by DICK CHENEY
creator Neil Labute
Sometimes I think of all the things I have said about the Syfy network – you know, how every property they touch turns to shit, how their production standards are reprehensibly low, how they never hire good actors or take chances on writers with actual talent or IPs that might cost actual money to acquire – and I feel bad.
Fortunately, you don’t have to pay anyone to use Dracula. When I think of the best vampire stories ever told I think of Lucius Shepard’s Beautiful Blood, George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and that’s about it. Nothing great has ever been done in the genre, although the general concept of The Strain did have its moments. When I found out that for some reason playwright Neil LaBute, the original satirist/proponent of white misogyny’s cultural impact, would be showrunning Van Helsing for Syfy I nearly spit out my Skinnygirl protein shake.
I was recently privileged to watch the debut of this series, and I take back everything I said about Neil Labute’s recent output. Sure, some of his recent movies were kind of a shit factory, but directing was honestly never his strong suit. He burst on the cinematic stage with his classic comedy about two men trying to humiliate the same deaf woman, In the Company of Men. For this review, I rewatched the movie in its entirety and while it is definitely still amusing, making fun of people’s cruelty is a lot less unexpected now and the whole project takes on a completely different tone.
Far better was LaBute’s unacknowledged masterpiece, 1998’s Your Friends & Neighbors. Showing off LaBute’s unique talent for dialogue and using actresses like Nastassja Kinski and Catherine Keener in roles that would define or redefine their careers, Your Friends & Neighbors is the rare satire of white people that still holds up decades after it was originally written.
Since then LaBute has tried his hand at other genres with varying results. Television seems to suit him on a number of levels, even if we did not necessarily expect a series set in the apocalyptic future where vampires roam the earth from him. As per usual with most Syfy production, you will recognize precisely none of the cast. Vanessa Helsing (Kelly Overton) is the show’s true relevation. She spends most of the show’s pilot in some kind of coma, protected at a military installation by Axel (Jonathan Scarfe). Both actors are so much better performers than are featured on any other show this crumbling network has to offer.
Overton’s experience on the stage suits LaBute. Van Helsing is extremely dialogue heavy, and it immediately feels so different than other serials in that every single scene depicts some kind of conflict or furthering of an agenda. In modern American life, this can seem somewhat farcical, since people are not always trying to get one over on each other, but applying LaBute’s moral philosophy to this fantasy environment gives it a noir feel that is sorely missing from other depictions of the undead concept.
A group of survivors led by John (the brilliant David Cubitt) looks for refuge at the installation, where John seems to have previously served. Sabotage of the base’s exterior defenses allows a group of vampires to reduce the group’s numbers, and Helsing is attacked as she lays prone on the table. This act wakes her to consciousness, and she figures out that she is the reason the group has come – to offer her to Dracula dead or alive.
Because of my current resemblance to Dracula, I have been waiting for him to be portrayed in the fashion to which I have become accustomed: hagiography. LaBute was constantly being misunderstand in his plays as he tried to push the bounds of satire. Slaying the kind of bourgeois inanity required a more extreme approach — the entire point of the stage is push our boundaries of what is possible. If LaBute can bring this perspective to series television and a popular myth, he will have a show better than any Syfy has featured in its history. Heck, he already does.
The best part of vampire lore is the castle. It is the most nuanced form of satire the genre has to offer, where man must directly choose whether or not he is a slave to something greater or an independent creature. Lucius Shepard’s great invention in his cult novel Beautiful Blood was to explain what exactly human beings receive from vampires, so that we can understand the story as less than a master/slave allegory. In the book’s most powerful scene, the vampire protagonist agonizes over all the different types of love he has experienced as a human and undead, forcing himself to choose the most appealing kind.
While parts of Van Helsing are still kind of cheesy-Walking Dead esque survival motifs, there is a hint of something darker once Vanessa Helsing reveals she can turn vampires back into human beings through the manifestation of her own blood. This leads to several complications, the sort of disturbed emotionality that we are used to seeing LaBute unpack so expertly. Sometimes you try to tell a new type of story and you get Mel Gibson’s Christ disaster, but other conflations of genre are absolutely innervating.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to this Recording.