Monday, May 24, 2004

Van Helsing? No Fangs!

If anyone needs definite proof of the devastating impact of correct evening dress, consider society’s embrace of The Undead, after the vampire population proved to scrub up so well.

In the original Romanian and Eastern European legends on which Bram Stoker based his story of Count Dracula, the undead showed all the signs of persons that were very dead indeed, and had been dead for quite some time – mouldy of dress, unsteady of gait and unsettling of pallor. Stoker’s genius was to make his vampire an aristocrat with a title, a revolution that reached its zenith when Universal studios put the Count in perpetual black tie and eliminated that ghastly palm hair.

And the vampire has been with us since. Of Universal’s horror stable of the thirties, the wolfman hasn’t been seen as a titular character since Lon Chaney, while The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster have only one reappearance since the Britain’s Hammer movies of the ‘fifties, and with vastly different results – Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein bombed, while Stephen Sommers The Mummy, to run with a metaphor somewhat, brought a moribund genre back to life. But, irrespective of the ebbing popularity of his monstrous compadres, the vampire has always been with us, from Bela Lugosi’s and Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula in the ‘thirties and ‘fifties respectively, through the Lost Boys of the ‘eighties (the clear progenitor to the vampires slain by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course), Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire in the ‘nineties, the disastrous Dracula 2000 at the turn of the millennium, and now Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing.

The reason the Vampire Movie has proved so popular has to do with the balance it strikes between the remarkable power of the vampire, a power that we all aspire to in some way, and the awful price that the vampire pays. The vampire is our tragic hero, the man who has reached too far and paid a terrible price.

It is this tension, between the aspiration of being all-powerful (and irresistibility to Pre-Raphaelite women, of course), and the price that must be paid for that power, that is, the lost of one’s humanity and condemnation to eternal torment, that makes vampire movies so involving, that keeps encouraging us to suspend our disbelief for another two hours. The vampire is different to us in just a tiny degree, but it is this tiny degree, our essential humanity, that makes all the difference.

All the best vampire movies explore this tension. Count Dracula, in Francis Ford Coppala’s 1992 movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, isn’t so much a demon from the fiery pit of Hell as a fool for love; it is his unrequited love for Elisabeta – “I have crossed oceans of time to find you” – that makes us feel his tragedy, and therefore care for what happens him, while still thrilling to the horror of the events at Grimbsy and, most grisly of all, Keanu Reeves.

Even at a time and a place when all conventional standards of behaviour and morality are in abeyance, such as 1987, the essential tragedy of the vampire remains in the gory glory that is The Lost Boys, the Brat Pack punk rock vampire movie. Although Kiefer Sutherland’s vampire band begin the sea-change of vampires rather enjoying their vampiric ways that reaches its height in Buffy, Jason Patric as Michael Emerson is always aware of what he must surrender and leave behind to become a Lost Boy, and from this tension comes the drama.

It is the lack of this tension, a lack of a human equivalent to measure the vampire against, that is Van Helsing’s greatest flaw. It is undeniably one among many, but this is the most telling, and ultimately the most damning.

If Stephen Sommers is to continue in his monster movie vein, perhaps his next project ought to be Robert Louis Stephenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as Sommers’ dilemma not dissimilar to that of the misfortunate Dr Jekyll, the man who experimented so successfully that he could not replicate his results. When The Mummy became the breakout smash-hit of the summer of 1999, Sommers’ was catapulted onto Hollywood’s A-List; miserably, it seems that in The Mummy Sommers caught lightning in a bottle, and he hasn’t been quite able to figure out how to do it again.

The problem with The Mummy Returns was easily identifiable – it was about so tall, and wore short trousers. Taking no chances on anything being left out in Van Helsing, Sommers cooks up his movie in the same fashion as a good Irish stew, where the more is always the merrier.

It doesn’t work out. Van Helsing’s costume is designed to be either iconic or, more depressingly, easy to replicate as an action figure. Instead, the many layered Hugh Jackman looks like a man who’s expecting a cold snap, and has wrapped up really warm just in case. Kate Beckinsale is in a worse dilemma – she spends a lot of the movie running, leaping, fighting and swinging on ropes in a costume that might have required Olympic training just to draw breath. But she does look pretty, so we may forgive Sommers that.

What we can’t quite forgive is his third act, which Sommers stuffs with the brio of a schoolboy left alone in the gobstopper factory. Ideally, subtitles should roll under the action to remind the dazed viewer of what’s what; instead, the viewer just settles for booing lustily as the plot lurches from one bizarre extreme to the next.

Fans of true, teeth-chattering horror know that the sequel can only be worse. Those that love the children of the night, and the sweet music they make, will have to search elsewhere for their kicks. Miss Beckinsale’s own under-rated mean and moody Underworld perhaps?