Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing – review


Director: Steve Lawson

Release date: 2021

Contains spoilers

I must admit to being intrigued when I saw the trailer for this. Another filmed version of Dracula, the conceit of this version is that it focuses on one key aspect of the novel – the predation upon Lucy and her fate. It does take some story liberties – as does any version of Dracula – but I liked the idea that it was going to keep a narrow focus.

It does rather well with the budget, with an authentic period feel helped by restricting itself to a small cast and limited location. As always with remakes of Dracula I intend to discuss many of the differences to the novel and therefore there will be major spoilers but the general thrust of the story will be known to you all anyway.

Lucy writes to Mina

So, this is set at the point where Mina (Helen Crevel) – who makes the briefest of appearances in the coda of the film – has left to be with Jonathan, and Lucy (Charlie Bond, Strippers Vs Werewolves) tells us as much as we hear her narrate a letter she writes to her friend. The immediate difference we notice is that there have only been two suitors, John Seward (Joe Street) and Arthur Holmwood (Tom Hendryk), with Quincy expunged from the narrative. Another difference is that Mrs Westenra is missing and Lucy – ill as the film begins – has been taken to one of the houses of the Godalming estate.

Mark Topping as Van Helsing

Thus it is very near the beginning of the film that Van Helsing (Mark Topping) arrives, having been contacted by Seward. Before his arrival there is a brief conversation between Arthur and Seward and mention is made by Seward of a fascinating patient – the only reference to Renfield who, also, has been essentially expunged from the narrative and, you know what, I’m ok with that. The focus of the film doesn’t need him. A moment, however, to mention Mark Topping’s Van Helsing. As he appeared on screen I’ll admit I wasn’t sure, seeming a little too lean I guess… however he worked well in the role – just as well given that the title makes him the centre of attention.

collapsed

Of course, Dracula has already been visiting Lucy – hence her illness and the need to call Van Helsing. In the opening scene we see his presence heralded by candles blowing out and mist creeping through the window. Which is fine but the most we see of Dracula is this and later (with head out of shot) a brief moment of cape in one scene. Of course he is never actually named and only referred to as the vampire and Master. This is a difficult call. The direction of the text in this version means that Dracula may have been seen as distracting but, for me, the Count’s presence was not felt enough and the atmosphere within the film suffered for it. It would have been possible to impose that presence without an actor (see films like the Haunting (1963) for creating atmosphere without showing anything) or with the correct, but only briefly seen, casting. However, we are where we are.

transfusion

So the film follows the general Lucy story (with only two transfusions – her death occurring during the second). It is Arthur who removes the garlic flowers, there is an emphasis on Arthur feeling a jealousy as he suspects Lucy feels more for Seward despite he being the fiancé and a suspicion (voiced) that she chose Arthur because he is an aristocrat rather than for love – dynamics not in the novel. They do imbue Lucy with a (period-)inappropriate sexuality (though it is fairly modest all the same) but it is clearly driven by the encroaching vampirism. Van Helsing hypnotises her – leading to her describing flying dreams in search of blood – and Arthur’s general scepticism about Van Helsing is anchored by his distrust of the 'discredited' technique (this stands against Stoker’s praise of Charcot in the novel).

attack

One of the biggest differences is the fact that Lucy is not interred into a tomb – she is still laid out in the house through to the end of the film. I suspect this was a budget consideration but missed the opportunity of the atmosphere of a gothic graveyard. Lucy also does not become the blooferlady who attacks children (and does not actually kill) rather she leaves her coffin and kills – first of all a maid (Demi Savva) and then hunting in London but returning to the Godalming house. There is a major change to the climax events that I won’t spoil.

tools of the trade

The lore espoused states that there must be an exchange of blood for a victim to turn. Crosses and holy water deter the vampire, as does garlic, and sunlight is mentioned but only in terms of diminishing the vampire's powers hence the reason they return to the grave/coffin. Death necessitates staking and beheading. I liked the texts that Van Helsing consulted in his research, I thought they looked suitably arcane.

Tom Hendryk as Arthur

The turning of Arthur from sceptic who blamed the doctors for Lucy’s death to being open minded was perhaps a little too stark but overall I thought the story was well constructed and the cast did well with what they had. If there is a complaint then it is in the lack of suitable atmosphere. This felt like a rather talky period piece more than the gothic melodrama/horror it should have been and whilst it was still entertaining it could have been much more. Some of the soundtrack was intrusive but this was only occasionally. My fear is that this is fine for a fan of the book/genre – but a newcomer may not be as taken with it. However I’m giving it a solid 6 out of 10 so long as you understand what you are getting going in.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon UK

4 comments:

Unknown said...

Could only sit through half of this snooze-fest.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey unknown, each to their own and as I said in the review it was very talky... it is perhaps the difficulty of highlighting a small section of the novel - it is not counterbalanced by other sections. Nevertheless I rather appreciated their efforts but can see why others would not

Octobercynic said...

This one felt more like one of the old "movie(s) of the week" they used to show here in the States. That aside, I found it to be a very well done film. The reduction or expungence of characters, morphing or blending of actions and timelines, and absence of a more physical manifestation of D did not hurt the production as much as I thought it might.
There did seem to be an acceleration of pace towards the end, as if the producers felt a time crunch and wanted to wrap it up ASAP. The ending also seemed, to me, to leave the door open for a possible sequel. Hopefully, more consideration will be made if indeed they attempt one, and characterization and more presence of the antagonist will be part of the story.
Thanks for the recommendation, and as always, take care.
Billy

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Billy thanks for the comment and, as always its a pleasure to catalogue these movies. I can't disagree with your thoughts on a potential sequel