Monday, November 30, 2020

Blast From The Past Movie Review: VAN HELSING (2004)

I first saw Van Helsing back when I was in college. I don't remember too clearly how much I liked it then--I think I liked it broadly but didn't like the end. I did use a GIF of Richard Roxburgh's Dracula as an AOL Instant Messenger avatar, at least for awhile.

The film podcast Myopia Movies dedicated October as vampire-movie month, with Van Helsing originally planned as the Patreon special. Although I wasn't slated to participate, I'd rented the movie already and so watched it anyway. Here's a free snippet and instructions how to get whole episode FREE. And now my review..

The Plot

Amnesiac Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a monster-hunter working for a Vatican knightly order. Owing to how many of the creatures he kills revert to human form upon death and how close-mouthed the Vatican is about supernatural threats like vampires, werewolves, etc. he's viewed by the general public as a serial killer and is the most wanted criminal in Europe. After dispatching Mr. Hyde in Paris when we first meet him, the Vatican sends him to Transylvania to assist the Valerious family in their centuries-long battle with none other than Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh).

Upon arrival he allies with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsdale), the last living member of the family after the presumed death of her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), and does battle with Dracula and his three brides. Things get complicated...Dracula seems to have some kind of prior history with Van Helsing and the vampire king has a very dangerous and complex plan involving none other than Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) and werewolves.

The Good

*For starters, the movie is pretty exciting and never dull. That's why, even though there's so much to criticize about it, I'm going to give it a good review. It's just plain fun. I watched about 1/3 of it on the elliptical at the gym and it made the time go by so much faster.

*The acting works. Hugh Jackman is good as Van Helsing, while David Wenham is fine as the inventor-friar Carl. Kate Beckinsdale does a decent job as Anna. Hensley, who won the Tony Award for his role as the pitiable but dangerous Jud Frye in Oklahoma!, puts a lot of pathos into his portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster. But the one who's clearly having the most fun is Richard Roxburgh, who plays Dracula himself. He chews the scenery like he's chewing on somebody's neck and it's always entertaining. In particular he plays Dracula incredibly snarky and I liked that.

*One innovation Van Helsing brings to vampire films is the characterization of Dracula's vampire brides. Rather than just being residents of the Count's house of horrors in Transylvania without individual characterization (this fanfic even depicts them as a sort of hive mind), they play a major role in driving the plot and have personalities.

*I also liked the characterization of Frankenstein's Monster. Rather than some freak with the mind of a toddler (or in the original film an executed murderer) in the body of a professional wrestler, he's very intelligent, has some very pointed things to say about monster-hunting, reveres Dr. Frankenstein as his father, and is even a devout Catholic despite being, well, the parts of seven men strung together and reanimated with electricity. I think this is more heavily tied in with the novel where the creature was more intelligent.

*There's a lot of humor in this movie. I laughed out loud several times.

*The Valerious patriarch who goes missing before the story begins is referred to as "the King of the Gypsies." Given how in the original Dracula novel and the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula his minions are explicitly depicted as being Gypsies (or Romani as they prefer to be called), this seems like a deliberate choice to deconstruct the old story. Rarely does one put "thoughtful" and this film together in one sentence, but it looks like they put some thinking into it.

The Bad

*For all its spectacle and fun, there's a lot of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense. For starters, when Anna tells the villagers that Van Helsing is the first man to kill a vampire in over 100 years, that raises some questions as to what exactly the Valerious family has been doing in all the centuries they've been fighting Dracula. Have they been keeping the vampires contained as much as possible to keep them from harming others, but avoiding killing them outright because that might provoke revenge attacks? Given how they don't initially know where Castle Dracula even is, that seems unlikely. Does Dracula primarily use werewolves and human minions, with the vampires only coming out to fight occasionally? It would've been better if Anna had lectured the villagers about their ingratitude for Van Helsing saving their lives.

*The action goes back and forth from Transylvania to Rome, often by carriage. Does distance mean anything? If Dracula has a townhouse, it'd probably be in a much closer big city like Bucharest.

*Also, why does Van Helsing try to kill Dracula with methods that don't work (in this universe) like the silver stake? If the Valerious family has been fighting Dracula for centuries and tried various means of killing him (Anna talks about burning, stabbing, clubbing etc., which means they've gone hand-to-hand with him repeatedly), why aren't they sharing this with the Vatican? And why didn't the Vatican share this with Van Helsing? Someone has blundered.

*Does being a vampire mean lack of volume control? Dracula and his brides sure like to yell and scream overdramatically, especially the shrieking-prone brides. Roxburgh's hammy Dracula is fun, but the brides can get pretty annoying.

*For a world in which Catholicism is factually true, their take on Catholic theology is...dubious. For starters, Valerious the Elder making a vow to God (and apparently some kind of deal with the leadership of the Church) that nobody in his family would go to Heaven until Dracula was dead and the cardinal's worrying the entire Valerious family would end up in Purgatory if the family were killed before Dracula's death. Firstly, even if Valerious the Elder was foolish enough to make such a vow in the first place (see the Hebrew judge Jephthah), the cardinal has no reason to think God would honor it. The only way for this to make sense theologically is if the most extreme version of the apostles' authority to bind and loose (see Matthew 16:19) and that the Catholic leadership and in particular the Pope are the successors to the apostles in authority are both correct. If Catholicism is factually true the latter works, but the former is really pushing it. On a lesser note, Purgatory is temporary, even if it is unpleasant, so the Valerious family will enter Heaven eventually. When dealing with a timeframe of eternity, even a century or two matters little. Also the film implies that Van Helsing is actually the Archangel Gabriel, who has taken human form but lost his memory. Angels do not work that way.

It would have been much better if the Valerious family has been keeping Dracula contained in Romania, but they've recently suffered a series of reverses like the disappearance of Anna and Velkan's father. Van Helsing is sent in as reinforcements, since if the family is wiped out, Dracula will be free to spread his dark influence across Europe. And give Van Helsing a more conventional origin story. He's just a monster-hunter working for the Vatican and that's it.

*Also, Van Helsing's knightly order is pretty multi-faith...there are Muslim mullahs, Sikhs, and Buddhist monks present at its headquarters in the Vatican and Dracula comments that Van Helsing has been trained by "monks and mullahs from Tibet to Istanbul." That kind of ecumenism isn't something that would happen in that era. Leo XIII was Pope at the time and although he was more left-wing politically and economically, he wouldn't acknowledge salvation outside the Catholic Church (that didn't happen until Vatican II), let alone outside of Christianity. Furthermore, when faced with evidence that the Cross and other specifically Christian holy items have supernatural power against evil, I imagine non-Christian witnesses would convert relatively quickly. This is empirically factual evidence of the truth of Christianity, and Catholicism specifically. Better to have it all Catholics, but multiple ethnicities. The Japanese Christians would have just come out of hiding, there's the Eastern Rite drawn from the Greek world, the Middle Eastern Maronites (whom ignorant Westerners might assume were Muslims), etc. 

Hmm...Van Helsing trained in ninjutsu by one of the Hidden Christians? That'd be cool. Such a character could've even been a replacement for Friar Carl if they wanted to go with "martial arts" over "steampunk technology"--a man who'd secretly practiced Christianity as an instructor in the genocidally anti-Christian Shogunate's official ninja academy would do a very good job in training VH in sneaking around and assassination.

*Valerious the Elder's vow is also a missed opportunity for when Dracula attempts to seduce Anna. He can play up the idea that she'll never go to Heaven, so she might as well live forever on Earth. And owing to the people's ingratitude toward the family for protecting them from supernatural threats, might as well eat them too. Even if theologically that's all nonsense, Anna might not know that and Dracula can use it to manipulate her.

*Although the brides do more than just perv on Jonathan Harker (who isn't even in the film), they could have been better developed as characters. Per the almighty TVTropes, in interviews the actresses revealed a lot about their is Dracula's favorite and primary wife, another was a Gypsy in her mortal life, and one hates Anna because she thinks that Dracula will try to make her one of his vampire brides. Some of that stuff is hinted at in the film (Anna and vampire bride Aleera seem to be on a first-name basis with each other), but not enough.

*A "king of the Gypsies" with a bad-Latin name? The Gypsies/Romani originally came from India. Depending on how assimilated they are (this one even became a Romanian prince), they might have Hungarian or Slavic names. The only way this works is if Anna and Velkan's father was elected to the position, as a sort of liaison to the non-Romani. Also, Valerious was the ancestor's first name, not his family name. I don't really have an issue with the first names--being Christians a Biblical name like Anna makes sense and Velkan sounds appropriately Eastern European, but their ancestor's first name becoming their last name? How did that happen?

The Verdict

Fun, but don't think about it too much. 8.0 out of 10. If you want to listen to my colleagues--who were much less merciful--make fun of the movie, sign up for the Patreon here.

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