On Halloween night, I got a random text from one of my great friends asking what I thought of Van Helsing (2004). I confessed to having never seen it. Her and her husband were watching it that night, and one of her comments was that it is a Catholic movie. They are practicing Catholics, and I trust them implicitly. Now, I do not know much about the title character. I know his first appearance came in Bram Stoker’s famous book Dracula (1897), upon which most modern vampire legends are based. I have seen the 1992 film version, and may review it at some point, and I vaguely recall enjoying Sir Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Professor Abraham Van Helsing. His cosmic reason for being is to help put an end to the evil that is Dracula. Given my own distaste for vampires, or more specifically the cultural fixation on them, dispatching such a creature is a mission I support. Hence, with my friend’s comments and my limited knowledge of the story in mind, I decided to give it a shot. By the end, with apologies to my friends, I was roaring with laughter for all the wrong reasons.
If you think Van Helsing would start with our hero, maybe tracking down some minor vampire in his hunt for the grandaddy of them all, you would be wrong. Instead, we get a black and white flashback of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) bringing his famous monster (Shuler Hensley) to life. Unlike any previous source material related to this tale, Dr. Frankenstein is working for Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) in order to uncover the secret of life. What ruins this achievement are Dr. Frankenstein’s attachment to his creation, not wanting to see it used for ill, and an angry mob storming his castle. When the monster arises, it scoops up the now dead Dr. Frankenstein, having fallen victim to Dracula’s rage, only to flee to a windmill set ablaze where he presumably dies. Fast forward a year, now in color, and we finally get to me Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman). Not Abraham. Gabriel. He is how on the trail of Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), a mission given to him by a secretive order of knights run by the Catholic Church known as the Holy Order. If you have not figured it out by now, they are doing all the monster legends. At any rate, Gabriel is meant to bring in Mr. Hyde alive so they can return him to his normal Dr. Jekyll form. Unfortunately, he falls from the heights of Notre Dame Cathedral in a bid to avoid capture, and dies. Gabriel goes back to Rome empty handed, but is immediately given his next mission to take down Dracula, with whom he is apparently unfamiliar. He decides to take Q, er, I mean, Friar Carl along with him, and all the late nineteenth century vampire killing gadgets on which he had been working. When they arrive in Transylvania on their Spanish galleon (trains? anyone?), they do not receive a warm welcome. The de facto leader of the village they show up in, Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), tells them that they do not need any help. This is proved incorrect when moments later, during a spell when the sun becomes hidden behind clouds, Dracula’s female vampire henchwomen attack the villagers. Despite Gabriel proving his mettle, Anna still wants to take on Dracula alone, but Gabriel and Carl hang around anyway. That night, Anna’s home is visited by her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), who is now a werewolf . . . but becomes human again when the moon is behind the clouds? Anyway, this bit of plot convenience gives Anna a warning about Dracula’s plans, spurring them to action. Thus, Anna and Gabriel venture into Dracula’s lair, where the head honcho with fangs is attempting to recreate Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments using Velkan’s monster energy. He is doing this to bring to life a number of little vampire babies that are waiting to hatch in fleshy cocoons in the basement, and guess who happens to wander through just as they open? Thankfully, they all explode not long after because Velkan’s whatever is not enough to keep them alive for long. In Anna and Gabriel’s escape, they stumble upon a still alive Frankenstein’s monster. They try to convince him to come with them, but he is reluctant because he knows that he is the key to Dracula’s plans. Gabriel eventually convinces him to come, saying that his order will protect him. On the way to Rome, this time by horse drawn carriage (did anyone care that trains existed at this time?), they are accosted by Velkan in werewolf form and Dracula’s ladies, who manage to abscond with the monster. In the process, Gabriel is bitten by Velkan, meaning he will turn into a werewolf at the next full moon . . . which comes every three days. Sigh. However, Carl informs Gabriel that this will be an asset because the only thing that can kill Dracula is a werewolf. Luckily, too, Dracula just so happens to have a cure for being a werewolf. Right, so, our intrepid three find their way to Dracula’s real castle, which, as far as I can tell, is somehow in another dimension. Anna and Carl are tasked with finding the wolf medicine, Gabriel takes on Dracula at the appointed hour, Frankenstein’s monster is freed, and they make sure to get the medicine into Gabriel before he gets flees, I guess. Unfortunately, Gabriel kills Anna as she injects the serum. In any case, everyone else presumably lives happily ever after.
The word “presumably” could be used a lot when talking about Van Helsing. I have already hinted at a few of the logic leaps the film wants you to make in regards to travel. One could say it is not as big a deal that they take a ship from Rome to Transylvania. They could have shown any mode of transportation, I suppose, but had they gone by train, then you would be asking yourself while watching them undertake getting the monster to Rome why they would not go back the same way? There are physics defying stunts, automatic crossbows I thought I had left safely behind in Robin Hood (2018), and the aforementioned nonsensical moon cycles. However, there is a major plot point that I feel is not carried through, and its mere mention serves only to distract the viewer to no purpose. It starts when Gabriel is given a bit of scroll with a symbol on it that matches the ring he wears. This turns out to be a missing piece of the gateway in Anna’s home that leads to the apparent other dimension where Dracula resides. It is a clue that there might be more to Gabriel’s background than we have been told to this point. Dracula adds further tantalizing tidbits by claiming that Gabriel is the one who killed Dracula 400 years ago, paving the way for the count to become a vampire. Is it true, or a lie that Dracula told to mess with Gabriel’s head? Who knows? We are not given a moment where, if it is part of Gabriel’s past, his memory is unlocked and he sees this event unfold. It is simply stated and never paid off.
There are some other issues I would like to mention about Van Helsing, and these pertain to Faith. I will start by saying that I appreciated when Gabriel went to Confession after the Paris debacle. That is a sure way to warm this Catholic’s heart. Any warmth I did feel, though, quickly faded when the Confessional becomes an elevator that takes him and his Confessor down to the laboratory where we meet Friar Carl. Among the busy hive of the Holy Order, we see Buddhist Monks, Orthodox priests, and many other representatives of other faiths. I will point out here that this is not a major issue in a superficial sense because the Catholic Church, particularly in recent decades, has engaged in ecumenical discussions with other religions in order to find common ground. Further, one could say that it is nice to see everyone working together to defeat these manifestations of evil. My worry about this is that it suggests that the Catholic Faith itself is of no importance, that it is just part of a team, or perhaps even worse that God does not exist. I may be reading too much into this, but such is the fine tuning of my radar to such moments. Yet, the worst is when Carl decides to have sex with one of the villagers. His logic for doing so is that he is just a friar. Friars are members of religious orders, and part of their vows is chastity. So, unless he truly does not care about such things (which generally does not seem to be the case), why have this scene? It serves no purpose other than to anger people like me, and hopefully my friends.
I hope that I do not disappoint said friends when I say that I do not recommend Van Helsing. Sure, there are moments in it that are so bad as to be funny. Ultimately, what I do not like is how it basically ignores Bram Stoker’s source material. Then again, since it is in the public domain, people can do with it whatever they like. It is not a direction I would have taken if I wrote it, but that is me. Luckily, aside from violence and some vague sexuality, there is no nudity as seems to crop up so often in such movies.