Friday, October 21, 2011

3 Brides of Dracula: Van Helsing

Stephen Sommers' 2004 flick Van Helsing suffers from self-deconstruction (or, hypocrisy): it utilizes traditional symbols of evil, while re-writing what that evil is; what is evil for some to do, is not necessarily evil for others to do... right. What is interesting is the dominant role the brides of Dracula play in the film and how the character of Van Helsing has been re-written from the original. We'll start with a brief examination of why Van Helsing has traditionally embodied the virtues making him strong enough to battle Dracula, and then move to who the Brides are (Death, Agony and Despair) and why our culture today has made them of greater interest than ever before.
Original theatrical release poster. Why is a full moon that which brings out the werewolf in a man? We know the moon controls the tides, and it has a certain degree of control over our own behavior, if we let it (hospitals are always much busier when there is a full moon). We are supposed to use our free will to do what God wants us to do (persevere in faith and good works so we don't choose to go to hell instead of heaven). A werewolf is controlled by the full moon because it symbolizes how nature controls the man, man doesn't control nature. Through virtue and faith, God calls each of us to control our own nature and especially our animal appetites; when our appetites (nature untouched or untamed by Grace) control us, instead of us controlling them, we turn into animals, like werewolves.  
In Bram Stoker's novel, Abraham Van Helsing is the only character who possesses the knowledge of both science and faith to be able to discern that there is a vampire and what to do about it. It should be noted that Stoker gave Van Helsing his own name: Abraham, of which "Bram" is a nickname. The reason Van Helsing is an important character is he makes science serve him, he doesn't serve science and he is a man of faith, above all else. That is the reason Stoker gave him the name "Abraham," so he would be the father of a people who also would not slavishly obey science and make a god of it, but realize that it is a tool we have but we are not to become obsessed with it.
Hugh Jackman as Gabriel Van Helsing.
This is carried over in Van Helsing: the first monster which Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) slays is Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane). Dr. Jeckyll, as a man of science, used his discoveries for his own selfish ends and was "hiding" behind the sinful Mr. Hyde, the persona allowing him to kill and rape at will, while still being the respectable Dr. Jeckyll. The "unhealthy relationship" of humans to science is seen throughout the film: the patronage of Count Dracula is necessary for Victor Frankenstein to carry out his experiments to create life. Victor, like Dr. Jeckyll, is foolish enough to think he can will that only good will come of his discoveries, but since Dracula is the "corporate sponsor" so to speak, he's going to use those advances for his own ends.
The Frankenstein monster and the very sexy Count Dracula. Dracula wants to control nature, but artificially, with the monster, not with God's Grace ("Grace" being the very Life of God Himself). So there is a false means of "controlling nature," and that is just as bad as not controlling the animal appetites at all.
What are those ends?
Animating the dead bodies of his babies with his three brides. What would Death, Agony and Despair give birth to? More Death, Agony and Despair. That the babies are born dead refers to our abortion culture, in which babies who have been aborted through a variety of scientifically advanced procedures come out of their mother's wombs dead, just like the babies of the vampires. This is the reason why no other culture until our own time has been interested in the 3 Brides of Dracula, no other culture has had the scourge of a baby-killing holocaust that our culture has, and a population of women who would choose to give birth to dead babies.
This is the reason why the Brides and science have been brought together in this film: while we think our advances have made us better, we can't control even that one person who may use those advances to detrimental ends against society and the greater our control over life--when it begins and ends--the greater the temptation to control it. Science has created the women in our culture today who have become, not the handmaids of the Lord, but the brides of Dracula by using science in ways it was not intended, namely, to make women into instruments of pleasure and not the vessels of life.
The face of a woman who gives birth to the dead. Why do these three brides desperately want there to be two other brides also? How many women outside of Salt Lake City want to be "sister wives" to one man? The truth is, when an unmarried woman has sexual relations with a man, she's basically becoming one of his many wives, sharing him with all the other women he has EVER had sexual relations with and will have sexual relations with; for women who prefer to be sexually promiscuous, the more women who are promiscuous, the less shame they feel; the more women who have abortions, the less shame they feel, so they are always trying to recruit new "converts" to their way of life so they themselves don't feel the pangs of shame upon their conscious and convert back to God and chastity. They desperately want Anna to become a bride because Anna's purity really shames them, and they can't stand it, which is why chastity is a great way to fight off evil in general, but also why evil battles against chastity with such ferocious force: evil knows chastity is like the nuclear warhead in spiritual warfare and to disarm the nuclear warhead (make a person unchaste) is to even the odds.
Why is this a bad thing?
We make mistakes. We don't always do the right thing. We don't always chose the greatest good. We are born in Original Sin and that one fact makes us imperfect and our choices imperfect. Even if I had made only one mistake my entire life, it would be proof that I am not capable of governing my own life or the lives of others. With the re-animation of the Frankenstein monster in Van Helsing, that is exactly what is going to be done. Van Helsing has to stay focused on vanquishing evil for the sake of the world and for the sake of Anna's family who vowed to destroy Dracula; if Van Helsing permits himself to get distracted with something else, he won't be able to protect the world or Anna's family, and this is what nearly happens: he nearly chooses the lesser good of a relationship with Anna over the greatest good of vanquishing Dracula. Because he allows himself to get bitten from the werewolf it's a sign that his "animal instincts" are fighting against him and if he can't overcome himself he can't overcome Dracula.
Anna's brother Velken who is bitten by the wolf. Please read the paragraph below before reading this caption, because it won't make sense. Done? Okay, so how is it that Velken and Velken's father lust for Anna, isn't that incest? Yes and no. Men are bound by virtue of their strength and baptism to protect women (if this sounds sexist, I promise you, I don't care). Women are bound, in being created--not from earth, like men--from spirit to serve God in all things and be a help mate to man in helping him reach heaven; a man who becomes a werewolf is going to attack women, not protect them, and a woman who is a Bride of Dracula isn't going to help men get to heaven, but lead them straight to hell. Now, you might be asking, what about Velken? There is absolutely nothing about a relationship with Anna or any other woman that we see in the film, and I do grant that; however, please note this image: look at this sleeve. Audiences rarely see up the sleeve of a character, but, in this case, given that the cuff is open, we are being told that Velken has something "up his sleeve," whether it was visiting the brothel and a woman he slept with (like the woman from the village who agrees to have sex with Carl because he "saved her") or Velken lusts for Anna himself, is irrelevant because when a man mistreats one woman, he has mis-treated every woman. Case in point: Keanu Reeves' film Knock-Knock is about two girls who get stranded and ask to use the phone at Reeves' home; they seduce him in a night of wild sex and then leave. They come back the next night and terrorize him, having stolen his keys while he was distracted with having sex. The girls tie him up in bed, and then one of them comes in wearing the school uniform of Reeves' daughter, and he tells her to take it off, it belongs to his daughter, but instead, she climbs on top of him so pictures can be taken of them two of them in that pose. The truth is, what Reeves' character did to those two girls, he also did to his daughter, which is why the girl wears the daughter's uniform, telling men that, if you wouldn't want this done to your daughter, you shouldn't be doing it to other women yourself. Nothing actually has to happen in Van Helsing for Velken or Van Helsing to turn into a werewolf (they don't have to have any relationship with Anna or any other woman) because once the sin of lust takes your heart, it controls you completely, as one of the Brides tells Anna, "I know what lurks in your lustful heart," because Anna had fallen on top of Van Helsing with his head in between her legs, as a position of oral sex; Anna doesn't actually have to do anything, and she all ready wants him and is willing to commit sin with him, which is why Dracula is able to take her to his castle and woo her to become one of his Brides: her heart is in a position to do so. 
Werewolves are imperative in this film. Anna's brother Velken is bitten by a wolf he's trying to kill to weaken Dracula's power, then comes back as a wolf himself and has a "conversation" with Anna. What is he saying he's sorry for? Well, this is one of those great things about horror films, it allows us to say something without saying it: Velken lusts for his sister Anna, and it appears, that their father lusted for Anna as well (please read caption above for further explanation); Velken's attempting to apologize for lusting for her, because now he's turned into a werewolf as a result and he's put his sister and the world in danger. It's a general rule in art that if someone is going to become a monster, they are already that monster before the transformation takes place, and that is what lets us bury things in symbols and theories. Velken could not become a werewolf if there wasn't "already a wolf in him" that could be tapped to come out; the same applies to Van Helsing, and his wolf really comes out.
So the problem the film poses is: if a werewolf is the only thing that can kill Dracula, why is he using them at all? Dracula is confident that his evil grip over the werewolf is greater than the werewolf's ability to rebel against that grip (in this case, all the men are in the grip of their lust for Anna and why Dracula wants her as his bride) which would break Dracula's hold on them. In other words, if Dracula represents Satan (and he does) and a werewolf symbolizes a man who is deeply in the sin of lust (which he is) then for a man to have the strength to break lust's hold on him gives him a greater strength than what Satan could ever have on him. Sadly, this doesn't happen very often. From Dracula's perspective, the werewolf has "life" because in pursuing his sin, he expends energy, but that's not life, that's life only in the narrow way that Renfield the bug-eater would interpret it (please see The Children of the Night: Dracula 1931 for more on Renfield). That's the kind of life that Dracula seeks for his "children" to have, but the werewolves know that sin kills them and slowly destroys them, but Dracula--by the very nature of his revolt against God and God's goodness--isn't capable of understanding any of that.
Carl, Van Helsing and Anna at Castle Dracula. It's imperative for the film that they reach Castle Dracula through a mirror because that mirror is a metaphor of our own society today: it looks as if we are entering a dark, medieval world of make-believe monsters, but all those monsters are merely encoded ways our own society behaves and functions, so, in seeing Castle Dracula, we are really seeing ourselves. The problem with this is how Carl was able to find the "key" to begin with: he had just had sex with the woman from the village that he "saved" from one of the Brides, but then Carl basically turns her into one of the Brides himself in having sex with a woman to whom he isn't married. The film makers are rewarding Carl for having sex (no, he is a member of the clergy, he has taken vows of celibacy and--even if he hadn't--he still isn't married to this woman and so it's still mortal sin, and given that we see Van Helsing going to confession, we know this is a universe in which mortal sin exists) because if the woman from the village and Carl hadn't have had sex, Carl would not have been in that room to find the picture that became animated so he could find the mirror. So, how does all this make sense? It doesn't. This is the point of deconstruction: it demonstrates how the film makers are attempting to hold up a standard of virtue (not becoming a Bride or a werewolf of Dracula) while at the same time, promoting behavior that makes woman into Brides (sex outside of marriage) and men into werewolves (lusting for women instead of disciplining themselves). 
It's in resisting his temptation that Van Helsing is able to overcome lust's hold on him. Here is the big evolution in the character of Van Helsing, the name change from "Abraham" to "Gabriel," which means "Strength of God." In the New Testament, it is the Archangel Gabriel who delivers the message to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. This important change is the clue we need to understanding who the modern "brides of Dracula" really are and it's important to distinguish between just female vampires (of which there is a great quantity) and the actual brides whom Dracula chooses to make his eternal companions.
Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious. When we first see Anna, she wears this red jacket; why? Red is the color of blood: either we love someone enough to spill our red blood for them, or we hate someone enough to spill their red blood to appease our appetite of wrath. Anna loves her family and the quest they have been entrusted with. Later, at the masquerade ball, Anna wears a red ball gown; Count attempts to turn Anna's love to him so she will agree to be one of his new brides, specifically, the Bride of Despair, because if Anna Valerious has given herself to Count, who can possibly resist him?
In Van Helsing, Gabriel has lost his memory and is attempting to re-discover who he is; that's quite literal for us, as a post-Christian culture, attempting to fight the evil in the world but not having any idea who we are and hence, not having a real basis for fighting that evil if we are not doing it in the name of the Ultimate Good. While there are several badly portrayed morality issues in the film (such as the monk Carl thinking that he doesn't have to adhere to vows of chastity, and Van Helsing believing that he can decide for himself what is good and evil, and some other tangled issues) what it does do is bring together two old enemies: Mary and Satan.
Left to right: Despair, Agony and Death. Three "gorgeous women" who do nothing but have sex all day and night with Satan; i;e., loose women who do not adhere to the higher calling of God at all. It's important to remember that the name "Mary" in Hebrew means "rebellion," because Mary, the mother of Jesus, rebelled against Satan the way Satan rebelled against God, so Mary is the ultimate enemy to Satan and, essentially, what each women is called to embody. These three brides each embody the modern woman who rebels against the image of Mary and her purity as well as her obedience to God. 
The three brides of Dracula are traditionally Death, Agony and Despair. When Van Helsing and Anna (Kate Beckinsale) first meet, the three brides come out of Castle Dracula to attack Anna. But Anna is too weak to kill any of them, as Aleera points out, "I know what lurks in your lustful heart," and she's right: Anna already lusts for Van Helsing, and he for her. As they are fighting the brides, Anna is dropped from the air and lands straddling Van Helsing's face, a very graphic illustration for the audience of exactly what lurks in Anna's heart, and that dark lurking is what weakens Anna and this plagues both Anna and Van Helsing from being able to focus and give themselves to the cause, because they want to give themselves to each other, instead.
All the weapons in the world won't help her overcome the weakness in her heart.
They do, however, manage to kill a bride of Dracula, the symbol of Despair, because now that one has been destroyed, that gives "Hope" that the others can be destroyed as well; all it took to slay her was Holy Water. The other two Brides, Agony and Death, both feel the death of Despair because their power has now been weakened with the death of one of them, "despair" being a powerful weapon of evil (and Death will also be weakened with the passing of Agony). The question is, why, in this cultural context, have the brides "come out in fury" when they haven't before? Part of that is their children, the babies who are born dead and not in the life of grace. The women of today behave like the Brides of Dracula and not Mary, the Bride of the Holy Spirit, whose fruit was Life Itself which brought Faith, Love and Hope into the world and anyone battling the 3 Brides must have these qualities in abundance.
The 3 Brides of Dracula from Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula.
In Van Helsing, the source of life is going to be Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster. This is the link where science serving man becomes a problem, as in the beginning of the film with Mr. Hyde, because this usurpation of God's authority/authorship is our destiny, and when Dracula has control over it, we become like Gabriel Van Helsing, lost and dazed about who we are and what we are to do. But the way in which the next bride, Agony, dies is directly linked to her trying to "save" the monster: the coach falls and is filled with arrows which go in every direction when it hits the ground. She has now been exposed to the agony she has caused others (like the townspeople running for their lives when all the "baby vampires" are coming at them from every direction). But this slaying of the Bride costs Van Helsing and reveals his weakness, that he can be turned into one of the creatures he is hunting and all it takes is his desire for Anna.
Dracula with the girls. Why do Vampires not like the light? Metaphorically, it's the Light of Truth, God, and Satan will always hate God; symbolically, they also hate the light within themselves, the light of their dignity and who they are. When the heroes are escaping the masquerade party, Anna and Van Helsing both know they have to "go through that window," why? Because windows symbolize "reflection," and by reflecting on who they are and their dignity, they can escape the monsters chasing them and avoid becoming monsters themselves. Karl knows the way to defeat monsters is with the Light of Truth, God's Light, which is why he sets off the brilliant light and stops them, because Karl is (supposedly) a man of God, so that is going to be the first weapon he turns to in order to protect himself from becoming a monster. So, this scene with Dracula and the Brides by this window would actually never happen, they can't reflect on what they have become or who they should have become instead.
The last of the three brides to die is Death, Aleera. It really should be easy for Anna to kill Aleera, but her and Van Helsing kissed before this scene, which weakens Anna because she's distracted (when the Brides attack Anna after Van Helsing has just arrived, Anna says that she was caught off guard, but the Brides knew that Anna was at her weakest at the moment she saw Van Helsing; this illustrates how easily Anna can be distracted, and just a kiss is enough to awaken lust in Anna's heart,... and body). Aleera gets distracted telling Anna how Aleera is going to kill her and Anna uses the opportunity to kill Aleera: when we are distracted from what our purpose is, we can't carry it out; when we are focused, our strength is at its greatest. Once Anna realizes the grip Aleera has on her, she focuses her attention on battling evil and fulfilling the pledge of her family to kill Dracula, and then her strength is gathered and she can kill the last Bride.
Van Helsing takes his hat off and puts it on her when they are in the windmill. The head is symbolic of our governing function, so in that sense, he's acknowledging that it's his thoughts of Anna that are governing him, not an ultimate good which they should both be focused on. This is how Dracula/Satan controls men, by using sex against them so they can't focus on God.
It may seem like it's a bad ending, when Anna is able to get the antidote to Van Helsing so he doesn't perpetually become a werewolf after slaying Dracula, but that's perfect, that's exactly the way it should be, and with the watered down morality of the film, I am surprised to see that they could discern that and then follow through with it. Anna and her family have fulfilled their destinies and Van Helsing still has to fulfill the rest of his, so, while Anna's death causes him pain and he longs to have her back with him, that is a lesser good and, to have Anna stay with him would be to turn her into a Bride himself because she would no longer be concerned with fighting evil but with her own happiness which would lead her astray. As Van Helsing himself says, my life, my work is to vanquish evil, which is the life and work of each of us and it's only a curse if we allow ourselves to be weakened.