Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most filmed novels in history. Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing is an attempt to do something different with that novel. Writer/director Steve Lawson (Hellriser, The Haunting of Alcatraz) doesn’t just focus on the supporting cast, he’s taken Dracula right out of his own story.
And that’s a pretty radical step to take, one that I don’t think has been done before. Stephen Sommers film Van Helsing may have changed everything else about the character and story, but it still featured Dracula as it’s antagonist. How interesting is the good doctor’s story without his arch nemesis?
Lucy Westenra (Charlie Bond, Pandamonium, Strippers vs Werewolves) has fallen ill. So ill that her fiancé Arthur Holmwood (Tom Hendryk, The Mermaid’s Curse, Nest of Vampires) is forced to turn to her ex John Seward (Joe Street, Cannibal Farm) for help.
He in turn calls in his mentor Dr. Van Helsing (Mark Topping, UFO Conspiracies: The Hidden Truth) whose methods immediately put him at odds with Arthur. But as her condition worsens it becomes obvious that conventional science is no help for what they’re facing.
As anyone who’s read Stoker’s novel knows it’s a rather dry read, full of drawing room conversations and diary entries and short on action. And without Dracula’s presence, Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing at times more closely resembles a period drama than a horror film. Through much of the first half of the film most of the conflict comes from the three male leads. There’s the obvious, and expected, friction between John and Arthur due to their rivalry over Lucy. Then there’s Arthur’s distrust of Van Helsing and his methods. Replace vampirism with the disease of your choice and this could be a drama from the BBC.
It’s not until Lucy shows her fangs that the film switches gears and becomes an actual horror film. But it still moves at a pace most viewers will find much too slow and too little happens to keep anyone’s interest.
I understand that Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing was a low budget film. But I also know Lawson can deliver more than leftover Halloween fangs even on a tight budget. Nor is it a reason to limit the film to endless tensionless scenes of three men talking. The film needed some scares and/or action but it just dragged along until what passes for a climax, and even that manages to be dull.
A film like this needs a strong villain to succeed and Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing really has no villain at all. We see one brief shot of a cloaked body in Lucy’s room. That’s it, we never even see his face. Watching the characters react to to actions of an absent antagonist is not terribly exciting. There needs to be somebody for the heroes to go on the offense against, someone to actively battle. Watching them constantly react and play defense isn’t satisfying.
It also misses the kind of atmosphere we expect from a historical vampire film. Several of the final act’s settings were changed from the novel, I assume for budgetary reasons. But removing tombs and graveyards from the film robs it of much of what we watch these films for. It also removes several opportunities to add some action to the proceedings.
Sadly, when all is said and done, Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing rather than being an interesting literary adaptation is another chapter in the transformation of Steve Lawson from the maker of cheerfully cheesy and/or sleazy films like Killersaurus and Hellriser to the new Andrew Jones.
Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing is available on DVD and Digital from High Fliers.