"To you, these are just monsters, waiting to be vanquished. I'm the one standing there when they die… and become the men they once were."
--Gabriel Van Helsing
As many readers have undoubtedly noted, I have sometimes unconventional tastes in my entertainment, and it will therefore perhaps be something less of a surprise to hear that I (and my wife) find 2004's Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman, to be one of our favorite films of the last ten years.
This oft-mocked semi-steampunk horror movie from begins with a lovely black-and-white section, deliberately echoing the old Universal and Hammer horror films from much older eras. A huge old castle is under attack by a classic mob – pitchforks and torches in hand – and we find that they're after Doctor Victor Frankenstein for his … unorthodox scientific inquiry.
But Frankenstein isn't truly the bad guy here; we discover that – for some reason – his researches have been supported by a mysterious man, a Count – Count Dracula, in fact. When the Count makes clear that he has some hideous use in mind for Frankenstein's creation, Victor refuses – and discovers that the Count is not accustomed to permitting refusal. Seeing his "father" slain, the Monster strikes down Dracula with a huge piece of equipment, and escapes – only to eventually, be trapped in a great windmill, which the villagers burn down.
Cut to Paris,where we find Van Helsing himself in pursuit of another monster – the hideous, Hulk-like Mr. Hyde. He succeeds in defeating Hyde… only to have Hyde return to the form of pathetic, weak Dr. Jekyll, making Van Helsing appear to be a murderer; as we've already seen at least one or two Wanted posters for Van Helsing, it appears this sort of misfortune is not uncommon for Van Helsing.
This version of Van Helsing is an emissary for a secret division of the Church, a combination of a steampunk MI-6 and the Victorian X-Files, and he works for them partially because the Church rescued him, took him in when he was found on their doorstep… and partially in search of who he truly is, for he has no memory of his past. He is now weary of the role they have placed him in, and would really like to stop – as exemplified by the quote with which I began this post.
But the Church has a new mission for him – against the dread vampire Dracula – which may hold the answers he has sought for so long. This, and the fact that it is also the life and salvation of an entire family that hangs in the balance, convinces him to take this one last mission.
Van Helsing is of course hardly an… accurate historical movie. It is not even an accurate adaptation of any of the novels; it is instead a grand, glorious, and completely unashamed crossover adventure, giving us Hyde as a teaser and then the Frankenstein's Monster, werewolves, and vampires galore, in the spirit of some of the old-fashioned monster movies with the addition of modern special effects and action and a James Bondian motif (including Carl, a friar who serves as Van Helsing's personal "Q", supplying him with everything from garlic to a clockwork machine-crossbow and extending silver stakes).
Hugh Jackman, having come from his triumphant portrayal of Wolverine in the X-Men films, was obviously cast specifically to bring in similar fans. This version of Van Helsing is not quite human, but doesn't know what he is, and the mystery of his background is certainly similar to Wolverine's (probably even more than the filmmakers realized at the time). At the same time, it works in this film.
The true star of the film, though, really has to be Dracula, as played by Richard Roxburgh. This version of Dracula is a magnificent, scenery-chewing ham of epic proportions, one who actually mocks the modern "angsty, conflicted" vampire tropes by having a moment that sounds rather pathos filled—and then immediately shifting to show that he relishes his undead existence, his war with all living things, and his power for destruction and torment. These vampires aren't creatures for sympathy; they are indeed predators on human beings and without pity.
By contrast, the Frankenstein's Monster is very much a creature for sympathy, a huge clumping monstrosity who has a gentle heart, is nigh-indestructible, and despite the hostility he has seen since his creation has retained his intent to harm no one – and gained faith and education during his years in hiding.
Van Helsing is a roller-coaster ride of entertainment, filled with hairsbreadth escapes, rapid-fire one-liners, and occasional surprising plot depth that, at least for me and my wife, kept it from just being a bunch of (extremely cool) stunts and special effects. It's a very quotable movie, and has an excellent soundtrack.
It also ends very much in line with the old Universal flicks, a bittersweet ending rather than happily ever after, which shows that the opening is no fluke; this is a homage to every one of the old monster flicks ever made, amped up to 11 and given … new… LIIIIIIFE by the POWER of SCIENCE… er, modern filmmaking techniques.
If you can enjoy some good old-fashioned scenery chewing action, this is the movie for you!