Film and drama

Screen Themes: Van Helsing vs Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

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It’s time for some small screen action, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of new streaming series based on classic novels.

Van Helsing

While the character of Van Helsing has a storied history, first introduced as a foil to Dracula in the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, the name itself doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. This is probably due to the 2004 movie version starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman’s mullet, which was objectively awful. Fighting a bevvy of old-timey bad guys, Jackman played monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing in a movie that was meant to kickstart a franchise but didn’t.

Of course, Van Helsing on Netflix isn’t your father’s Van Helsing. It’s his granddaughter. Or great granddaughter, it’s not really important. Vanessa Helsing (because Van is short for Vanessa, geddit?) is a genetically enhanced super-warrior in a post-apocalyptic future where vampires have taken over. Woken from a coma, Vanessa joins a rag-tag band of resistance fighters and starts kicking vampire ass, realizing along the way that the humans might be the real monsters.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a bit like The Walking Dead, you’re absolutely right. You can almost see the pitch meeting; “It’s like The Walking Dead meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. Unfortunately, Van Helsing lacks the budget of the former and the charm of the latter, resulting in a joyless genre excursion that adds nothing new to the mix. The vampires even look like zombies, albeit zombies in crappy B-movie makeup.

On the upside, star Kelly Overton throws herself into the role and appears to do many of her own stunts, which should be commended. The fact that the show isn’t made for network TV means they can be as violent and gory as they like, so if you’re a fan of decapitations you might find something to like in Van Helsing.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

If the name Dirk Gently sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because he’s the star of Douglas Adams slightly less successful follow up to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. First published in 1987, the novels told the story of an unorthodox detective who solved cases by looking at the fundamental interconnectedness of all things while running up large expense claims.

Previously produced as a radio play starring Harry Enfield and a short-lived TV series starring Stephen Mangan (simply named Dirk Gently), this new iteration stars former hobbit Elijah Wood as a self-loathing bellhop named Todd Brotzman and Samuel Barnett as the wacky/wildly irritating title character. In fact, DGHDA is one of those shows where the supporting characters are much more interesting than the leads, particularly Fiona Dourif as Bart Curlish, a holistic assassin, and Richard Schiff from The West Wing as missing persons detective Zimmerfield.

Series creator Max Landis is a polarising sort of guy. The son of legendary director John Landis (and about to have a crack at remaking An American Werewolf in London), Landis shot to prominence when he wrote the script for acclaimed grunge superhero film Chronicle, then proceeded to write the near incomprehensible American Ultra and the rather sweet Me Him Her in the same year. He also wrote the much derided Netflix original movie Bright, starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton — the best cure for insomnia that I’ve found since 50 Shades of Anything.

With a line in quirky humour and sub-plots galore, there is a good chance that fans of Douglas Adams will find something to like in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. At worst it’s an interesting failure, yet another demonstration of how difficult it is to bring the visionary work of Douglas Adams to the screen.

The Verdict

Thanks to the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and HBO, more new TV drama series are being produced in 2018 than any time in history. By simple odds, there is no way that they’re all going to be good, but now and again you have to try something new.

While tonally uneven at times, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is occasionally laugh out loud funny, which is more than can be said for many so-called comedies. Based on this, I’d give it a qualified recommendation; if you watch the first episode and hate it, move on to something else.

Much like the Game of Thrones wannabe Britannia, Van Helsing suffers from comparison to better series – even the interminable Season 8 of the Walking Dead is more entertaining than the derivative and repetitive Van Helsing. If you really want a kick-ass vampire slayer, watch an old episode of Buffy. Most of them still hold up…

Van Helsing — 3/10

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency — 6/10

Both Van Helsing and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency can be seen on Netflix.

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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