Sunday, October 31, 2010


So today is Halloween, and this year I don't really have a new horror movie to talk about as I have in previous years.  I've not had time to watch the Paranormal Activity stuff, I'm not interested in Hollywood's desperate retreads of '80's horror (as evidenced by the recent remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street), I hate all the Saw movies (with the exception of the first one, which was just a good movie, and they should have ended it there), and Rob Zombie has (hopefully) been banned from making movies ever again.  So I think this year I shall talk about a movie that I personally own in my collection, and one that I really like despite the fact that I'm not supposed to, according to the hip and in-the-know among horror.

That movie is Van Helsing.

Van Helsing premiered on the screen back in 2004, starring Hugh Jackman in the title role, with Richard Roxburgh, Kate Beckinsale, Shuler Hensley, and David Wenham.  Directed by Stephen Sommers (who also made the Mummy trilogy with Brendan Fraser), the movie spins the tale of Gabriel Van Helsing (Jackman), a monster-hunter for a secret order within the Vatican who is suffering from amnesia: he can remember nothing of his life before he was taken in by the Church.  Van Helsing is dispatched to Transylvania with orders to help the Valerious family kill Count Dracula (Roxburgh), as they are under oath to kill Dracula before their past generations can enter Heaven.  With weapons-builder/mad scientist Friar Carl (Wenham) in tow, Van Helsing arrives in Transylvania and discovers that Dracula is not only trying to kill Anna Valerious (Beckinsale), who is a monster-hunter herself and one of the two surviving members of the Valerious bloodline, but is also trying to acquire the Frankenstein Monster (Hensley) for use in a fiendish plan to rule the world.

When this movie came out, the response to it was more that just a little ridiculous.  Horror fans (who, in my opinion, have had their sense of wonder and the supernatural stolen and dulled by years of inarticulate slasher crap and gore-laden special effects) were almost unanimous in their disapproval of this movie, despite the fact that from much of what I have read almost none of them went to see it.  This movie was the movie that forced a well-known horror magazine and my readership of it to part ways, due to the fact that their dislike of the movie bordered on the pathological: they reacted as if Stephen Sommers had gathered money, resources and actors to craft a movie for the sole purpose of torturing them.  Yet strangely enough, this same mag ran a full-page ad for the movie's release and did a double-page spread for the DVD release, which seemed at cross-purposes with the following six months' worth of lambasting this movie because they. Could. Not. Let. It. Go.

But it wasn't just them, it was everybody.  Great was the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from all sides: "Waah!  They've destroyed the legend of Van Helsing!"  "Waah!  They're showing disrespect to the Universal Monsters!"  "Waah!  It's Hugh Jackman!"  "Waah!  It's Stephen Sommers!"  "Waah!  It's not the real Wolfman, it's not Larry Talbot!"  "Waah!  The special effects are all CGI and green-screen!"  "Waah!  It's not a scary movie and no one dies horribly enough!"  "Waah!  It's like a video game!"  "Waah!  The plot makes no sense and it's too much!"  "Waah! Waah! Waa-aaa-aah!"


So let's start with the obvious first.  Van Helsing is not a horror movie, at least not in the modern or post-modern sense of the term.  It does not have slashers or serial killers, there is not a lot of graphic blood and gore, and no one dies because they slept with one another (which I have always thought was an utterly preposterous rule for selecting victims in a horror movie; what do these moron jackass filmmakers think teenagers are going to do?).

What Van Helsing is (and I've said this before to several people, including some of the movie's detractors) is an action movie with monsters.  It pays some homage and tribute to Universal's pantheon (as evidenced by its opening scene, which is filmed in black-and white, reveals how all the highjinks-to-follow got started in the first place, and ends with the Frankenstein Monster seemingly falling to his death in a burning windmill) but it draws more from the traditions of Gothic fantasy and steampunk than the original 1930's Universal Monsters films.  It is a loud, boisterous, uproarious, nonsensical roller-coaster-ride popcorn movie that was meant to be viewed by many people (as the original Universal Monsters films also were) rather than a small, select group of people.  And it can be quite a lot of fun if you allow yourself to have fun with it.  It may be junk food as a movie, but a movie about a guy who hunts monsters for the Vatican is not going to be Schindler's List no matter what you do to it.

Among its cast of monsters, the movie features Richard Roxburgh as Count Dracula, Shuler Hensley as the Frankenstein Monster (who went on from here to be the Monster in the original Broadway cast of Mel Brooks' musical version of Young Frankenstein) and Will Kemp as "The Wolfman," who is Velkan Valerious (brother of Anna) and sustains a werewolf bite early in the movie, transforming him into a werewolf and an unwilling pawn of Dracula.  Complaints arose here not only because all the actors involved chewed their scenery to bits, but because the "Wolfman" was not Larry Talbot.  Now, frankly speaking, when you've got Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, if you want to add a third monster then it kind of needs to be a werewolf.  This dynamic has worked since Universal released House Of Dracula in 1945, and it does not seem to work well with any other monster.  People have said that if Stephen Sommers had added the Mummy then it would have tied Van Helsing to his Mummy films, but I think if you have the Mummy with just Frank and Drac it becomes like three older men complaining about arthritis and lower back pain.  The werewolf element makes the other two take off whether it's Larry Talbot or not.

Hensley and Roxburgh are especially guilty of scene-gnawing here; Roxburgh's jittery performance channels more of Christopher Lee's violent and animalistic Dracula than even a single shred of Bela Lugosi, and Hensley's Monster is the Courage The Cowardly Dog of the film, participating in the Heroic Last Stand at the film's climax while whining and crying all the way.  However, it has to be said that Hensley's Monster is probably the most accurate movie personification of Mary Shelley's original Creature; rather than a childlike and silent thug, he is intelligent, articulate, self-educated, tragic, horribly alone, and quite obviously tired of being used by absolutely everybody he runs across (even Van Helsing himself, who is Our Hero, uses poor Monster as bait to draw out Drac).  Because of this, there is a special thrill that comes for the viewer at the end when Monster is viewed escaping on a raft into the ocean: he is still alone, probably will be hunted by somebody, but for the first time in any monster movie ever made, Frankenstein's Monster gets a chance.

Auxiliary monsters appear in the form of a malevolent and oversized Mr. Hyde (a CGI creation voiced by Robbie Coltrane), the disgusting, sadistic and completely mercenary Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor) and Dracula's three Brides, Aleera (Elena Anaya), Verona (Silvia Colloca) and Marishka (Josie Maran), who slink about, transform into bat-women and generally make life troublesome for the absinthe-swigging, sword-toting, impossibly hot Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale).  The Brides, who are maniacally histrionic and serve as a sort of dark comic relief, are
mainly cannon-fodder for Van Helsing and Anna: Marishka is whacked early in the movie by Van Helsing, while Verona meets her end upon chasing a decoy carriage en route to Rome, which supposedly contains a fleeing Van Helsing and Anna but is actually full of stakes bundled to explosives.  (This was also another bit that people couldn't take: at one point in the chase, the carriage, drawn by a full six-horse team, attempts to jump a gorge.  Again, this is a movie.  In movies they do silly things like that.)  Aleera goes to the bitter end, and meets her bitter end, in a vicious catfight between herself and Anna on top of Castle Dracula.

Mr. Hyde serves as some exposition about what Van Helsing does and why he is considered a murderer by the general public; most of the raging here was because we had just seen another King-Size Mr. Hyde in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (another action movie that, like Van Helsing, received its share of undeserved colossal bitchfest).  Igor, however, is possibly the most unsympathetic realization of the character ever; in one scene, when a slightly appalled Dracula asks the reason for Igor's continuous torture of Wolfie, Igor snarls, "It's what I do."  We receive another thrill when this homicidal bastard finally meets his doom at the hands of none other than David Wenham's jumpy and unassuming Friar Carl, who is pressed into accompanying Van Helsing to Transylvania and serves as the absent-minded-inventor Q to Van Helsing's Gothic-steampunk James Bond, providing weapons, more exposition and the final catalyst for the plot.

Finally, we come to Van Helsing himself, as portrayed by Hugh Jackman.  Jackman's performance has been called no better than Wolverine in a fedora, but I have seen both this movie and all the X-Men movies, and Jackman doesn't own Wolverine like he owns this role.  In fact, he doesn't really own Wolverine until about midway into X-Men 2, but here he slips into Gabriel Van Helsing (who was named "Gabriel" instead of "Abraham" because Universal wanted copyright privileges to the movie) like a suit.  Jackman works as Van Helsing because of his own personality; he is approachable, tends to do his own stunts and can anchor himself as the pivot of the movie even when it heads out of unbelievable and gets into downright crazy.

So to close: I realize that this movie, with all its bombast and calamity, requires the suspension of a bit more belief than a lot of people think is necessary.  However, if you're accepting the existence of vampires, werewolves and dead bodies stitched together and jacked back into life by lightning, then you're probably doing that anyway.

And quite frankly, as a horror fan, I think this movie is a good starting point to figure out where we fell into this thing of horror movies having to be nihilistic and natural, with unsympathetic characters and no suspense or sense of wonder.  Let's be real, people: aren't "horror" movies supposed to be at least a little bit fun?  Aren't there supposed to be good guys and bad guys instead of all bad guys?  Isn't the nature of evil obvious and clear enough to all and sundry that we don't have to pick it apart and navel-gaze about it anymore?  I mean, how many times can one really re-make Dawn Of The Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

So since there's not a lot to go on this year, I think that instead of dark chocolate, zombie meat and witch's brew, I'm going to have a popcorn ball.  And if anybody wants to tell me I'm not cool because I like Van Helsing, fair enough.  There's plenty of time to be cool when you're dead.

There you go.  Happy Halloween, and good night out there, whatever you are...

POST-MORTEM: We would like to thank all of our participants (and the new fiends we made) in this year's Thir13en For Halloween:  Shaun and Lynne Mitchell, Eric Pigors, Ray O'Bannon, The Amazing Braino, Ghoul Friday, Ormon Grimsby, Penny Dreadful, Eerie Lee Shivers, Wolfman Mac, and Ms. Monster and her Monster Melons.  We couldn't have done any of this without you.

And we also owe a big debt of thanks to you, our readers.  May you have the best Halloween ever this year, and in the years to come!

Francesca "Frankie" Franken
Bethany Ruthven
Petronella "Punkin" Nightshade
Harriet Von Lupin