Rooting for the Slayers: Van Helsing

Van Helsing poster

“Are you always this popular?”
“Pretty much.”

For as long as I can remember, in vampire films I have always cheered on Count Dracula and booed his nemesis Van Helsing. After all who would choose the traditionally frumpy Van Helsing over the dark enigmatic aristocrat with fangs and a cape? However, Van Helsing, with the scrumptious Hugh Jackman, as the protagonist managed to achieve what I previously thought was impossible – getting me to cheer for the slayers.

As the title suggests, this film focuses on the one of the most famous and yet lesser explored characters to emerge from the Dracula story. In this reimagining, Van Helsing is a secret agent working for a supernatural unit in the Vatican, he is suffering from memory loss and is known across Europe as a murderer. Even his bosses in the Vatican are starting to get annoyed with his hunting strategies after he ‘accidentally’ slays Mr Hyde.  Despite this, they still entrust Van Helsing with a new mission; he is to travel to Transylvania and assist the remaining members of the Valerious family to slay the one and only Count Dracula. The stakes (pun totally intended) are high; generations ago a member of the Valerious family (rather selfishly in my opinion) vowed that nobody in his family would pass through the gates of heaven until Dracula was slain. Now all that remains of the Valerious family are two siblings; Anna and Velkan. If they don’t manage to slay Dracula before he kills them then the entire family will be doomed to spend eternity in purgatory. So with the assistance of a rather timid friar Carl (well every slayer needs their geeky sidekick – just ask Buffy), Van Helsing heads off to Transylvania to defeat the Prince of Darkness himself, who in the meantime is cooking up a dastardly plot to bring hundreds, if not thousands, of his undead children into the world. What ensues is a rather enjoyable, if slightly confusing, romp with vampires, werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster all contributing to the supernatural line up.

The director Stephen Sommers intended the film to act as homage to the old Hollywood horror classics of Frankenstein and Dracula and in my opinion it works brilliantly. All the classic horror clichés including Doctor Frankenstein’s infamous ‘it’s alive’ shriek, the pitchfork wielding villagers and the over the top sexiness of Dracula’s Brides are re-enacted with a knowing nod and wink to their predecessors. All the stereotypes are well and truly alive in this film which chooses not to take itself or its subject matter too seriously. You can’t help but get the impression that every actor was thoroughly enjoying themselves as they hammed it up.

Hugh Jackman smoulders in every scene as the gruff, dangerous slayer who ultimately has a strong moral compass when it comes to defending the weakest and most wretched of creatures. The chemistry between him and David Wenham as his apprehensive side-kick is fantastic with line after line of entertaining and snarky banter;
“You’re a monk, you shouldn’t curse at all.”
“Actually, I’m still just a friar, I can curse all I want…. Dammit.”

Richard Roxburgh camps it up in style as the most infamous vampire of them all delivering lines such as,
“No, I have no heart, I feel no love, nor fear, nor joy, nor sorrow. I am hollow’ with theatrical relish. (Although, trust me people, there is nothing sexy about this vampire’s fangs.) Best of all, Kate Beckinsale provides us with a strong, genuinely feisty heroine in the form of Anna Valerious, a woman who is capable of fighting her own battles and yet grieves for the family that she has lost.

However, these very same attributes may eventually end up grating on your nerves. As much as I enjoyed the tongue in cheek nature of the film, towards the end Roxburgh’s overdramatic version of Dracula was beginning to wear thin. Whether Roxburgh was going for a seductive or repulsive version of the Count is unclear but in my opinion he never really succeeded in creating either version and for once I found myself feeling relieved that Dracula might meet his match in Van Helsing.

Another aspect of the film which perhaps went over the top is the use of special effects. Some of the CGI was excellent; the way in which the Brides of Dracula were able to fly was particularly convincing. However, it felt as though the film-makers wanted to shove as much CGI as possible into the storyline when really there was little need for the extra action sequences and a more character focused scene would have been appropriate. In fact, there are certain elements of the plot which are never truly resolved such as Van Helsing’s past relationship with Dracula and his possible identity as Gabriel the archangel; instead the audience is left hanging. Perhaps, this was deliberate as it set the scene rather nicely for a sequel. Unfortunately, no sequel has been forthcoming although there are rumours of a remake with Tom Cruise.

Overall, Van Helsing feels very much like an old fashioned Hollywood romp with romance, danger and comedy all mixed into one. The film never set out to be taken seriously as a horror masterpiece, it was very intended to be a bit of silly fun and it certainly achieves that objective. So if you like your films to be action-packed and a little bit ridiculous then get some popcorn and curl up on the sofa with Van Helsing. I doubt that you will be disappointed…

I’d give this film four out of five.

Red Hamilton (who can’t resist a man in a well-tailored coat…)

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