Tag Archives: van Helsing

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

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.

Hansel and Regretel

HanselGretelHansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was on offer on the trans-Atlantic flight. Since I missed it in theaters, I decided to watch it on my mini-screen inches from my face. Witches, among the classical monsters, have a strange longevity into the world of science—like van Helsing (of movie fame) the protagonists have steam-punkish gadgets to destroy the naturally invincible foes. What’s not to like? I could not help but be disturbed, however, at what seemed to be the inherent misogyny of the film. Perhaps it was the lighting on the plane, but I saw only one male witch among the monstrous hordes of females who were battered, shot, and burned with apparent sangfroid. Women were guilty, it seemed, until proven innocent. And Mina, the white witch, again underscores that women who are “clean” are still potential witches underneath. Naturally, she dies before it’s over, but in a noble way.

The witches in the movie are strangely removed from a traditional, satanic context. They derive their power, like modern wiccans, from nature and strange mixes. The source of their magic is never explored very deeply, but when they catch trespassers in their forest, their queen states that even God himself fears to go there. Bewitching bravado, to be sure, but where does this image of God originate? A god afraid of the very nature that (in a film such as this, certainly) “he” created? The sacrifice of children is a good biblical trope, but seems to do little more here than to build the tension.

Monster movies, I realize, are “guy flicks.” Something about all that testosterone seems to be energized by images of ordinary people fighting monsters, against incredible odds. The monsters here, however, are barely distinguishable from regular women. Folklore has a deep well of traditions about witches from which the savvy might draw to write an intelligent, entertaining tale of witch-hunters. After all, the real antagonist, traditionally, is the male devil. He is, in medieval tradition, the source of witching magic. By removing Satan from the picture, we are left with strong women who must be repressed, and the world is really no safer when Hansel and Gretel are done. In fact, the end of the movie implies that they will never be finished. An opportunity for a subtle shift of paradigm was missed in this film, and, as usual, it is women who end up paying the price.

Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Had my Phill

One of the pleasures of the editorial occupation is traveling to campuses to meet potential authors. Having no excuse not to go to Philadelphia, I jumped on a train this morning to spend the day on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. I’d been to both campuses before, but they are a study in contrasts. Penn is Ivy League, of course, and the students appear confident and self-assured. Temple is a large, public university situated in a neighborhood that doesn’t exactly inspire the same confidence. The students appear happy enough, but of a rather different ethnic blend. I pondered these differences while waiting for a taxi. I hadn’t realized that PHL Taxi stands for “Prefer Hanging Loose”—after three calls and no vehicle, I had to call another company. To try to save Routledge a few pennies, I had opted for the Days Inn in north Philadelphia. A friend told me over lunch that this part of the city is probably not the safest.

In the taxi we drove through neighborhoods that politicians like to pretend do not exist. The sheer degradation of the buildings, sidewalks, and people was sad. The most common type of building, next to houses (many semi-demolished), is churches. Many of the churches bear their names in Spanish; most have heavy metal chain doors emblazoned with crosses. It seems that maybe Van Helsing would go to church in a place like this. The kind of place where a dead body does not astonish, and the people on the street corners look remarkably cheerful, given the circumstances. The Days Inn is in a more open and commercial area, and I don’t think anyone has actually been murdered in this particular room. On Temple’s campus I saw many signs for Occupy Philly.

Those who think everything is just fine with the ultra-wealthy in their heaven while we expect human beings to live like this are worse than naïve. Those who are privileged look on Occupy Philly with a sense of academic curiosity. Those who live next to poverty, hard up against it, see Occupy Philly as a mandate. We can’t keep pretending that everything is okay. If God has a plan for America, why have so many people been left out? People with more churches per block than any affluent neighborhood desires or supports? The movement may be ill-focused and leaderless, but the need is very real. Tomorrow I go back to Temple, back to where the struggle is often life and death and the need is very human. But for this evening, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” I’m sure you know how the rest of it goes.

Black and White Zombies

One of the sweetest privileges of a school-year weekend is the Saturday afternoon movie. The advent of relatively cheap, boxed sets of old films has opened the realm of many forgotten classics for me. My wife recently purchased one of those 50-movie boxes of classic horror films for me, and I’ve been making my way through it weekend-by-weekend, and occasionally there is a gem among the tailings. Yesterday I saw White Zombie for the first time. Back in the days when Bela Lugosi claimed a faithful following after his trend-setting interpretation of Dracula, he played a voodoo doctor with the power over zombies in this widely panned movie. In these days of the Walking Dead, it may be hard to appreciate that White Zombie was the first full-length film about our undead friends.

With the exception of the always professional Lugosi, the acting in the film received a well-deserved trouncing. Interestingly, the “van Helsing” of the drama, the doctor who overcame the monster, was a missionary. White Zombie is authentically set in Haiti, and it is never made clear whether the undead are really deceased or simply mindless. But the goofy, pipe-smoking missionary is the one who defeats evil at the end of the day. As noted elsewhere on this blog, monsters frequently emerge from the dark realms of religion, and the zombie especially so. Today, however, the zombie is all the scarier for being secular, unaffected by God or human deterrent. Originally it was a case of voodoo versus Christianity.

In what is perhaps an unintentional irony, the character who comes across the most sympathetically in the film, apart from the fetchingly pouting Madge Bellamy, is Murder Legendre (Lugosi). The missionary wins out by dim-witted happenstance, while the character responsible for the actual death of the zombie master is a partially aware zombie fighting against his fate. It may be assigning far too much credit to assert that the film had intentional social commentary, but White Zombie has had an often unrecognized impact on what has today become the symbol of corporate America: the once humble zombie.

A typical zombie