The 11 Best On-Screen Versions of Dracula’s Van Helsing, Ranked
We have high hopes for Syfy’s Van Helsing, a Wynonna Earp-type reboot of the Dracula mythos featuring Vanessa Helsing, a.k.a. legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing’s daughter. (Yeah, I’m not really sure if that math works out either, but go with it…) In honor of the new Van Helsing series, we’re taking the time to chat about all (or, OK, most) of the Van Helsing adaptation that have come before.
Van Helsing originated as a character in the 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula as a foil to the eponymous vampire we all know as Dracula. Though he has been depicted as an action hero quite often since his literary introduction, the canon version of Van Helsing is more the academic type. An older Dutch doctor who brings together a band of vampire-fighters in an attempt to take down the creature who has brought a mysterious disease to England. Here is a description of the character from the novel:
“[Van Helsing] is a seemingly arbitrary man, this is because he knows what he is talking about better than anyone else. He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day, and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind.
This, with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, and indomitable resolution, self-command, and toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats, these form his equipment for the noble work that he is doing for mankind, work both in theory and practice, for his views are as wide as his all-embracing sympathy.”
The Dracula character first appeared on-screen in 1922 German expressionist silent film Nosferatu. Since then, Van Helsing has been portrayed by such legendary actors as Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Mel Brooks, Christopher Plummer, and Hugh Jackman.
Despite the on-screen popularity of the character over the past century, there has really yet to be a truly iconic portrayal for the current generation. (Your move, Syfy.)
Here is our ranking of the 11 most notable Van Helsing on-screen appearances of the past century:
11. 'Dracula' TV Series (2013)
Thomas Kretschmann gets extra points for playing Van Helsing in two different projects — both in the short-lived NBC TV series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Dracula, and in the 2012 Italian horror flick Dracula 3D. The former was cancelled after only one season, but was an intriguing hot mess of an adaptation while it lasted.
In this version, Dracula is not a nefarious killer, but rather an American entrepreneur looking to seek revenge on the people who ruined his life centuries earlier. Because of this upending of the Dracula tale, Van Helsing becomes an antagonist of sorts. As Kretschmann describes him in the above interview, he is a “revenge-thirsty intellectual,” which is nothing like the even-keeled academic who gets pulled into the fight against Count Dracula by his friend, rather than because of a personal vendetta.
10. 'Van Helsing' (2004)
Wow, I really wanted to like this movie when I went to see it in theaters back in 2004. But it’s really, really bad, and so completely misinterprets what Van Helsing’s character was all about. This movie is so bad that not even the uber charismatic Hugh Jackman can save it. I’ll give it points for embracing the character of Van Helsing as the eponymous protagonist, but, um, those are about the only points it gets…
9. 'Bram Stoker’s Dracula' (1992)
Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing is pretty much losing it from the beginning of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is pretty interesting to watch, but doesn’t have much in common with the original Van Helsing character. Frankly, I’m not sure why Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are choosing to follow this guy who is so clearly unhinged. The Van Helsing we know and love from the original novel was understated and well-mannered. No one can doubt Sir Anthony Hopkins’ talent as an actor, but this characterization of Van Helsing is off — and not in a fun or purposeful way.
8. 'Dracula: Dead and Loving It' (1995)
Mel Brooks himself plays Van Helsing in this parody film that is definitely not Brooks’ funniest, but still has some laughs. Dead and Loving It actually plays things pretty straight in terms of plot (which is part of its problem), which is grounded in the Dracula story, while simultaneously making reference to many of the Dracula film adaptations that have come before. Come for the Brooks, stay for the young Steven Weber.
7. 'The Fearless Vampire Killers' (1967)
The trailer’s ending tagline tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this 1967 version of Van Helsing, played by Jack MacGowran: “Two men on a vampire hunt. Simple? …They certainly are.” The Roman Polanski film casts Van Helsing—here, Professor Abronsius—as an inept, slapstick comedy-type whose vampire-hunting successes are more a result of dumb luck than anything else. At one point, he gets stuck in a window. Not-so-classic Van Helsing, but still pretty entertaining stuff — not to mention probably more realistic about how good an elderly professor-type would be about fighting off an immortal vampire.
6. 'Love at First Bite' (1979)
Yeah, Love at First Bite is not the most faithful Dracula adaptation, but Richard Benjamin is pretty great as Jeffrey Rosenberg, a Jewish descendant of Van Helsing who changed his name from Van Helsing for “professional reasons.” This rom-com is silly, but it’s actually a kind of interesting exploration and updating of the immigration themes that were so important to the original story.
Here, Dracula emigrates to NYC after being thrown out of his castle in Communist Romania. As the Van Helsing stand-in, Jeffrey doesn’t have much in common with his predecessor. He is terrible at vampire-hunting — using a Star of David instead of a cross and trying to shoot Dracula with silver bullets. This all serves to underline the arbitrary nature of what kills a vampire in traditional mythology. However, the original Van Helsing never would have made such rookie mistakes.
5. 'Dracula' (1979)
Film law dictates that you’re not allowed to put Sir Laurence Olivier any lower than #5 on these sorts of lists. Overall, though, this Saturn-winning film is a great, affecting on-screen retelling of the Dracula story (though it does change some of the plot details to make the film more… romantic). Plus, Olivier speaks Dutch — as should be required by all Van Helsings.
4. 'Dracula' (1931)
Bela Lugosi is perhaps the most iconic Dracula — and Edward Van Sloan was his Van Helsing. Van Sloan played the Dutch doctor alongside Lugosi twice on-screen and even on the Broadway stage. The 1931 Universal monster movie wasn’t only a landmark in Dracula history — it was also a landmark in film history, being perhaps the first synchronized sound horror film. With historical cred like that, how could I put Van Sloan anywhere but near the top of this list?
3. 'Penny Dreadful' (2014)
Like so many other iconic literary characters, Penny Dreadful does such a good job bringing Van Helsing faithfully to screen. In this version, Professor Van Helsing (played by David Warner) is a hematologist who consults with Victor Frankenstein over the vampire outbreak currently taking London’s streets by storm.
As in the original novel, this Van Helsing is a learned man who has studied more than just vampire mythology or biology. His academic turned to vampirism only after personal tragedy — in this case, the loss of his wife to the “disease.” It’s particularly inspired to see Professor Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein (another character whose original literary traits are often lost in on-screen adaptation) hanging out. These scientific nerds are two literary peas in a pod, and bless Penny Dreadful for allowing them some time together.
2. 'Dracula 2000' (er, 2000)
In this version, Sound of Music star Christopher Plummer is a modern version of the Dutch vampire-hunter who has prolonged his own life with injections of Dracula’s blood in order to ensure Dracula’s death (something which may sound familiar to fans of The Strain). Also, he has his own stake-firing gun and a young Johnny Lee Miller as his apprentice. Yeah, this movie is severely underrated — as is Plummer’s stone cold performance as a Van Helsing lying in wait, undercover as a London antique store owner, in order to bring his vampire archnemesis down.
1. Hammer Film 'Dracula' Series (1958-1974)
Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing vs. Christopher Lee’s Dracula. What more could you want from a film? Cushing played the iconic vampire hunter across six different Dracula films, and he was perfect in all of them. A doctor of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics, Cushing’s Van Helsing wasn’t all action, all the time. He defeated Dracula not with crossbows, but with knowledge — and some seriously admirable determination.
If you’re ever bitten by a vampire, as Van Helsing is in Brides of Dracula, I recommend following his example: Find an iron. Hold it in a bed of coals. Apply directly to skin. Splash with holy water. If this process makes you squeamish, then you don’t have what it takes to be a vampire hunter. Not like Peter Cushing.