Abraham Van Helsing shares one thing with his creator, the novelist Bram Stoker, and that is his first name – Bram is a shortened form of Stoker’s real name, Abraham. The fictional Abraham is a man of many accomplishments – he is a medical doctor as well as a doctor of philosophy and literature, a deeply learned man who does not discount the presence of the supernatural in our midst. His discoveries have led him to become a vampire hunter, one well acquainted with Count Vlad Dracula.
A Minnesota born actor called Edward Van Sloan was the first to play Van Helsing in an English speaking screen version of the novel, released in 1931. With his owlish round glasses, close cropped gray hair and dapper appearance, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of the iconic cinema vampire slayer – but then, back in 1931, no one knew exactly what that was. It wasn’t until 1958, when the British film company Hammer cast Peter Cushing in the role, that Van Helsing became a defined iconic character in his own right.
A striking, elegant figure, he was the perfect match for Christopher Lee’s seductive Dracula. In spite of appearing in ‘horror’ films, he was a highly regarded and much loved member of the acting profession, with a deeply devoted fan following. He was also one of the actors who made a strong impression as Sherlock Holmes, and much later, enthralled a new generation of sci fi and fantasy fans in Star Wars.
Cushing had, undeniably, the greatest influence on later portrayals of this iconic character than did Edward Van Sloan. He captured perfectly the air of a man steeped in knowledge and wisdom on many subjects, both scientific and supernatural. He set the standard for other actors to follow, culminating in Laurence Olivier’s portrayal in the 1979 production of Dracula that starred Frank Langella as the King of the Vampires.
It became the norm for Van Helsing to be played by actors of some gravitas, whose presence encouraged respect for the role. These included Nigel Davenport in 1973, Frank Finlay on TV in 1977, Anthony Hopkins in 1992, and Christopher Plummer in 2000. In 1995, Mel Brooks gave a typicallty comic twist to the character in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
But none of these contenders got the title of ‘sexiest Van Helsing” simply because, until 2004, no one ever thought to cast a sexy actor as Van Helsing. Enter Hugh Jackman, the duster coat wearing, long striding, big weapon carrying van Helsing for the 21st century. Richard Roxburg was a somewhat unconvincing Dracula with rat’s tails and a pony tail, but Kate Beckinsale and David Wenham were delightful additions to this new spin on the iconic vampire hunter.
No doubt van Helsing has many more incarnations ahead, for he is one of fantasy cinema’s true icons, and the spiritual grandfather of all vampire killers, including Buffy.