The early 2000s were an excellent time for family-friendly horror movies. 2003 gave us both The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), while The Mummy (1999) movie franchise was already three installments deep. Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising, 1998) directed both The Mummy and The Mummy Returns (2001), and in 2004 he decided to add another movie with two incredibly attractive lead actors to his repertoire with Van Helsing (2004).
Often given an overly hard time due to its heavy reliance on CGI and questionable accents, Van Helsing is a brilliant introduction for younger, modern audiences to the world of classic movie monsters. Set in 1887-1888, Van Helsing is a modern-day homage to the Hammer Horror and Universal Classic Monster movies that we all know and love.
“Van Helsing is a modern-day homage to the Hammer Horror and Universal Classic Monster movies that we all know and love.”
The opening scene alone is a crash course in these classic cinema entries. It’s beautifully shot in black and white and features elements that classic horror fans are all too familiar with. There’s an angry mob with pitchforks and flaming torches, Victor Frankenstein screaming “It’s alive!”, and a fiery windmill finale. It’s a short film with a tiny story of its own that introduces us to a number of our key players.
With the movie’s titular character being Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, X-Men, 2000), it would be easy to assume that Dracula is the only monster our hero will come up against. And yet we’re treated to werewolves, Dracula’s Brides, Frankenstein’s Monster, Mr Hyde, murderous baby vampires, and Dwergi, Dracula’s Tusken Raider-like minions. These are the monsters younger audiences are familiar with from the likes of Scooby-Doo (1969), and now we’re treated to them all appearing at once in a massive Hollywood blockbuster.
As we cut to a year after the opening scene, the color returns to the film, and it’s clear we’re in for something a little different than a classic monster movie. Van Helsing himself is more kitted-out than 19th century James Bond, with a whole range of weird and wonderful accessories created by his friar friend Carl (David Wenham, Moulin Rouge!, 2001) designed to kill any monster he may come up against. Van Helsing isn’t just an older doctor with specialist knowledge of vampires anymore. Instead, he’s more like an old-fashioned Buffy, ready to deal with any monster which comes his way
Much like The Mummy before it, this movie clearly sets itself up to be the perfect blend of horror and action. Rated 12 on my UK DVD, and PG-13 in America, Van Helsing has to try and balance the scary bits with massive action set pieces in order to hit the tone it’s going for. However, this doesn’t mean the film skimps on its creepy monster designs. Dracula’s Brides transform from beautiful women dressed like characters from I Dream of Jeannie (1965) to cruel, winged harpy-like creatures that sweep down on the village to devour their prey. The werewolf transformation scenes feature chunks of skin being ripped apart as man turns into beast. Yes, there is a lot of CGI in Van Helsing, but the scenes are so fast-paced and over the top, it’s not hard to see why they choose computer graphics over a practical effects approach.
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The film is also careful to imply a lot more than it actually shows, to create something a little scarier without having to worry about a harsher rating from the censors. Much like Disney films such as Tarzan (1999) and The Lion King (1994), Van Helsing makes use of shadows a lot to give us hints of the terrible things that are going on without showing us directly. When Dracula feeds on Victor Frankenstein and when he transforms from his bat form back to a human, it’s all shown to us through shadows cast on the high castle walls. We see the silhouette of the werewolf fighting with Igor through a curtain. The full monster reveals are teased and not always shown straight away, creating some tension as we wait to see them fully unleashed without terrifying the younger viewers.
Villagers are carried away by the vampire babies but we never see anyone actually get drained to death. The local undertaker is killed by a werewolf and yet he is only killed by the impact of the attack, meaning his death is gore-free. The most gruesome deaths are saved for the monsters, especially the three Brides as they are killed one by one and the vampire babies as they explode in a puddle of goo. The monsters are the bad guys and they’re supposed to die, so it’s no surprise that any suffering we get to see is on their side of the fight.
“…the perfect blend of horror and action”
Of course, all that subtly is removed in the final fight scene between werewolf Van Helsing and Dracula in his bat monster form. By keeping things a little hidden from us throughout the film, especially with regards to Dracula’s monstrous appearance, the reveal of him as a hideous monster and finally getting to see Van Helsing as a buff werewolf is a perfect finisher for this movie. It’s a final fight worthy of a blockbuster movie, and it is a scene that wouldn’t have worked as well if Van Helsing was just a human hoping to stake Dracula through the heart. It allows for an over-the-top action-focussed finale with just the right amount of added monster as our hero and villain face-off.
One thing I think Van Helsing does incredibly well is bringing so many classic monsters together and creating a story that makes sense. Dracula teamed up with Victor Frankenstein to create his monster. Dracula intends to use Frankenstein Monster’s extra strength and ability to withstand a good electrocution to power his machine which will bring his dead vampire babies to life. When Frankenstein’s Monster goes missing after Dracula kills Victor, Dracula is forced to try (and fail) to use werewolves to power his machine. Dracula and his Brides are incredibly invested in ensuring the machine is successful so they can bring their hideous children to life. It’s a perfect way to bring so many different types of monsters together to create a cohesive story. And with Van Helsing being a well-versed monster hunter this time around, it makes sense to include as many monsters as possible for him to come up against.
Rather than a typical Dracula movie where all Dracula wants to do is feed on beautiful, busty young women, this story sees Dracula as a man with a plan. It also gives Dracula’s Brides more of a focus rather than just being sexy side characters who don’t do very much. In fact, it’s the Brides who do most of the attacking and transforming throughout the film, with Dracula saving his monster form for the third act.
While we’re talking of kick-ass women, Van Helsing gives us Anna (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld, 2003). Typically the women of these classic movies are damsels in distress, who spend a lot of the runtime running around in floaty nightwear and getting hypnotized. Anna, on the other hand, has been fighting Dracula for years, as killing him will save her entire bloodline from being cursed for eternity.
Sure, Van Helsing showing up means she has someone to help her with her plight, but Anna is incredibly capable of fighting with the undead by herself. Without Anna, Van Helsing would be trapped as a werewolf forever, but she rushes in at the last moment to save him after killing Dracula’s final Bride. She is still corseted and beautiful but she shows that women can stand up to monsters just as well as any man.
Van Helsing is an incredibly fun movie, which I think is exactly what it sets out to be. And for a film that’s over two hours long, it’s very impressive that it never once feels boring or padded out. Like any other action movie, the story is spliced in between amazing action scenes, such as the Brides attacking the village, the horse-drawn coach chase, and the first failed release of the vampire babies.
So why does Van Helsing get such a hard time? It’s perhaps a misunderstanding of who this movie is aimed at. While some die-hard horror fans (not this one mind you) may turn their nose up at the heavily-digitized version of a classic story, younger audiences may be excited for a film featuring so many classic monsters that they can actually watch without having to argue with their parents or lose sleep due to nightmares. More mainstream audiences may enjoy an easily-accessible monster movie that features characters they know and love, rather than obscure new monsters they’ve never heard of. You may even be able to convince a horror-hating relative to watch it purely based on the inclusion of Hugh Jackman!
ADS ARE SCARY
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Making horror movies accessible to people who don’t consider themselves hardcore horror fans is never a bad thing, and films like Van Helsing are the perfect way to give regular audiences an introduction to the scarier side of cinema.
“…films like Van Helsing are the perfect way to give regular audiences an introduction to the scarier side of cinema.”
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