Last year I was discussing possible casting choices in “Dracula” with a friend. My choice for Professor Van Helsing caused her to do a take. Michael Gambon, she said, was too old. Then I did a take. Van Helsing of course is indeed an elderly man. She didn’t realize that, and was shocked at the suggestion.
Such has been the impact of a movie bearing the venerable vampire hunter’s name.
More than any other character in Bram Stoker‘s novel (save the title character), Abraham Van Helsing has a life outside the book or its adaptations. This goes back to Edward Van Sloan in the Lugosi film. He returned in the first official sequel, “Dracula’s Daughter.” This same pattern recurred with Peter Cushing and Hammer Studios. “Brides of Dracula” dealt not with the Count, but another vampire, Baron Meinster. His antagonist turned out to be the same as in “Horror of Dracula” with Christopher Lee. In keeping with the emphasis for action and adventure, this Van Helsing actually fought vampires–he leapt and ran and wrestled with the creatures. In one intense sequence Cushing’s professor burned away a vampire bite from his own throat with a red-hot poker, soothing the fierce pain with holy water! Not even Hugh Jackman ever did something that macho! Arguably the next most famous Van Helsing would have to be Anthony Hopkins in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” His version was tactless, intense, had probably seen or done everything–seduced his way through a convent, been kept as boy-toy by a Arab Sheik, tried every mind-altering drug on the planet. Imagine if you will a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones. With a dueling scar (a fight over a woman, Hopkins explained in interviews). By contrast David Suchet’s performance harkened back to the more academic figure of earlier films.
Consider what we truly know about Van Helsing from the book, however. His achievements merit some jaw-dropping. Both physician and lawyer, a student of the arcane who also somehow gained an indulgence to carry with him a tin filled with the Holy Wafer of the Roman Catholic Church. This last boggles the mind. Under what conceivable circumstances did he gain such permission? From whom? What reason did he give? Or might he simply have committed the lesser of two evils and stolen the Host in order to defeat a real, walking, talking Demon? Given how startled Seward is at Van Helsing’s diagnosis, one suspects such powerful religious sentiments are a relatively recent development. Seward had been Van Helsing’s student, even saving the older man’s life from a cut that threatened gangrene. In looking for an event that might have stirred in the professor a greater religious feeling, one needn’t go far. He explicitly notes the loss of his only son, which has driven his wife mad. True to his faith, Van Helsing refuses to divorce her.
(Parenthetically, Bram Stoker himself had only one son and not long after his birth suffered a severe estrangement from his wife. Most biographers agree that Florence Stoker–a great beauty of the age once wooed by Oscar Wilde–ceased all sexual contact with her husband soon after their child’s birth.)
Honestly, neither Van Helsing nor Seward seem like very good doctors. Blood transfusion in the late 1800s was a risky business, but had been performed for decades. Given internal evidence, when they transfused Arthur Holmwood’s blood into Lucy they took too much. Arthur remained strangely weak for days and days afterward. Likewise the trepanation performed on Renfield seems totally uncalled for, certainly not helping the man and quite possibly hastening his end. Throughout the book Van Helsing’s behavior remains rather odd–and not simply his twisted sense of humor. Why not tell Mrs. Westenra the garlic plants were put there deliberately for medicinal purposes? Surely having someone stay with Lucy each night would have done much to protect her, yet he vetoes this. Why? Going into the Transylvanian countryside alone with Mina likewise hardly seems prudent. What if he, an old man, were to die or suffer severe injury? For that matter, why was he forever returning to Amsterdam in the midst of Lucy’s prolonged and demonstrably life-threatening illness?
The impression is of a mercurial judgment, a blend of deep knowledge and wisdom with stubborn caprice. A Gemini perhaps? One also gets the impression of secrets, of something going on in Van Helsing’s life, something vital but off-stage. Indeed, such as formed the basis for more than one retelling of the story including Jeanne Kalogridis’ “Diaries of the Family Dracul” trilogy in which Van Helsing stands revealed as the descendant of Count Dracula himself!
More secrets hover around him, though. One is his curious method of speech, far more Germanic than Dutch (“Mein Gott” for example). His name seems a blend of Dutch (the “Van”) and Finnish (“Helsing” is a Finnish family name, from the city of Helsinki). Plus the author–a transplanted Irishman in London–gave to the professor his own first name. Make of that what you will! Curiously, this detail often gets lost. Hugh Jackman played Gabriel Van Helsing, whereas Cushing’s character was eventually identified by the name Lawrence. Perhaps the Van Helsings are a larger family than we have supposed? Certainly a potential novel or film or even a television series could be developed from that notion!