I made it through Van Helsing in the theater because there were LOTS of people between me and the exit. The only good thing about this movie was the meme it generated in my social circle. For almost a year, any time one of us was thwarted, we would shake a fist and yell “VAN HELSIIIING!” Quite satisfying.
Despite my complete and total disappointment with the film itself, I have now re-watched Van Helsing so I could write this review. You see the sacrifices I make for you?
What drove me crazy the first time I saw this film? Basically, the character of Anna Valerious as played by Kate Beckinsale. The first thing the filmmakers choose to show us is her backside, and their choices don’t get much better from there. The villagers respect her, she’s athletic and quick to action, and yet somehow she always needs to be rescued. Carried off by flying vampires, kidnapped by Dracula and made into a puppet for him to grope, falls down unconscious from one punch, and spends a lot of time running for her life instead of fighting.
Maybe it’s the corset restricting her oxygen intake? The high heeled boots? I give props to any woman who’s willing to jump through a stained glass window into a river while wearing a red evening dress, but for some reason Anna’s not reaching her full potential.
Her new honey isn’t helping matters. Van Helsing saves her, which I guess is better than the alternative, but also bosses her around and generally takes over. Don’t get me started on the scene where he chokes her to get information. He’s the real star of the show, and all she gets are the chick fights – and then the film’s creators don’t even let her win! Despite her action exterior, inside she’s a Woman In Peril.
All of that bugged me the first time I saw the movie, and it bugged me again this time. But what really ticked me off on this pass was how poorly the brides of Dracula were treated.
Dracula himself is represented as evil, but quite rational and well-spoken. Marishka, Aleera, and Verona are otherworldly, shrieking, keening creatures who are first shown naked as they fly. When one of them is killed, he reassures the other two that they will get another bride. “Do we mean so little to you?” they ask, mourning. He doesn’t ever reply. Instead, he cows them into submission and then asks them not to fear him. Domestic violence, anyone? And they love, love, love him. Even after he throws them off a balcony.
Sure, they are strong and fierce. In fights, they’re a step up the ladder from Anna. They do better than the brides in Dracula, who don’t even get their own names. All those brides get to do is look sexy and chew on Keanu Reeves. But like Anna, the brides in Van Helsing could be amazing and instead they are just pitiful.
What I can’t help but wonder is why? This is a fantasy film working with established characters and mythology, but I can’t imagine the film’s creators felt constrained by that. They put Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein, and a werewolf in one movie! I doubt their next thought was “Let’s make sure we don’t change the fucked up gender stereotypes, though! Could be dangerous!”
Would anyone who saw this film have skipped it if Anna had been powerful, and the brides had self-esteem? Would the film have made less money if the forces of good had been men and women all fighting side by side, each with strengths and weaknesses, and the forces of evil had been the same? I can’t believe that. I can’t believe legions of geek guys would have stayed away because Anna, Marishka, Aleera, and Verona actually kicked ass and the filmmakers respected that.
If it’s not a money issue, then it can only be laziness or misogyny. And that’s such a shame, because fantasy as a genre makes it so easy to change things that need to be changed. You don’t have to stick to historical reality of time and place. You don’t have to hew to a faithful representation of real people and events. If you want to be part of a long line of stories about particular characters and events, that’s fine. But you can honor and reference a canon without replicating its bad parts. Draw inspiration from what’s good, and build on that. You could even (gasp!) put in people of color.
The creators of Van Helsing just didn’t bother.
So Van Helsing gets NO STARS. None. Nada. Zip. And if it got any stars, I’d take one away for Hugh Jackman’s awful heavy metal hair.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.