Van Helsing: Anna Valerious is one of the worst pretend action heroines ever

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.

8 thoughts on “Van Helsing: Anna Valerious is one of the worst pretend action heroines ever

  1. SunlessNick

    “The villagers respect her, she’s athletic and quick to action, and yet somehow she always needs to be rescued.”

    Every eleven minutes on average.

    “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.”

    According to the DVD commentary, the stunt doubles did that for real – and it was real glass, because the weak stuff they usually use wouldn’t hold together in a window that big, meaning they couldn’t move for a bit after the jump, as all the shards were cleaned off them – so the stunt doubles deserve serious props.

    Kate Bekinsale’s was called Karen, and she sounds like someone I’d much rather have around in a crisis than Anna.

  2. Grace

    Amen. I HATED this movie, and very very nearly turned it off out of disgust when I saw the brides of Dracula part you referenced. It didn’t just not go out of it’s way to improve the roles of women, I didn’t think–it was actively misogynist in a way that was completely unnecessary. Yuck.

  3. kira

    i liked the movie. it kept with the era the film was suppose to be in, if the woman were stronger it wouldn’t have fit right. i mean u cant have a caveman with a car it just doesn’t fit. i do agree that Dracula’s brides could have been tougher,but in the context of the time once again women not being string blah blah its fits. plus they would have been turned earlier in time when women were way timid. i admit i would have liked to have seen a person of color, but back then sadly they weren’t even in that part of the globe. so being a history buff i give it 3 stars.

  4. Leo

    I would have given it one star. She’s a lot better than she could be. But I know, she gets saved a lot. But if I’m not mistaken, she threw down Van Helsing in the beginning when I think he was going to get killed by one of the brides. But I don’t know.

  5. Ashalyn

    Ha. I’m in the lounge of my dorm, and a group of students is watching this one TV. It was so unbelievably bad that I figured you would’ve written something about it. And you’re right on the money. Dracula is such a freaking PIMP.

    To the earlier comment – you mean werewolves are keeping with the history? I agree with Skye – you’ve already got all this fantasy, right – is it to much to bend reality a LITTLE more so we don’t have to see women dressed like ho’s for two hours?

    Anyway, great review. I know I haven’t been on here for a while, but you guys are awesome. And I’m glad about the baby.

    (Are you still sending out stickers? I’d asked for one a while ago but never got one.)

  6. Skye

    I’m not even sure the ho costumes are historically accurate, anyway. If anyone stops by who has a degree in Historical Ho Attire and can let us know, we would appreciate it.

  7. rodentfanatic

    Sorry, but the whole “oh, they came from times where women were timid” doesn’t work for the brides. Did you miss the parts where they swooped down to prey on villagers? They aren’t human, they’re predators, and have been so for centuries, meaning that for centuries they have been above human society and convention, including the sexism of their day. If they’re good with devouring the blood of men, I don’t think they quite qualify as timid. The issues with Dracula could have been passable if it had been more deeply explained and explored (mind control? knowing he’s the only other one of their kind in a world of so few? actual domestic violence going on and shown for what it is, and possibly some rebellion against it later?) but instead it’s just all swept under the rug as being “the way it is” and left at that.

    And I’m pretty sure Anna’s little getup with the corset OVER her clothes (weren’t they originally, y’know, underwear?)and stiletto boots was not exactly historical canon. If the rest of the movie had been painstakingly historically accurate, then the women behaving like women were “supposed to” back then might be excusable, but the fact is, that’s not the case. The filmmakers seemed thrilled to abandon all conventions and limits EXCEPT for the gender stereotyping. And they try to dress up the Damsel in Distress as the Strong Heroine, which is just even more offensive.

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