When I think back about the Saturday morning TV shows that had a profound impact on me while growing up, a handful of series like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Digimon come to mind. But let me ask you a question: do you remember Van-Pires, a show about… well, teen/vampire/car hybrids?
Van-Pires is one of those weird kinds of shows you end up suppressing like a traumatic memory only to have it bubble up to the surface of your consciousness every so often. I don’t quite remember where I was when I first saw the show, but a recent trip down a YouTube rabbit hole brought me back to 1997 to re-experience the story of how four teens were transformed into vampiric, vehicular robot beings who needed to consume gasoline in order to wage war on a villain known as Tracula.
Even as a kid I distinctly remember thinking to myself that the show had to have begun as a throwaway portmanteau joke someone thought was entirely too funny. While the idea of a gas-guzzling monster car isn’t exactly lame in and of itself, you get the very distinct sense that Van-Pires co-creators John and Anthony Gentile didn’t fully think the concept through before they successfully pitched it Fox. Part of what makes describing Van-Pires so difficult is the fact that, like lots of kids television programming from the ’90s, it barely makes any sort of narrative sense. The show’s opening credit sequence makes a valiant effort at trying to explain what the hell is going on, but the more you try to follow along with the exposition, the less sense Van-Pires makes.
Axle, Snap, Nuke, and Rev, the series’ four teens with attitude, are inexplicably given the same sort of names you’d expect to hear during at an Axe bodywash brainstorming session, and their reliance on gasoline comes across less as “vampire cars need sustenance” and more like “these kids somehow got addicted to drinking and huffing gas.” When the kids aren’t fighting Tracula and the other evil van-pires, they spend their time hanging out in a junkyard with their mentor Van He’ll Sing, an ageing hippie who’s credited as “playing himself,” though the actor bears a striking resemblance to Gary Oldman wearing a bad wig and a Rastafarian hat.
If you squint particularly hard and tune every third line or so out, you can sort of convince yourself that Van-Pires, on some level, was at one point an attempt at educating kids about our over-reliance on fossil fuels and the necessity of protecting the world’s resources. But that message often gets buried beneath Van-Pires’ oppressively bad CG, dozens of car puns, and a flurry of music and sound cues that feel like they’re actively trying to keep you disoriented. (Something that shocked me reading up about the series now is that somehow The Who’s John Entwhistle became involved with the production and ended up writing a number of songs for the Van-Pires official soundtrack.)
It’s obvious that Fox wanted Van-Pires to recreate the type of success that it’d seen with Saban Entertainment’s Power Rangers franchise, but there was something missing from Van-Pires that almost assuredly guaranteed its cancelation. Sure, the show’s writing, acting, and production values were all alarmingly poor, but more than that, Van-Pires somehow managed to be both horrifying and boring at the same time.
As an adult, I can appreciate the show’s mild flirtation with elements of body horror, but Van-Pires never really gets around to playing with the sorts of ideas about mortality that make non-vehicular vampires interesting. That might seem like a rather lofty expectation from a Saturday morning tv show, but it’s not like kids aren’t able to comprehend those sorts of ideas. In some alternate universe, Van-Pires is a weirdly clever, progressive attempt at getting young people excited about renewable energies and environmentalism. In this one, though, it’s just a mess of a show that thankfully died off in the ’90s.