WHERE WAS VAN HELSING FILMED
Taking from the heroes and superheroes of our times, ‘Van Helsing’ by director and scriptwriter Stephen Sommers fights a battle with evil in different parts of the world. While his 1880s journeys in the story cover magnificent Paris, breathtaking Rome, otherworldly Transylvania, and secretive Budapest, the real filming was limited to the United States and the Czech Republic. Notably, the latter worked for the majority of open-air locations and for two European capitals: Paris and Budapest (the panorama of St. Peter’s square was in all senses digital).
Even the opening sequence of the movie takes great advantage of the location in the heartlands of the Czech Republic, about 20 miles northwest of Brno, the second largest city in the country. Frankenstein’s castle (according to the script, it was leased to the doctor by Dracula himself) from the opening scene is, in fact, known as Hrad Pernstejn (Pernstejn Castle) in the Moravian highlands. Similar to the movie, it is located on a rock above the village and has been dominating the area since the end of the XIII century. The castle is the property of the Czech Republic state and is open to the public. Another important scene from the first part of the story, in which Anna and Velkan Valerious, made their best to kill the werewolf, was shot 15 kilometers to the South East of the center of Prague in Průhonice Park next to the castle from the 13th century of the same name. More than that, in regard to the family house Valerious, the filming crew had to visit the Medieval Czech town of Tabor, 80 kilometers South of Prague. The ‘Hussite Museum’ on Žižka Square gave some interiors to the family house of Valerious.
Without a doubt, the most eye-catching open-air location in the ‘Van Helsing’ movie takes the viewer to the Transylvanian village, a set of Gabriel’s fight with three vampire princesses, Dracula’s brides. An ambitiously sophisticated movie set was built next to Kunratice Chateau in the Southern suburbs of Prague. The greatest majority of the buildings in this sequence, apart from the clock tower from 1688, were temporary erections, designed for the movie. The filming crew committed to the restoration of the existing building, yet since 2004 it has become a wreck in poor condition and the open space in front of it was turned into a parking lot. Another location in the Czech Republic is the forest at Srbsko-Alkazar southwest of Prague, which was partially used for a coach chase scene.
NOTRE DAME DE PARIS: STAROMĚSTSKÉ NÁMĚSTÍ
Followed by a spectacular opening sequence with Count Dracula, Doctor Frankenstein, and his creation, the story takes us to Paris, the heart of France. In contrast to the CGI-made Rome, the shot with the icon-like Eiffel Tower during the construction was not purely digitized. At least the wall to the left of Gabriel Van Helsing, and a part of the night panorama is the real location in Prague. It is known as the Castle steps to the East of the Lobkowicz Palace, a part of the Prague Castle complex, and it is one of the most recognized viewing points in the city. In the following scenes of the battle between Van Helsing with the cruel creature Mr. Hyde, the movie actively combines the studio set and a myriad of CGI shots: all to create a state of presence at the ‘Notre Dame Cathedral’ in Paris. With all of the CGI, there are a few shots that were indeed filmed in Prague to serve as a model for the computer version of the square in front of the Cathedral. The role of ‘Place Jean-Paul II’ square in Paris was given to the Staroměstské náměstí (the Old Town Square) of Prague. It is worth noting that Prague square is indeed more picturesque and architecturally ambitious than the one in Paris.
The main square of Prague is indeed surrounded by historical monuments and architectural masterpieces, which in some way outperform the Parisian site. A passionate visitor may find different styles here: renaissance, Barocco, rococo, and classicism. Staroměstské náměstí possessed its place on the face of Prague as far back as the X century as a marketplace and a junction point for important European merchant routes. In the following centuries, coronation ceremonies used to make their way across the square in the direction of Prague Castle. Staroměstské náměstí was a place to witness the rebellions and revolutions, public executions, and events of historical significance. The year 1652 saw the creation of the Prague Meridian with a mark on the square, a means for setting the watches. In the course of its multi-century history, Staroměstské náměstí has changed a number of namings and the final modern one was finally established as late as 1895. When it comes to the depiction in well-known movies, the square made its evidently most memorable appearance in the very first ‘Mission impossible’ in a scene with the water-made restaurant and the tonnes of water streaming onto the stone-block pavement.
If we take a closer look at the shots with at least the models of the real Staroměstské náměstí, it is easy to identify the exact place where the famous Parisian Cathedral was placed in the movie. It took the site of the Prague Town Hall in the Southern-West part of the square. Staroměstská radnice (The Old Town Hall) is not just a single building, but an architectural complex in the heart of Prague, which consists of a few buildings of different eras historically interconnected in one ensemble. Apart from purchasing the already existing building, 1364 witnessed the construction of the tower 69.5 meters high, and 1381 saw the addition of a capelle in gothic style. It is historically known because of a tradition to conduct a divine service here before the meetings of the city authorities. As early as 1410 the Town hall was complemented with the addition of a unique astronomic clock mechanism of its time, which has been preserved until nowadays. In 1510 the clock tower was partially leased for the commercial activities of two dozen merchant stores for the local budgetary recharge. The whole complex was heavily damaged during the Second World War and only the legendary tower was restored. The wrecked buildings made space for a small park facing the main square.
In a moment with the people of Paris come to the body of doctor Jekyll, we may recognize the Eastern part of Staroměstské náměstí and Celetna street in particular.
AN INVITATION TO THE BUDAPEST BALL
It is difficult to imagine an ambitious Hollywood movie with a visit to Prague and ignoring the key city landmark: The Charles bridge. The story leaves us no mention of Prague and the city that played the role of Budapest in 1888. Followed by an entertaining chase through the forests of Transylvania and Hungary, Gabriel, Carl, and Frankenstein’s monster, face the CGI-made panorama of Budapest. In the scene to come next, the trio walks across one of the streets under the bridge when they unexpectedly come across Aleera, one of Dracula’s brides. A few seconds before the trio goes under the bridge, we may see a few authentic buildings to the right with the added wagon wheel. It takes merely fifty meters further along the river of Vltava to find the location of the famous opening sequence from the already mentioned ‘Mission impossible’ with the US embassy (in fact, the Liechtenstein Palace) and the wooden wicket gate, where Ethan found two dead bodies. A lot of that opening sequence was filmed near the Charles bridge on Kampa Island in Prague. The far background panorama behind Gabriel, Carl, and Frankenstein’s monster reveal another Prague bridge known as Most Legií (Legion bridge), as well as the imposing Národní Divadlo (Prague National Theater) next to it.
Charles bridge was laid as far back as 1357 personally by Charles IV (1316-1378), Holy Roman Emperor. It was not the first stone bridge over the Vltava in Prague, yet its predecessor had been built in 1170 and destroyed by a river flood in 1342. The construction of a new bridge was later half a century, yet it would be named after its patron as late as 1870 after five centuries of being called the Prague bridge. The length of probably the most recognizable bridge in Europe is 520 meters and it has 9.5 meters in width, based on sixteen reinforced arches, pitched with sandstone bricks. It is a tradition to distinguish the two ends of the Charles bridge not only due to the Western and Eastern banks of the river Vltava but due to the historical parts of Prague, which it has been united for six centuries. The Western end of the bridge, widely favored by cinematographers (Mission Impossible, Bourne Identity, Eurotrip, Van Helsing), is called the ‘Mala Strana’.
In a shot when we see the ‘landing’ of Aleera, it is easy to identify Malostranská mostecká věž (Malá Strana Bridge Towers) behind the girl. It is a duo of towers on the Western bank of the Vltava, which gives an attentive viewer a bold clue regarding Prague instead of Budapest. In total, the Charles bridge has three such towers. The one most well-known is the Old Town bridge tower (Staroměstská mostecká věž) on the Eastern bank, and the two on the Western. Malá Strana Bridge Towers behind Aleera difference in date of construction and height. The lower left one is left beyond the frame: it was built years before the Charles bridge itself back in the XII century in Roman style, and later (in the XVI century) rebuilt to meet the renaissance. The taller tower, which is clearly recognizable in this scene, was built in 1464 and it looks similar to the Old Town bridge tower on the opposite end of the bridge, just with a lesser richness in sculptures.
THE CEMETERY: OLSANSKE CEMETERY
It is interesting to note, that despite the fact that in ‘Van Helsing’ Prague plays the role of Budapest, its own cinematic history is in one’s own way connected with the vampires. The very first significant appearance in a ‘vampire-related’ movie for Pague became reality as early as 1935 with the ‘Mark of the Vampire’ (also known as ‘Vampires of Prague’). The story of this movie by a legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Maye takes place in Prague with the antagonist character played by a famous Bela Lugosi (1882-1956), a Hungarian-born actor, best known for his other vampire role in ‘Dracula’, filmed by the same director four years before the ‘Mark of the Vampire’. Another much more later ‘Vampires’ (1998) by John Carpenter would have its vampire antagonist Jan Valek, claimed to be born in Prague in the XIV century and to be the first of his kind, thus an ‘alpha vampire’. The year 2002 witnessed the filming of another well-known vampire franchise ‘Blade II’ directed by Guillermo del Toro, where the city played itself as a cradle of the vampires in Europe. One year later, several scenes from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were also filmed in Prague with Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray as one of the key characters. In 2017 ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ was mainly filmed in the Czech Republic and in Prague particularly.
Anyway, getting back to the depiction of Budapest, the scene after an encounter with Aleera shows us Gabriel and Carl hiding Frankenstein’s monster inside one of the tombs at the old cemetery. It soon becomes obvious that the creepy location on the cliff above the ravine as well as a panorama over an old castle was added in post-production to the existing shots of the Prague burial place. It is known as the ‘Olsanske Cemetery’ (Olšany hrbitovy) and is squeezed between the old railway depot, residential houses, and a modern shopping center only 2 kilometers to the East of the Old town. The cemetery has its own intriguing movie career. Back in 2001 ’From Hell’ with Johnny Depp, which story takes place in London in the late XIX century, had a funeral scene filmed here. In 2004 Guillermo del Toro came once again to Prague to film another mystic movie ‘Hellboy’ and one of the scenes took advantage of the Olsanske Cemetery as well. The filming crew of ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ also used the cemetery as one of the filming locations.
It comes with no surprise that the largest necropolis in Prague gained so significant movie experience in a way that the place is a kind of a time machine for anyone who wants to abandon oneself from the noisy city. The ‘Olsanske Cemetery’ is not only the largest cemetery in Prague but the one in the whole Czech Republic and definitely the most recognized. Having the size of 50 ha, the cemetery contains the burials of at least 100 000 men and women according to the official records and as many as 2 million unofficially. The movie fans who are eager to come to the place and find the exact ‘Van Helsing’ filming location, may try to find the way across 25 000 tombs. It must be said that the scene was highly likely shot in the Southern-West part of the necropolis not far from the entrance from Vinohradska street. Back in the middle ages, there was a village of the same name on the site to be later occupied by a monastery garden, to be turned into a quarantine cemetery for the victims of the plague of the 1680s. It took another thirty-five years for another epidemic to break forth in 1715-1716. As early as 1786 Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor declared the ‘Olsanske Cemetery’ the main cemetery in Prague. In the following two centuries, not only common citizens but politicians, artists, and warlords were buried here. The cemetery is well-known for the architecture of its sepulchers, and columbariums, many of which are protected as the national heritage monuments of the Czech Republic.
THE BALL: ST NICHOLAS CHURCH
The exterior shots of another location in Budapest appeared to be the residence of Count Dracula, emerge two times: in the background of the cemetery sequence and after Gabriel, Carl, and Anna conducted a successful escapade through the stained-glass window when the majority of the vampires are eliminated with the artificial light. In both cases and it is evidently obvious in the second scene, the castle was purely CGI made, moreover with the lack of final quality. Along with the fictional exterior, the filming crew of ‘Van Helsing’ in fact performed work for the interior sequence inside one of the iconic locations in Prague. It is not a challenge to identify the details of the religious architecture as the scenes were shot inside Kostel sv. Mikuláše (St Nicholas Church), in fact, is just 400 meters to the West of the Charles bridge and the site of meeting Aleera.
Claimed to be the greatest Baroque church in Prague, St Nicholas Church appeared to be a challenge for the ‘Van Helsing’ filming crew to work in. The top challenges emerged while trying to get permission to shoot the Hollywood summer blockbuster inside the historical landmark and a place of prayer for thousands of people. While the initial request was rejected by both Prague’s monument preservation department and the Czech National Heritage Institute, finally permission was given by the local Christian archdiocese. Anyway, the filming crew had to follow strict commitments. For example, it was essential to monitor the temperature inside the church not to allow it to rise. The art department was banned from using artificial fog and the moving of the camera crane was heavily restricted. It is worth noting that the gallery from which the key characters observe the ball and the vampires, is generally closed to a wide audience. The representatives of the church even had to consecrate the church one more time after the end of the filming process as the movie featured supernatural demonic creatures.
The modern St Nicholas Church is not the first cathedral on this site as the very first church devoted to Saint Nicholas was here as far back as the XIII century. The predecessor was demolished and between 1704 and 1756 a new Kostel sv. Mikuláše (St Nicholas Church) was created. The Cathedral which is regarded as a dominant building in this part of Prague is indeed impressed with its dimensions. It has a length of sixty meters with the height of the dome 49 meters (the tallest in Prague), and the outer tower (not a part of the church but in city ownership) peaks at 79 meters. The interior is regarded as a proven model of Barocco with its richness of forms thanks to the sculptures, giant Frescas, and side chapels. In total, the interior of St Nicholas Church has 3000 m2 of Frescas. A cathedral is a common place for pipe organ music concerts. The instrument has 4000 pipes and Mozart is regarded as its most famous player.