War in Heaven

Van_Helsing_poster

Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

Frankenstein’s Monster

“We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death.” So begins Universal’s 1931 classic Frankenstein (a movie that my wife kindly indulged me with for Christmas). Watching the film as an adult highlights many nuances unnoticed by even many a childhood viewing. The theatrical introduction of creating a man “without reckoning upon God” was heady stuff in the pre-atomic world. It was a simpler time before men had embraced god-like power (I use “men” intentionally here; even the credits for the movie ironically cite the noted feminist author as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley”), and audiences were indeed shocked in theatres just 80 years ago.

The now tame movie was originally subjected to heavy censorship. Even the liberal states of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania censored the line where Dr. Frankenstein cries out, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” A divine thunderclap was dubbed over the words to obliterate the blasphemous line. In Kansas (perhaps not surprisingly, given recent political developments) 32 scenes were cut, paring the movie down to half of its original 70 minutes. I suppose all that would have been left would have been the scenes of dancing Germans; the Lederhosen would have been frightening enough. The accidental drowning scene was overwhelming for many sensibilities in a pre-concentration-camp footage world.

I read Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel long before I ever saw the movie, and I was struck at how sad the story was. Of all the classic monsters, Frankenstein’s creation easily garners the most sympathy. A creature that did not seek to be brought to life, forced into destitute and desperate circumstances by a population who could not, or would not try to understand, Frankenstein’s monster retains the potential to be any one of us. Although audiences today rarely blanch at blasphemous words, we still permit a society that creates Frankenstein’s monsters through crafty politics and tax breaks. Perhaps when taking authority public officials should add a line from the movie to their oaths of office, only it could be demurely obscured by a well-timed thunderclap.