Happy Monster Month.
Van Helsing is a 2004 monster mashup brought to us by writer/director Stephen Sommers of The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) fame. And this movie is too much fun for it's own good. Or your own good. So you probably shouldn't watch it. That's how much fun it is. It'll give you cavities or something.
If I were to describe Van Helsing to a first time viewer in only one sentence it would go something like this: Steampunk James Bond dukes it out with Dracula whilst wearing a really cool hat. Seriously, Van Helsing, I'm jealous of your fashion sense.
In a little more detail: Van Helsing is an ageless being with convenient memory loss who is working for a mysterious organization known as the Knights of the Holy Order. The Knights of the Holy Order are the only thing standing between us mortal men and the forces of evil. In his briefing with a grumpy Cardinal (who stands in for M from the James Bond movies) Van Helsing is informed of the Valerious family curse. Several generations back Granddaddy Valerious made an oath that he and his descendants could not enter Heaven until the Vampire Dracula has been vanquished. It is up to Van Helsing and the gadget creating friar Carl (Who is the comic relief Q stand-in) to stop Dracula before he can wipe out the Valerious line.
The line consists of of two gypsies: Prince Velkan and Princess Anna Valerious. That's right. This movie had a Princess Anna nine years before Frozen. Take THAT Disney!
As a tribute to the Universal classics the film starts in black and white. The Universal logo fades into the opening shot - a lit torch - and we pan down to see a bunch of angry villagers carrying torches. That's a cool trick Sommers picked up from the other Stephen and the way the Paramount Mountain is the opening shot in all the Indiana Jones movies. This story starts where the 1931 Frankenstein ends. An angry mob is trying to put a stop to Dr. Frankenstein's work, and because nobody ever told them not to play with matches a windmill gets burned down. Since nobody in the village can mill grain anymore they all starve to death. Guess they didn't think that one through...
Okay so they don't starve, but that's what would have happened in real life. Or they'd just go on gluten free diets.
The characterization of the Frankenstein Monster makes this movie for me. He's intelligent - like Mary Shelly's original - rather than the mumbling brute from the classic movies. He's literate as well - he is shown with a Bible. For the sake of irony they made the Monster religious. Dracula keeps calling the creation of the Monster 'The triumph of science over God!' and meanwhile the Monster is quoting Psalm 23. The Monster is also shown as having the moral high ground over Van Helsing.
One of the main themes of Van Helsing's character arc seems to be inspired by the proverb 'Whoever fights monsters must see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.' Just like a Vigilante Superhero, Van Helsing spends most of his free time brooding about the dark path he must walk. For Example:
Anna: 'Don't you understand forgiveness?'
Van Helsing: 'Yes. I ask for it often.'
Anna: 'Some say you are a murderer. Others say you are a Holy man. Which is it?'
Van Helsing: 'It's a little of both I suppose.'
And of course, by the movie's climax Van Helsing is at risk of becoming a literal monster as well as a figurative one.
For as much as this is a popcorn flick about Van Helsing punching monsters in the face there is a good bit of depth. There's also this contemplative nugget about mortality:
Van Helsing: 'I'm sorry about your brother.'
Anna: 'I will see him again. We Transylvanians like to look on the brighter side of death.'
Van Helsing: 'There's a brighter side of death?'
Anna: 'Of course there is. It's just harder to see.'
Much as I love Van Helsing, I feel a need to acknowledge that it isn't a perfect movie. A lot of people don't really like it. They say the special effects are cheesy and dated. To which I have several responses.
1: This movie is twelve years old now. Yes there have been advances in CGI in those past twelve years, but movies like this are stepping stones to where we are now. Where we are now is another stepping stone to where we will be in the future when the movies of the 2010's look cheesy and dated. We can't be where we are now without the stepping stones. Respect the stepping stones.
2: Classic monster costumes - with some very rare exceptions - don't look real. Having werewolves that look cheesy is part of the long and proud cinematic history of cheesy looking werewolves.
3: A special effect that doesn't quite look real REMINDS US TO SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF. When you're watching a movie like this you shouldn't take it too seriously. The filmmakers weren't taking it too seriously. They were having fun with it. You should also have fun with it. If we can be taken out of a story by a cheesy special effect we weren't that invested in the story in the first place.
The only think I see as a real problem is Dracula's performance. It's crazy over the top, and takes me out of the story at times.
A major point in favor of this movie is that it doesn't cheat and give us a happy ending. It gives us the right ending instead. (The happy ending and the right ending aren't always the same thing). It's a little melancholy rather than outright tragic, and still triumphant. But it really pulls together the story's themes of mortality and life after death.
If you're a fan of monster movies I definitely recommend this entertaining tribute to the classics. Stephen Sommers dedicated this movie 'To the Memory of my Dad'. I'd like to think that the two of them watched the Universal monster movies together. It's a sweet mental picture, and it would explain why Sommers made 'Van Helsing' and 'The Mummy'. I saw this movie for the first time just after the passing of my Dad - we watched a ton of action movies together - and I think Sommers' dedication and the themes of life after death are a big part of why this movie is so special to me.
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