In 1897 Irish author Bram Stoker penned a little novel that has influenced the horror genre for more than a century—Dracula. While its titular Transylvanian terror has been featured in dozens of films and books, little attention has been paid to the famous vampire's antagonist, the professor Abraham Van Helsing. But in the film that bears his name, Stoker's man of philosophy, metaphysics and science has gotten quite the extreme makeover. Hailed by some as a saint, hated by others as a murderer, Van Helsing has roamed the darkest corners of Europe dealing out death to the twisted horrors he discovers with an arsenal that would make Ian Fleming gleam with pride. He's a holy hit man, if you will. An assassin commissioned by a secret Vatican order to rid the world of evils that would otherwise destroy it. He's also an amnesiac who remembers little of his past.
His latest assignment is to travel to the region of Transylvania and protect the final remaining member of the Valerious clan. Generations earlier the family pledged their eternal souls on the promise that they would destroy the vampire Count Vladislaus Dracula. They have failed. And only one member, Anna Valerious, remains. Should she die before the Count perishes, her entire lineage will suffer in purgatory forever. It's up to Van Helsing and his wisecracking sidekick, a friar named Carl, to save the girl and do battle with not only the dark lord, but Frankenstein's horrific monster, ravenous werewolves and Dracula's bloodthirsty brides.
Though much of Van Helsing's spiritual framework is rubbish, some of its elements prove instructive. Anna professes her belief in an afterlife—a belief the movie ultimately upholds—and tells a dying relative, "I will see you again." Frankenstein's monster finds comfort from reading a Bible and, after being captured by hordes of undead, quotes Psalm 23:4. When asked if he believes in forgiveness, Van Helsing replies, "Yes. I ask for it often." Anna beseeches the Almighty for aid when her brother is lost and presumed dead. Van Helsing crosses himself after coming across a murder victim, expressing genuine sadness over her death.
Any affinity for Judeo-Christian tradition, though, quickly devolves into crass mysticism. Salvation, ironically, comes through no merit of Christ, but through bargains made with the church. The Valerious family ends up bound by a promise their progenitor made under the bidding of church officials and unless it is completed, they will "never enter the gates of Saint Peter" or attain "eternal salvation." Holy water vanquishes several vampires and esoteric religious inscriptions open a mystical portal. A cross bursts into flames when shoved in Dracula's face, strickening the Count with physical pain. The Count draws much of his power (and his aversion to things related to Christ) from a pact he made with the devil. A priest claims Van Helsing's memory loss is part of his penance for heinous past deeds. The person who originally murdered Dracula while he was still human is dubbed "The Left Hand of God."
Where mysticism doesn't prevail, skepticism and religious pluralism does. When a priest tells Van Helsing that he has been "sent to do God's work," the monster hunter quips, "Why can't He do it Himself?" Dr. Frankenstein claims he created his monster as a "triumph of science over God," proving that not only Yahweh can craft life. His servant, Igor, bludgeons the Golden Rule by saying, "Do unto others before they do unto me." "Big tent" religion gets a boost when Anna asks a vampire if she offended her in a previous life. After Carl accidentally causes an explosion in the Vatican, someone asks, "What in Allah's name is wrong with you?"
A tongue-in-cheek scene features Anna falling on top of Van Helsing during battle, her crotch pressing into his face. Dracula's wives sport cleavage-baring getups. The act of changing a person into a vampire often has erotic overtones in horror mythos and it's no different this time around. The brides often try to bite Anna and their attempts are always replete with heavy, orgasmic breathing. (One of the vampires licks the side of her face before trying to take a chunk out of her neck.) It's implied that Carl casually beds a nubile peasant. Anna wears less-than-modest clothing.
With his selection of surprisingly advanced death-dealing gadgets, Van Helsing puts the hurt on a whole range of baddies. In an early confrontation with a ravening Mr. Hyde (the character from Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel), Van Helsing slices off the creature's arm with a buzz saw and shoots him through the gut with a grappling hook before sending him plummeting off a tower to his doom. Later, he fells Dracula's flying brides with an automatic crossbow. (Bolts pepper their bodies and they dissolve when the arrows are dipped in holy water.) A strategically placed light bomb obliterates a whole host of vampires.
There's plenty of carnage apart from Van Helsing's brawling, too. Dr. Frankenstein runs Dracula through with a sword before being exsanguinated by the vampire. The doctor's monster then hurls the Count into a fire; his flesh gets burnt from his body, leaving a charred skeleton, but it supernaturally regenerates. A fight with a werewolf ends when the beast gets shot and hurls a man from a cliff. Dracula's brides swoop down to devour townspeople. A vampire sips blood from a goblet as a corpse lays nearby, declaring its 30-year-old "vintage" to be exceptional. A werewolf kills a gravedigger. Another werewolf rips a vampire's throat open with bloody results. A roasted body falls from a hideous electricity conductor. Tiny fanged gargoyles prey on townspeople before spontaneously exploding in founts of green goo. One of Dracula's wives has her face (graphically) dissolved by a spray of acid; later, she gets speared with a silver stake. A carriage falls off a broken bridge to its doom. Anna makes an oblique comment about emasculating Igor. Blood spurts from the wounds of Frankenstein's monster. Several werewolvish and vampiric transformations are somewhat gruesome.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mr. Hyde puffs on a cigar before eating the lit stogie whole. An absinthe-packed warehouse explodes when set on fire. Later, Van Helsing and Anna happen across the wreck and help themselves to sips of the liquor.
From its opening moments—shot in black and white, drenched by rain, and stoked with lighting and thunder—it's obvious Van Helsing draws heavily on the campy legacy of such horrormeisters as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. If only director Stephen Sommers had stopped his cinematic borrowing there. Van Helsing goes on to steal not only from horror flicks Blade, Blade II, Interview With the Vampire, Underworld and An American Werewolf in Paris, it also cribs from The Hulk, Stargate, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman, the James Bond franchise and the Alien series, as well as Sommers' own Mummy movies.
Even more than the typical summer box office fare, the film relies so heavily on cliché and convention that it quickly collapses under their weight. But what really bleeds Van Helsing dry is a constant gush of violence that skirts the edges of an R rating, plus lusty pseudo-lesbian vampires and a dumbed-down theological mishmash. Embarrassing, especially for a movie obviously aimed at 13-year-old boys. Stick a stake in it—it's done.