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The Van Helsing Mysteries: Season 2

By Ryan Fleming


Cross. Holy Water. Garlic. Stakes. Cheese Sandwiches. Just another day at the office for Van Helsing.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Part 1 of this review can be found Here. [1]

 

*****

 

The first collaboration between Hammer Film Productions and ITC had been a successful one for both companies. The Van Helsing Mysteries had found an audience both on their home shores of the United Kingdom and, more importantly to both companies, in the United States. However, the series might have remained a single season had another US network not stepped in to replace ABC. That Van Helsing found an audience in the US was nothing short of a miracle considering how ABC had shuffled it between three different timeslots for its 13 episodes.

 

Its first airing, in what was ironically termed the Friday night death slot, may have inadvertently helped in that respect, as Friday nights were usually the time that fans of local horror hosts tuned in to watch old films. Instead of watching old black-and-white films they might have seen a dozen times, they could instead watch first run content, in colour, and starring a familiar face like Peter Cushing. The surprisingly strong ratings meant ABC moved it to a better timeslot, which ironically resulted in a drop in ratings, which a further move did not alleviate, and Van Helsing ended its first season at a fraction of US viewers compared to how it opened.

 

That might have been the end of it, had the young PBS not taken an interest in the programme. PBS member stations were interested in rebroadcasting UK produced dramas, comedies, and science fiction programming. When they came calling to Hammer and ITC, the UK companies were likely jumping for joy. What they did not realise was that the Public Broadcasting Service was exactly that: a non-commercial public broadcaster. The deal had already been done when an incredulous Lew Grade, head of ITC, told his underlings and his Hammer opposite number that they had sold the series to “the Yank BBC”. They were still getting paid, but the deal was likely not to be as lucrative had they been able to sell to ABC, CBS, or NBC.

 

There were big ideas for a second season of The Van Helsing Mysteries. Cushing and Joanna Lumley returned as lead characters Lawrence and Jessica Van Helsing, respectively. Michael Coles, James Hazeldine, and Marsha Hunt would return in a recurring capacity as Inspector Murray, Jessica’s boyfriend Tom, and Jessica’s friend Gaynor, respectively. Christopher Neame would also return for a single episode as Johnny Alucard, Dracula’s disciple that had been a recurring adversary during the first season.


Christopher Neame plays Johnny Alucard, who lasts a grand total of 1 episode in Season 2.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


That Neame would only return for a single episode was for a simple reason. After much cajoling, salary promises, assurances as to how few episodes he’d be appearing in, and likely wining and dining, production had comnvinced Christopher Lee to reprise his role as Dracula for four of the season’s thirteen epsiodes.


A good vampire is hard to keep down.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Lee’s first appearance would come in the first episode of the second season. The Insatiable Thirst of Dracula first aired on ITV networks of 28th January 1974, ahead of its Autumn airing on PBS. It was scripted by Dan Houghton, who returned as script editor alongside Anthony Read, and Anthony Hinds, who resumed his role as producer. It saw the vampiric Alucard, having amassed himself a group of followers since the first season, once again try to resurrect his master.

 

The episode was like a condensed rehash of Dracula Today from the first season, albeit with the ending flipped. Instead of Alucard escaping whilst Dracula perished, their fates were reversed. Alucard was abandoned by his master and staked by Van Helsing and Murray. As his servant begged for help, Dracula could be seen in another room changing from his stereotypical evening wear and cape into a very modern business suit. The last we saw of Dracula in the episode was him exiting the building and blending into the throngs of people on the streets of modern London.

 

The following episode was another sequel of sorts, albeit one that changed the formula of its original compared to Insatiable Thirst. Witching Time revisited the events of Powers of Darkness, which had ended with the warning that the spirit of the witch that had tormented Jessica and her friends was still bound to her, Gaynor, and Tom. It was Tom that was the focus of Witching Time, having relocated to the Home Counties temporarily for work he finds himself staying in the same cottage where the witch, Lucinda, had lived during her lifetime.

 

This conjures up the physical manifestation of Lucinda herself, who had not been seen in the earlier episode. To play the witch, Hammer secured the services of another of their stalwart players: Ingrid Pitt. Van Helsing himself only appears in two scenes in this episode, with most of the action being focused on Lucinda tormenting an increasingly unhinged Tom (though how is left up to the viewer’s imagination to appease television sensibilities) and then of Jessica rescuing her boyfriend from the witch, eventually casting her back to the past. Witching Time was penned by the writer of the original Lucinda episode, script editor Anthony Read.


Another Hammer stalwart - Ingrid Pitt.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Brian Clemens, who had co-written two episodes in the first season with Dennis Spooner, returned solo in season two with Mark of the Devil. It saw Van Helsing called in by Scotland Yard for assistance when a series of murders seem to have occult implications. The murderer turns out to be an American student (David Ladd) who had killed a tattooist in a robbery and found tattoos appearing and growing all over his body. The tattoos seemingly compel the student to kill his friends and family as punishment.

 

Burt Kwouk, most famous as Cato in the Pink Panther films and a familiar face whenever an ITC series like Danger Man required an East Asian character, also guest starred in the episode. It was his second appearance in Van Helsing, having played the vampire His Tien-en in The Five Golden Vampires during the first season. Van Helsing manages to unravel the mystery in the end, but not in enough time to save the student.

 

The first two-parter of the second season made up episodes four and five. After delivering The Nine Maidens in the first season, David Fisher was invited to submit another cliffhanger in the second. His first second season effort became The Gamble With Time, the first episode of the season that leaned far more heavily into science fiction than horror. It saw Van Helsing and Jessica become involved with a rough, Cockney private investigator (Tom Chadbon) investigating alleged cheating going on at an exclusive London club.


The Cockney PI, played by Tom Chadbon.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


The cheating gambler (Julian Glover) turns out to be a time traveller from the far future, raising funds in the present to repair his time machine and return home to a fortune. Isla Blair, Glover’s real-life wife who had previously appeared for Hammer in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), played the present-day mistress of his character.

 

It transpires that the time traveller, whose real name is Scaroth, had become stranded in London during the early modern era and was only capable of travelling forward in time in small increments. This allowed him to build a fortune and use that to finance experiments to enable him to jump as far forward as the increments would allow, where he would start again as a “descendant” of his previous persona.

 

The cliffhanger would be a fondly remembered one, largely for the guest performances of Chadbon, Glover, and Blair. Chadbon in particular impressed the producers as PI Duggan, to the extent that he would be invited back for further episodes, each time penned by Fisher, starting with the next one.

 

The Corvini Inheritance saw Duggan again seek the help of the Van Helsings in a case involving a supposedly cursed necklace being handled by a prestigious London auction house. The necklace, originally the property of a clan of medieval Italian assassins, has been found at the scenes of several seemingly accidental deaths since its arrival in London. David McCallum made his second appearance in Van Helsing as the head of the auction house. His first had been as the titular long-dead scientist in Dr McDee Must Die during the first season.

 

McCallum’s character turns out to be the lynchpin of the deadly goings on, as head of the auction house the necklace recognised him as its owner and went through its usual routine. Said routine consisting of killing the enemies of the owner, before turning on the owner’s loved ones and finally the owner themselves. Duggan and the Van Helsings break the curse in time for the stuffy McCallum to confess his feelings for his neighbour (Jan Francis).

 

Script editors Houghton and Read teamed up for the next episode. Black Carron saw Jessica and Gaynor, in the latter’s capacity as a journalist for a music magazine, attempt to track down a long-vanished early 1960s pop group by visiting the site of their final gig. A remote, ghostly, seaside village. As with Witching Time, Jessica is arguably the protagonist of this episode rather than her grandfather, but this time round the elder Van Helsing follows her into the countryside to assist with the investigation.

 

The episode toes the line between comedy and horror very finely, with much of the former coming from the members of the titular band struggling to understand how music has moved on from 1963 when explained to them by Gaynor. It also ends on a positive note with Gaynor landing an interview with the band after they and the Van Helsings manage to escape from the English seaside equivalent of Brigadoon.

 

Houghton and Hinds would collaborate on the eighth episode of the second season, which was also the second of four episodes to feature Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. It would be the briefest of the four appearances by the Count. Devil Bride of Dracula bore similarities to The Five Golden Vampires from the first season. Instead of Alucard recruiting a group of Chinese vampires to assassinate Van Helsing, it was Dracula himself recruiting a single Indian vampire to do the job. Said vampire, whose true form resembles the Hindu goddess Kali, is implied to be an old flame of the Transylvanian nobleman.

 

Albert Moses appeared in the episode as Khan, an Indian vampire hunter and correspondent of Van Helsing, that has arrived in the country to track down the Kali-esque Jade. Jade herself was played by Shakira Caine, wife of Michael Caine. The combined forces of Van Helsing and Khan are enough to destroy Jade, though they are unable to track down Dracula.

 

The Late Nancy Irving would be David Fisher’s fourth, and final, episode of the second season, and his seventh overall. The only writer to be credited on more episodes than Fisher would be Don Houghton, though with the caveat that five of his ten episodes were co-written with either Anthony Hinds or Anthony Read. It also saw Tom Chadbon return as Duggan for the final time.

 

An oddity of the episode compared to the rest; Duggan enlists the help of the Van Helsings when a case of his has evidence that the late golfer Nancy Irving (Jane Asher) is communicating from beyond the grave. What makes it an oddity is the revelation that Nancy Irving was never dead, she had been kidnapped by a reclusive millionaire needing frequent transfusions of a rare blood type they share. The seemingly supernatural communications were actually the imprisoned Nancy, whose death had been faked, trying to signal for help. It would be the only time the programme would do such a twist where the supernatural had a mundane explanation.

 

And the Wall Came Crumbling Down, the only effort in the second season by Dennis Spooner, writing solo after doing two episodes with Brian Clemens in the previous season, was much more par for the course of Van Helsing. A demolition crew in London uncovers a walled-up chamber bearing a skeleton whilst demolishing a medieval church. Deaths of the demolition crew and others lead to the police consulting with Van Helsing, who uncovers the fact that the building had played host to a Satanic cult centuries before, and their ghosts had returned for vengeance.

 

It’s a well-regarded episode by fans of the series for wearing its horror status on its sleeve. The notion of a work crew stumbling upon some ancient evil bore more than a passing resemblance to Quartermass and the Pit. Coming as it did between two more esoteric offerings, it was the last stop before the big finale for the Van Helsings to do what they did best.

 

Speaking of Quartermass and the Pit, Nigel Kneale was sought by the producers to contribute an episode to the second season. When he flat out refused, they instead invited John Bowen to contribute an episode. Originally, Bowen would have been the only writer from the first season not to return for the second, his battling with the producers and script editors over changes to what would eventually become The Caravan being well-remembered.

 

The Ice House, his contribution to the second season, seemed a lot more straightforward than the earlier episode. It saw Van Helsing investigating disappearances at a health farm set up in a country estate. However, that seemingly straightforward nature saw fewer changes made to Bowen’s script to make it more exciting, and the end result is a very contemplative, inscrutable piece that is very off-piste for the overall series and usually ranked amongst the weaker episodes. Despite boasting some eerie scenes, it is mostly seen as a failed experiment for the series.

 

Don Houghton alone would pen the final two episodes. The only cliffhanger of the second season after The Gamble with Time and would bring the conflict between Dracula and Van Helsing to a head. The two parts of the only episodes to reunite all the recurring cast members from both seasons: Inspector Murray, Gaynor, and Tom. Together, both parts of The Satanic Rites of Dracula would blend horror, science fiction, and spy thrillers that would be just as at home on The Avengers or Doctor Who as it was on The Van Helsing Mysteries.

 

Since his escape in Insatiable Thirst, Dracula had been establishing himself in the modern-day United Kingdom by setting up a cult with himself at its head. He had brought many prominent members of society – government ministers, peers, military men, scientists, and, of course, trade union leaders – to his cause. As property developer DD Denham, Dracula had been working with his cult to create a particularly contagious strain of the bubonic plague, intending to release it into the world and establish a new world order of the undead with himself as supreme ruler.

 

The Van Helsings and their allies must contend with Dracula’s modern-day brides – a harem to which the Count wants to add Jessica – and his “four horsemen” – his henchman in the cult – to stop the plot. In traditional Hammer fashion, Van Helsing triumphs over Dracula, trapping the vampire in the rising sun and driving a stake through his heart. Van Helsing watches as Dracula turns to ash once more, before leaving the Denham estate with his comrades.

 

Season two of The Van Helsing Mysteries did respectable numbers on both sides of the Atlantic. So much so that Hammer and ITC hoped to make a third season, but when PBS could not meet the price tag for new episodes, the second season wound up being the last.

 

It would prove to be the last time that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were together on screen in a Hammer production. And the second to last time they appeared on screen together, preceding House of the Long Shadows (1983).

 

The quality of the second season is seen as a mixed bag, much like the first. A few episodes rank amongst the very best like Witching Time, The Gamble with Time, along with And the Wall Came Tumbling Down. Yet The Ice House is usually regarded as the worst. The through line of Dracula at large in the modern day, along with the presence of Lee, usually gives the second season the edge over the first, however.

 

Though new episodes were not forthcoming, PBS did retain syndication of the existing twenty-six episodes, and they would play in frequent rotation as a trifecta of UK genre shows for US fans alongside The Avengers and Doctor Who.

 

The 1980s saw ABC buy some of the episodes and recut them into television films, including both parts of the four cliffhangers (excluding Dracula Today) alongside Powers of Darkness and Witching Time. As Hammer moved away from Gothic horror following Nessie (1977) and the science fiction boom following Star Wars, The Van Helsing Mysteries marked the last hurrah for the genre that had made the studio that dripped blood famous.


And for this Hammer gave up Gothic Horror?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



DVD releases in the 2000s gave new life to the series, and at one point a new series of Van Helsing films starring Daniel Radcliffe was rumoured in the early 2010s, but those never materialised. If anything, the programme had more impact in the US than it did on its home shores. After ABC debuted their own home-grown occult detective the same year PBS began airing the second season of Van Helsing, fans on the left side of the Atlantic forever debated between Carl Kolchak and Lawrence Van Helsing. Like Van Helsing, Kolchak: The Night Stalker had emerged from a television film, albeit Kolchak’s first two films had aired on NBC rather than ABC.

 

A version of Van Helsing, played by Tony Curran, had even appeared in a single episode of Frank Spotnitz’s 2005 revival of Kolchak, titled Night Stalker. A team-up between Darren McGavin’s Kolchak and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing would eventually happen in graphic novel form on the pages of 2022’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker – 50th Anniversary, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Graphic Novel.

 

Hammer never again entered the television market, and their collaboration with ITC fizzled out in the 1980s after a series of high-profile box-office bombs. For a couple of years in the 1970s, however, it seemed that the studio was poised to conquer television in the same way they had film. The Van Helsing Mysteries might not have been as big a success as they hoped, but it did achieve what PT Barnum had once said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

 

 

Comment on this article Here.

 

Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.

 

There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).


SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.

 


 

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