Defending Van Helsing
Well somebody’s got to do it!
Paul looks back at a film he unashamedly enjoys – repeatedly!
In the spring of 2004, Van Helsing became one of those rare films for me, along with the likes of Ghost (1990), Titanic (1997), Spider-Man (2002) and Avengers Assemble (2012), that I saw at the cinema twice in the same run.
The first time was Friday 7th May – opening night. Mrs C had wound up in hospital for a week and after kicking-out time on the ward, I needed something to do. As the hospital was in Southport, where our nearest cinema also happened to be, I decided to pop down there to see what was on.
The only thing of any vague interest that was starting soonish was some horror-adventure starring Wolverine and her out of Underworld, featuring classic Universal monsters and directed by the guy who made The Mummy.
Why not, I thought to myself.
Why not, indeed.
Several people have shared more than their tuppence worth on answering that. But still, I came out of the cinema having had a thoroughly good time. So much so that I took Mrs C to see it once she was out of the hospital and on the mend (please leave humorous comments below about how I was lucky it didn’t put her back on the ward).
Why Do So Many People Hate It?
Well, as with most opinions on film, people who dislike it have a fair point. I mean, all film is subjective, so of course, some will like a title while others won’t. But Van Helsing has more than its fair share of detractors. So it seems only fair to address these problems that put so many people off.
- Firstly, the special effects. Yes, the CGI is relentless and quite shonky in places.
- Then there is the scenery-chewing acting from almost everyone involved.
- Swinging. So much swinging (from ropes, you dirty minded so-and-so).
These appear to be the three main complaints. However, I may, if I will address all of those:
- OK, there’s no getting around the special effects issue. It’s not that they’re all bad – some are superb, but others are quite cartoonish (especially the werewolves). BUT! It’s a big, brash cartoonish adventure anyway which doesn’t ever pretend to be realistic and therefore, unrealistic effects don’t really matter.
- This is a homage of 1930s monster movies. Just look at Tod Browning’s Dracula or James Whale’s Frankenstein films. They are full of over the top performances and yet are regarded as genre-defining classics.
- Really? Swinging? You see that as a problem? If that’s the case, wait until you see Tarzan or the Indiana Jones films (er, OK, maybe not Crystal Skull though, where I admit the swinging was a little gratuitous).
So now that I have rather expertly handled those objections (You’re modest to the last aren’t you? Ed.) let me tell you what I think makes it such an enjoyable ride.
Can you think of any other film which has successfully managed to get Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster AND the Wolfman together? No, The Groovy Goolies does NOT count!
Despite a seemingly complicated affair, it’s a fairly simple set up: Dracula, in a desperate bid to prolong his family line yet unable to breed (what with being dead and all), hires Victor Frankenstein to discover the secret to creating life. The monster rebels and Dracula goes into hiding, using his Wolfman slave to keep the locals in line. Oh, and Van Helsing turns up wearing a fancy leather jacket, and something about a gipsy curse. Simple right?
But in all seriousness, Van Helsing is all about the most human of needs – Legacy. Dracula desires one, Kate Beckinsale’s Anna Valerious fights to ensure the survival of hers, Van Helsing struggles to reconnect with his lost one, and The Monster mourns the loss of his.
The Opening Act
I recently watched Bride of Frankenstein and it reminded me just how faithful several aspects of the first six minutes are to the 1930s classics. From Frankenstein’s cries of “It’s alive!”, to the detail in his lab, the windmill surrounded by a torch-wielding mob even down to the Universal logo which slowly turns monochrome and catches fire. The whole sequence, while not always copying detail for detail, still evokes a nostalgia for the beloved old films.
Carl The Friar
Van Helsing has been criticised for a lack of humour but to that, I say “Tish, pshaw and nonsense my good fellow” because this film has, in Carl the Friar (David Wenham), one of my favourite comedy sidekicks. Acting as a kind of Victorian Q for the Monster Hunting Division of the Roman Catholic Church, Carl provides our hero with a variety of very cool weapons and the audience with some lovely humorous moments. His self-effacing, slightly cowardly demeanour, along with his mop-top of red hair gives him a kind of Shaggy-like feel (although I don’t recall the bit where he ran away from monsters, found a kitchen and made a foot-tall sandwich).
Carl very much represents the humanity which Van Helsing himself can sometimes be lacking, displaying kindness, bravery when the task calls for it, and perhaps, most importantly of all, a righteous indignation when Van Helsing threatens to go too far. But most of all, his wisecracks and sarcasm give this film a much needed light touch.
The last surviving member of Dracula’s three brides (er, spoilers) is played by Elena Anaya who audiences will probably know best as Doctor Poison from last year’s Wonder Woman film. Aleera is brutal, sadistic yet sexy and funny too – the combination of which makes her, to me at least, the scariest of all the monsters in the film.
There’s something terrifyingly otherworldly about her performance, the way she lures victims in with her looks and, apparent vulnerability, but ultimately toys with her prey. Her half vamped-out form, with those glowing, hypnotic purple eyes gives me the creeps every single time!
There’s a fabulous moment, late on in the proceedings, where Drac has taken Anna hostage as a lure for Van Helsing and The Monster. He takes her to his summer palace in Budapest where they attend a masquerade ball. If nothing else, the extravaganza of the gold-coated ballroom, filled with whirling masked dancers, acrobats (some swinging, of course) and musicians balancing on globes is a visual feast. When he’s on top form director Stephen Sommers has a real eye for detail and spectacle – and it’s here where the CGI really impresses – I’ve just watched it again now and you can’t tell which bits are augmented and which are real actors and stunt performers.
And that’s before we get to the good bit! As Drac and Anna waltz around the room, we are not to worried for her safety because, firstly, Van Helsing is surely on the way, but also, Dracula wouldn’t try to harm her in such a public place. Would he?
And then they dance past the mirror where Anna sees only herself in the room, being moved around the floor by an invisible leader. The penny drops for us as it does for Anna that she’s in a heap load more danger than she realised!
It’s just a great scene, sumptuously presented, and which builds tension in a masterful way.
Shuler Hensley is better known for his theatre work, having played, among others, Javert in Les Misérables and the title role in The Phantom of the Opera. but it is his acclaimed turn in the stage adaptation of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein which impressed casting directors enough to cast him in Van Helsing, despite being very inexperienced in film at the time.
But I think a role like The Monster benefits from being played by a theatre actor. He delivers his lines in such a melodramatic fashion, with gravitas and passion making The Monster one of the most sympathetic characters in the film.
It’s Silly, Exciting And Fun
There’s a coach chase! A gas-powered machine-gun crossbow! Two (count ’em!) werewolves! A secret, underground gadgets and weaponry workshop! In a church! Beautiful ladies in danger! Igor! Played by Benny from The Mummy! Electricity! Lots of it! And swinging! So. Much. Swinging!
Guilty pleasure? Not at all – why should I feel guilty about something that makes me feel so good? And Roger Ebert liked it! So stop being a critic, get some drinks and snacks, disengage your brain and just enjoy!