Last week, I picked up The Last Witch Hunter at a Redbox kiosk (I was looking for Bridge of Spies but that particular kiosk didn’t have it yet, and I didn’t want to go home empty-handed). If you haven’t heard of it, Vin Diesel plays a medieval witch hunter who slaughters a fiery witch who is responsible for the Black Plague, but just before she dies, she “curses” him with immortality. Cut to present day where he’s a lonely, jaded man (being assisted by Michael Caine, no less!) when all of a sudden, the witch rises again. Predictable CGI action abounds, though there are a few twists and turns as well. All in all, it’s a decent film, worth the $1.50 rental.
It reminded me of an equally campy but far superior (and more violent) film called Solomon Kane, a British action/horror film that made hardly a splash here on the other side of the pond. Solomon Kane is a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the father of Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars. I’ve never read the books, but the movie has a similar tone to The Last Witch Hunter and centers around a dejected man in the 17th century trying to run from his past while dispatching demonic bad guys along the way. As an aside, this is one of my favorite Gothic action films and had a strong influence on my early writings.
A more modern yet similarly nihilistic supernatural exterminator is John Constantine. He has his own line of comic books, a movie with Keanu Reeves, and a short-lived TV series. Sort of a chain-smoking, ill-tempered Magnum, P.I., Constantine is a mash-up of maverick priest and demon assassin, exorcising the darkness with gadgets, faith, and a whole lot of attitude.
All of these guys are modeled after Abraham Van Helsing, Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter in Dracula. In the book, he relies heavily on science and medicine to combat the effects of vampirism, but he also has a tremendous amount of faith that God’s light would overpower Satan’s darkness.
There is a noticeable contrast in Van Helsing’s methods and beliefs compared to more recent hunters. His faith is at the core of his strength, which is strained to the breaking point many times in the novel. However, his modern variations rely on weaponry, determination, and just the barest belief in God’s power.
Of course, these stories are no place to find sound theology, but they do utilize liturgical elements and regularly reference Biblical stories and characters. John Constantine uses relics and chants to combat evil, and Solomon Kane seeks to redeem his hell-bound soul by doing good. Vin Diesel’s witch hunter, however, wields swords and shotguns. A secret organization sponsored by the church lends a little help, but he’s out there hunting his quarry like a bounty hunter in the Old West. There’s nothing wrong with this narrative line, since it’s just entertainment after all. But I was hoping for something a bit more grounded in faith, rather than simply the muscles and willpower of man.
This is what made Van Helsing so appealing, and refreshing, to me as a reader. Though there is some hand-to-hand combat at the end of Dracula, he did not place his trust in weapons, but in his friends, in science, and in God. He was a brilliant man who did not let his intelligence blind him to the supernatural, nor did he run from its evils. I wouldn’t characterize him as a jolly character but he was certainly hopeful, and that was his greatest weapon. Bullets and blades are nice for cinematic spectacle, but faith and hope are far more powerful. Of all the fictional heroes that have come and gone, Van Helsing is one of the few that I truly admire.