Saturday 25 January 2014

Helsing (2014)

Director: Ryan Johnston
Stars: Patrick Morrison, Anthony Napodano, Desiree (Rey) Srinivas, Jing Song and Liz Garcia
When Helsing launched at Coffee Cartel in Tempe just before Hallowe'en last year, it felt like it had been around forever. It had run a highly visible Kickstarter campaign, which I'd researched ahead of a 4th July radio interview with director Ryan Johnston and a few of his crew. I particularly remember a video that accompanied the Kickstarter, not merely because it was a strong and coherent piece but because it was also longer than I expected; Art of War Pictures shot more footage to use in fundraising than end up in many Kickstarted shorts. Surprisingly, as I discovered at the launch, that footage didn't even make it into the final product, ending up as a sort of prequel to the action in the main short. If Johnston's goal of turning Helsing into a fully fledged web series pan out, the teaser ought to kick off season one. Certainly I'm for that approach as I'd love to see more; the twenty minutes of Helsing play very well, but they're a mere glimpse into this world, one which could easily allow a lot more glimpses.
As the title suggests, this is yet another film about Dr Abraham Van Helsing. The weakest aspect is the knowledge that we've seen this character played a hundred times before by a hundred different actors, which inevitably means that this short becomes film #101 and originality isn't particularly likely. The strongest aspect may be that we quickly discover that we've never quite seen him like this before, thus prompting us to open our eyes to whatever else Johnston and his team plan to show us. Patrick Morrison plays Van Helsing rather like he's in a spaghetti western: a jaded anti-hero covered in dust and stinking of liquor. He looks good for someone who's been dead for centuries but hasn't stopped moving yet; the uneasy relationship between Van Helsing and his 'curse of immortality' ought to be played up however the story ends up expanding. He keeps the role serious and straight, even as Anthony Napodano adds comic relief as Luke, his unwanted and very green priest sidekick. Luke gets the real story arc here too.
While this unlikely pair of vampire hunters are the bedrock of the film, and would remain so throughout any expansion, they're far from being its flash. Once they find their way into a dilapidated building that was amazingly built as a set, our eyes are quickly distracted by a couple of ladies who I've never seen look better than they do here. The first is Jing Song, as an unnamed vampire girl that Luke finds crying in a corner, and she does a surprising amount with her role. She's a heady combination of throwaway bloodsucker, playfully innocent minx and magnetic vampire seductress, always commanding our eyes even when drenched in blood, scarred by holy water and hindered by horrible teeth. She successfully changes tone on a dime, highlighting why she's so in demand locally at the moment. Desiree Srinivas has an easier job on her hands as Moria, with only two tones to master: the teasing, confident vampire elder in her elegant coiffure and corset, and the witch in a magnificent Mark Greenawalt paint job.
Both these ladies do astounding work here, stealing every shot and every scene from the male leads, but they're supported wonderfully. Their costumes are notable, their make up is highly effective and an excellent use of sound means that they remain the focus even when they're not on screen. The effects work supports them too, especially Srinivas, because Moria's talents lend themselves to clever digital manipulation and lead to a number of setpieces. The most memorable shots in the film revolve around her; one in particular reminds me of an astounding shot in a guilty pleasure from the thirties that took me years to figure out. Eventually I learned that the grand reveal of the witch in Sh! The Octopus was done with light sensitive make up, so that she could just move forward and a change of filter revealed the horrible truth. I'm sure there's digital work in play here too, as Moria walks out of the light to reveal all that gorgeous Mark Greenawalt bodypaint, but the result is similarly effective.

Beyond the reuse of an old character, the worst thing that Helsing does is end. At twenty minutes, this isn't remotely long enough, not least because the plot revolves around a search for Dracula, who won't show up until a much later episode. The web series idea may work well, with Van Helsing following lead after lead in his quest for his nemesis, while we learn more about him and Luke learns more about the war against vampires. It would play well as a feature too, this segment playing early on in the running time but not quite at the beginning. It's flexible enough to work in many other forms though: as a TV series, with longer and more substantial episodes than a web format would allow; as a novel or comic book series. Perhaps this is because what we're given here is so emphatically just a slice, a powerful one to be sure, but a small enough one that we can't even fathom how big the story really is. Here's to hoping that we get to see more of it soon.

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