’re a vampire but not” to “you were a medical experiment” but when did that happen because she was adopted and I’m pretty sure she would have noticed her foster home being a medical lab? Oh, and yeah, to “you’re a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing.”
I can’t roll my eyes hard enough.
And guys. When they finally reveal the serial killer… what the hell? I’m going to level with you here: randomly selecting someone to “have been a killer all along because that’s who he is and always has been” is not a plot twist, it’s lazy writing. Without foreshadowing, or any hint that so-and-so might not be such a nice guy, it amounts to nothing.
There is so much about this show that disappoints me. Only two characters of color (maybe three, once you realize the random resistance fighter is Mohammad’s sister) have a role in the plot; the one disabled man becomes a monster; there’s a brief moment when Vanessa’s best friend, Susan, admits that she’s always loved Vanessa and they kiss, but that’s dismissed as a drunken confession and never mentioned again… and then Susan dies.
On a personal note, there’s an entire subplot dedicated to the vampires attempting to procreate via human surrogates, which I also don’t understand and find terribly disturbing. Vampire male sperm works (big surprise there) but vampire female eggs don’t? It’s not the concept in itself that bothers me, but the actual on-screen birthing scenes and the number of women they have forced to be surrogates. While I know birth isn’t a neat and clean event, the violence, gore, and the slaughter of women who fail to produce living vampire babies makes me want to tear my skin off.
Van Helsing could have been good, but it’s too “kitchen sink” and not enough cohesive story. The show was renewed for a thirteen-episode second season, but I won’t be watching. One season was more than enough. I briefly looked up the graphic novel, but Helsing’s corset, booty shorts, and fishnets combo on the cover leads me to believe that maybe watching the show is the better option if you must.
Since I mentioned Wynonna Earp earlier, I feel the need to point out that it’s also a Canadian-American series for SyFy under a different production company and created by Emily Andras. While the rest of the production company is male, there is a marked difference between these female-led series. I’m not saying that Van Helsing would necessarily have been better with a lady show runner, but I’ve got the suspicion that it would have least been coherent. And probably lighter on the number of brutally murdered women.
Here’s a better option all around to fix your vampire craving: Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. It came out a couple of years ago and is by far the best vampire book I’ve read. It’s got that same post-apocalypse vibe with a flare similar to Anne Rice’s iconic Vampire Chronicles but manages to put a new spin on a well-explored genre. I couldn’t put it down. So skip Netflix, hit the bookstore (or eBook retailer of your choice), and you can thank me later.