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Friday
May072004

Van Helsing

[Beliefnet, May 7, 2004]

Hidden under the piles of obvious things to say about ‘Van Helsing’ ‘that it’ s loud, busy, and overstuffed with CGI’is one more very surprising thing: it presents the Roman Catholic Church as a heroic force for good. You wouldn’t think that possible these days, when suspicion of ‘institutional Christianity’ is at an all-time high, when best-sellers like ‘The DaVinci Code’ inflame bizarre suspicion, and headlines about sexual misbehavior erode what trust remains.

But there it is: early in the film we see that deep under the Vatican there is a secret, centuries-old research facility to identify and combat evil. ‘We have kept mankind safe from time immemorial,’ intones a red-caped cardinal. The place is gallantly multi-faith, and characters pass through wearing saffron robes, turbans, and the black veils of Eastern Orthodox monks. The baseline, however, is Roman Catholic, and we see the hero (named Van Helsing, portrayed by Hugh Jackman) go to confession, employ holy water in battle, and often make the sign of the cross. We hear that a concern has reached ‘from Tibet to Istanbul, and even Rome herself.’ Rome is home’center of the global fight against evil.

As I said, you don’t get that much these days, and one of the charming things about ‘Van Helsing’ is that it makes this proposition with a confidently straight face. Director Stephen Sommers had trouble with facial straightness in his previous two efforts, ‘The Mummy’ (1999) and ‘The Mummy Returns’ (2001), because his exuberantly hokey stories were confusingly overlaid with campy, ironic elements. Viewers didn’t know whether to laugh with or at the films, and retreated in general unease. In ‘Van Helsing’ the offer has been clarified: come along for a wild ride.

How wild? In a scene about halfway along, Helsing is hanging from the outside of a carriage drawn by six horses, rattling at a furious pace over a treacherous mountain road. The handle he grasps is, naturally, coming loose, and he dangles over an abyss. But wait, there’s more. Inside the carriage, Frankenstein sits in chains, urging Helsing’s sidekick, Friar Carl (David Wenham), to set him free. On top of the carriage a crazed werewolf, the wounded brother of the heroine, is raging. Also, the carriage is *on fire*. As it fades in the distance you glimpse an object tethered to the back bumper, bouncing along the road: oh yes, a kitchen sink.

It would be fine if the movie gradually built to this point of intensity, but it stays here all the time. There are dozens of similar fight and fright scenes, and an elaborate, ominous masquerade ball with trapeze artists flying across the ceiling, and at least three sequences where a victim is hoisted up on a Frankenstein contraption to catch lightning bolts. Enough is never enough for director Sommers. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, the computer graphic studio Industrial Light & Magic has an in-house joke about the intensity of digital effects. Second from to the top of the scale is ‘What Stephen Sommers Wants,’ and the top is ‘Oh God, the Computer’s About to Crash!’

So if you dig into ‘Van Helsing’ like an ice cream sundae, you’ll have a great time. It’s boundlessly enthusiastic and winningly earnest, a combination that is captivating. There are some horror scenes, but more ‘ewwww’ than truly nightmarish. There’s no skin or sex, but be assured that fully-clothed people can be pretty sexy. (Actually, there is skin, but it’s on harpies, naked flying girls with sharp teeth and eagle claws but, magically, no physical sexual characteristics. And when a good guy changes from a werewolf back to human form he’s provided with a modest pair of shorts, which is really kind of adorable.) There’s no bad language, apart from this early exchange. Van Helsing: ‘You’ re a monk, but you just cursed.’ Carl: ‘I’m not a monk, I’m a friar. I can curse all I want.’ An impish smile, then: ‘Damn it.’

So would the Roman Catholic Church return the compliment, and endorse this film that presents its spiritual powers so seriously? If so, it wouldn’t be for any of the above reasons, but for the nuanced title character. For a film this big and noisy, you’d expect a hero who swashbuckles and shines. Van Helsing, however, is subdued, introspective. He’s troubled by hideous nightmares, and by memories that make no sense; he remembers fighting the Romans at Masada in 73 A.D. Most of his memory is gone: ‘You lost your memory as a result of your sins,’ Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong) tells him. He wants to eliminate evil, not take revenge, and bids a bad guy ‘Requiescat in pacem’ as he strikes the victorious blow.

The mystery of Helsing’s melancholy is kept secret from him and from us till the end of the film. Underneath all the noise and CGI clamor, there’s a movie here that’s worth thinking about. Go see it, keep an eye out for that deeper story, but duck when you see the kitchen sink.

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