In the 2004 film rendition of Van Helsing, the director Stephen Sommers calls upon the famed vampire hunter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to restore order to a world interweaving the plots of Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. The hero of Van Helsing has been stripped of any memory of his character’s history and triumphs but must seek to vanquish his enemy aided only my the folklore of 19th century Eastern Europe. Without a sense of identity, Van Helsing accepts this task joined by the beautiful Anna Valerious who is cursed by her ancestors’ promise to destroy Dracula.
The duo must face endless threats, apply knowledge of the occult, and confront their inner demons to reach the climatic final battle with Dracula where they must cling to their disappearing humanity in a world of monsters. Although Van Helsing and Dracula are dramatic foils for one another, their similarities become as apparent as their differences as the storyline develops. In this final scene from Van Hesling, Stephen Sommers employs and distorts traditional monster mythology to prove to its viewers that the dichotomy between hero and monster is not mutually exclusive.
Initially, the physical character of the scene is the vehicle that transports its viewers from the couch in 2012 to the recognized world of monster myths. The viewers’ acceptance of the setting is imperative because it invokes a “willing suspension of disbelief” from the audience in which the time-honored mythology of the classic monsters’ stories is embraced as historical fact (Tudor 121). The horror film genre employs setting conventionally “to facilitate our entry into the fiction” where the unbelievable characters and events are embraced (Tudor 122).
For this particular scene, the audience finds the characters in an archetypical gothic setting, the laboratory where Frankenstein was created (Van Helsing). In the Gothic tradition, writers “built plots around restless spirits, ageless monsters, and unresolved sins of the past that reappear to bedevil modern characters” (Worland 12). Stephen Sommers places the characters in their imagined place and time by interweaving “Frankenstein’s middle-European village, Dracula’s Transylvanian mountains, and The Werewolf of London’s fog-shrouded setting” into a location familiar to the genre audience.
In this scene, the nineteenth century stylized lab is tall and imposing with rich architectural detail. In the darkness of night, moments before midnight as indicated by the baroque clock, clusters of fire and blue electrical charges are the only source light. The midnight hour is universal symbol for the time when monsters roam the earth while the men sleep (Philips 515). The evident destruction in the laboratory conveys that it has already failed terrifically. The setting is a reminder that in gothic horror the “stakes are high because the struggle is mortal and metaphysical” (Worland 17).
This elaborate laboratory is paradoxical setting because the events are occurring in a time with scientific knowledge but in a part of the world that remains unchanged by industrialization. Furthermore, by combining Frankenstein and Dracula, the powers of science are directly conflicting with the religious themes of the legend of Dracula (Tudor 87). While inside the burning laboratory it is evident that both science and religion have failed the characters. The integration of the monster’s settings is only the first device Sommers plays with.
Horror operates through the tried strategy of “placing stereotypical characters in cumulatively eventful situations” which is a structure the audience expects through out the movie (Tudor 112). The genre hero is titled by Andrew Tudor as the “expert” and given the responsibility of bringing the world or disorder back to order. When we enter this scene in the shambled laboratory, it is undeniably recognized as disorder. Tudor goes onto say that “Dracula’s traditional opponent, Van Helsing” is the common ancestor of all of the genre’s experts (114). The original bestows Van
Helsing with the capability and knowledge to vanquish Dracula but was written as “scholastic and eccentric” as a fold to a vampires ruthless charm (114). Sommers introduces Van Helsing in this scene defeated by battle, fragile, limping, and gasping for breathe. Although he is introduced as man, the identifiable wolf scratches across his chest and the striking of the clock foreshadow his transformation into a werewolf monster. Sommers reminds the audience of the human expert and monster foil when Dracula enters as a flying monster and Van Helsing enters as a wounded human.
The audience is aware they are rooting for Van Helsing and weary of Dracula. Furthermore, Van Helsing’s monster is a werewolf, who are seen as “demonic innocents” entangled in a “complex web of ritualistic expectations” (117). A werewolf is a sympathetic monster because the audience can compartmentalize the humanity from the lupine cruelty by his separate physical forms. Van Helsing reluctantly assumes his monster form writhing during his transformation. However, he embraces his fate by tearing off his jacket and engaging in battle.
Van Helsing’s internal conflict between embracing his monster form to complete his task to vanquish Dracula and fearing the loss of his human control is illustrated when he frightens himself from his lupine form into his human form while choking Dracula. This narrative trick confounds an active audience who is inclined to remain loyal to the expert protagonist who has become what he is destined to destroy. In addition, the characterization of Dracula in the scene manipulates religious iconography to further the juxtaposition between religion and science that was introduced in the setting.
In this scene Dracula exhibits the expected traits of a vampire when speaking in his human form. He is “elegant” “clean” “attractive” but “evil” and manipulative (116). Upon discovering Van Helsing is now a monster as well he tries to coerce him into joining his fight. Dracula sees all monsters as equals on the side of evil united against humanity and the greater good, as “a part of the same great game” (Van Helsing). Dracula is a satanic character, the of the evil side in the eternal battle between good and evil.
This character parallel is supplemented by the physical characterization of Dracula in his monster form. Sommers employs the standard devil veneer with horns, wings, and red coloring as a universal symbol for evil. Dracula is charming and sophisticated in his human form but as a monster he is the hideous disconfigured archetype for evil. This proves to the viewer the humans can be monsters and the monsters can appear as humans. The naked eye cannot discern between what is evil and what is good, even when the monster is as obvious and Judeo-Christian devil.
In these cases, Sommer’s is manipulating with the monster iconography by transforming orthodox characters. Monster iconography has “developed through statements, repetition, and variations that the audience has come to understand” (Worland 18). There is an expected viewer response of hatred for monsters and empathy for humans, which the director is playing upon. Through this device, he makes the social commentary that any man has the ability to become a monster and there is a monster in all of us.
At the same time, he is loyal to the narrative by making the expert an empathetic monster and Dracula a deceiving monster. Ultimately, the audience’s psychological response to the scene is necessary for Sommers to manipulate the genre’s traditions and mythology effectively. Through out the scene there is a shock cycle of tension construction and release. Within the smaller context of a singular scene, the microscopic shock cycle will build and release pressure, keeping viewers engaged until end (Tudor 109).
There is relief with the “grotesque and painful end” of Dracula. Rick Worland titles this event a “bad death” that challenges the traditional conceptions of mortality and the social good (8). The audience does not feel sadness for the revolting murder of Dracula but they experience devastation at the loss of Anna. Although Anna’s death is more troubling to the audience, the producers do not let us see her “bad death”. Anna is mauled by Van Helsing as a werewolf as well but in a moment of suspense and ambiguity we can only see the back of the werewolf’s body.
While the audience watches this genre for the suspense and gore, it is still troublesome to see the end of the heroine. The audience can digest her death as a necessary sacrifice and the final shock rather than cruel an unusual when they are spared the visual impact of her death. This can also be looked at through a Freudian perspective. Freud advocated a “resonation of the return of any actions or desires repressed by the dominant social order” through experiences such as watching horror movies or nightmares (Worland 15).
All of the audience members have felt repression, whether it is from an external societal source or an internal repression of feelings or memories. The monster is a manifestation of this repression. All varieties of repression can be overcome by vicariously living through this scene because the monster is both a triumphant hero and a defeated antagonist. In the end there is silence and the tension is released because both monster threats has been nullified. Antithetically, because of the dual bad deaths, the audience is left to contemplate if the ends justified the means.
The audience has released their feelings of repression through the shock cycle but is left to contemplate the questionable victory and the tragic death long after the scene is complete. At the heart of this scene, Sommers challenges viewers to question the traditional protagonist and antagonist relationship in the movie and with the audience. He does this by presenting characters and settings that elicit expectations for the course of the scene’s plotline. Then, by choosing a different path, there is a psychological response from the engaged viewer.
Over the course of the brief scene, there are series of surprises that are not from the blood and gore but from the distortion of century old stories. At the conclusion of the scene, the audience has worked through feelings of repression by witnessing the destruction of two monsters and the death of two characters but are more importantly inspired to question what the true manifestation of good and evil are. Works Cited Phillips, William H. Film: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin's, 1999. Print. Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford [England: B. Blackwell, 1989. Print. Van Helsing [video Recording]. Dir. Stephen Sommers. Perf. Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. Universal, 2004. DVD. Van Helsing [video Recording]. YouTube. YouTube, 16 June 2011. Web. 16 Sept. 2012. ;http://www. youtube. com/watch? v=jr60kvuKw3w;. Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. , 2007. Print.