Van Helsing is as undead as Dracula

The vampire hunter is reincarnated as Hugh Jackman

May 06, 2004|By Jackie Loohauis | Jackie Loohauis,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Bing and Bob. Butch and The Kid. Holmes and Watson.

Dracula and Van Helsing.

They're all famous pop culture pairings that have survived the ages, but only that last duo has the scent of the supernatural about it.

In a saga that has caused flaps during three centuries, usually the vampire gets top billing. But now the vampire slayer stars in his own film - Van Helsing, which opens tomorrow - proving that the Dr. Watson of the Undead deserves another look.

Because without Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula would be just another fanged footnote in horror history. (When was the last time the 18th-century wonder-sucker Varney the Vampire got a gig?) Careening through the Borgo Pass, skulking around abbey basements, schmoozing in genteel drawing rooms, Drac and Van have trod the same paths together in a bizarre hitch.

"You can't have good without evil - you need Van Helsing and Dracula together. Because Dracula is supposed to be ageless, you have to have someone who has seen a lot, too, someone who you believe can defeat Dracula. That's Van Helsing," said Ky Henderson, senior associate editor and film reviewer for Maxim magazine.

Van Helsing may be ageless, yes. But unchanging, no. In fact, since writer Bram Stoker created him in the 1897 novel, the Van Helsing character has done almost as much shape-shifting as Dracula himself.

The strange doctor with the fractured Dutch/English accent started out as many things. He may even have been a reflection of Stoker: Bram is, after all, a shortened version of Abraham.

David J. Skal, author of such Dracula books as Hollywood Gothic and producer of the commentaries for Universal's just-released Monster Legacy DVD collection, sees the resemblance between Abraham/Bram.

"My reading of the book has always been that Van Helsing is a stand-in for Stoker himself," Skal said. "Van Helsing is a Dutchman, and there's some indication Stoker's family may have had Dutch roots."

Van Helsing also may have been three different vampire hunters that Stoker melded into one; Skal feels that Stoker's working notes point in that direction.

Or this may have been a case of evil-twinning. In Tod Browning's 1931 film Dracula, which starred Bela Lugosi as the title bloodsucker, the mirror that will not reflect Dracula strangely also doesn't show Van Helsing.

So it's hard to tell who's who in the crypt-shadows. But we can look back at some of Van Helsing's incarnations to see how he has transmogrified over the decades:

Van Helsing as grampa: Edward Van Sloan first played the good doctor as a wizened old wise man in the Broadway version of Dracula in 1927. The actor was only in his mid-40s at the time. He went on to reprise the character in the 1931 movie, as well as in the 1936 semi-sequel Dracula's Daughter, and as Van Helsing-wannabes in The Mummy (1932) and Frankenstein (1931).

Van Sloan's bespectacled prof is "a philosopher, a knower of ancient lore, a man of the world with lots of experience - trustful. If someone can find a solution to the problem, it's Van Helsing," said Richard Hendricks, horror aficionado and creator of the Weird Wisconsin Web site www.weird-wi.com.

Even Dracula acknowledges Van Helsing's brain power. "For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing," the vampire says in the 1931 movie.

So grandfatherly was Van Sloan's occult expert that, at the end of some Dracula reels, he did an additional curtain call seemingly designed to reassure audience members about the frights they had just witnessed. Van Sloan lulled with soothing words until he ended his speech with a horrific twist: "When you get home tonight - just pull yourself together. After all - there are such things!"

Van Helsing as fruit loop: Anthony Hopkins, in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, delivers a Van Helsing so "over the top you almost doubted his sanity," Skal said.

Wild-haired and suspiciously attired in a cape, Hopkins' Van Helsing is too in sync with Dracula. In one scene, Hopkins appears to possess a vampiric ability to teleport his body. He reveals himself to be extremely vulnerable to the charms of Dracula's brides - and we should not even talk about his penchant for carting around bloody human heads.

Van Helsing as MVP: Peter Cushing holds the record for most Van Helsing portrayals. His Van Helsing is a jock who takes on Dracula in hand-to-hand combat, flies down stairs and leaps off tables.

"You can see the change there," said horror fan Hendricks. "This Van Helsing is cultured, heroic and more physically involved," Hendricks said. Cushing did many of his own stunts in Horror of Dracula (1958) and other vampire films.

Cushing also took the Van Helsing character through the transition from inarticulate Dutch doctor to suave, sophisticated Englishman.

The reason for the ethnic recasting, Hendricks suspects? "Nobody knows who the Dutch are," he said.

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