Van Helsing Review

by Harvey S. Karten (harveycritic AT cs DOT com)
May 6th, 2004


Reviewed by Harvey S. Karten
Universal Pictures
Grade: C
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Written by: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena
Screened at: Loews Lincoln Sq, NYC, 5/3/04

    "I vahnt to sock yourrr blahd!" You might expect to find that quote uttered in Stephen Sommers's ("The Mummy") high-tech, expensive reinvention of the Dracula myth. Yet what a shame it would be to plagiarize Bela Lugosi's expression of his deepest desire in the classic, 1931 "Dracula," Tod Browning's masterful re-creation of the Transylvanian vampire working his evil spell on perplexed groups of Londers. Now with a new score by Philip Glass, Browning's "Dracula" is still the king, reigning over such hybrids as George Melford's "Dracula" of the same year featuring provocatively-dressed women; John Badham's 1979 "Dracula," with a great cast featuring Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasence and Kate Nelligan; "Bram Stoker's Dracula" Alan Gibson's take with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; and an assortment of lesser films like "Dracula and Son," Mel Brooks's comical "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," Freddie Francis's "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave," etc. etc. as you might expect from filmmakers eager to exploit such a blood- curdling medieval myth.

    If we're to compare this Sommers version to its predecessors, we'd have to say that he's got first prize for technology but that neither Bela Lugosi nor Frank Langella nor ever Bram Stoker whose novel published in 1897 is provided the motivation for a wealth of cinematic treatments should feel threatened. Still the large target audience of youth would dig the current scene, given the wildly creative computer graphics backed by Alan Silvestri's eardrum-paralyzing soundtrack while the pro-classic biddies like me would have preferred a close rendition of the Stoker novel. Who needs Drac to turn into a bat or his brides into ghastly birds giving rise to thousands of "Lord- of-the-Rings" monstrosities that would make Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" seem like an Aristophanes comedy?

    Since Professor Van Helsing might not go over with a modern, youthful audience if he were rendered like Bram Stoker's aging, Amsterdam professor called into action to aid the failing Lucy, Sommers gives us the ruggedly handsome Hugh Jackman, now so much in demand that fans can't get enough of him at Broadway's Imperial Theatre where he performs in the role of the boy from Oz. Jackman's Van Helsing is directed by a cardinal in Vatican City to head East to Transylvania, though this time the late-19th century hero is equipped with weapons at least one of which looks both forward and backward a classy crossbow with a telescopic-like sight that can shoot a half- dozen arrows per second. Never mind the garlic, the crucifixes, the stakes. Van Helsing discovers in his earliest meeting with Dracula (a stunning, sure-footed Richard Roxburgh given just enough make-up to render him on the barely human side of paleness) that the old remedies simply tickle Dracula's funny- bone.

    The film, which recalls the battles in all three editions of the "Lord of the Rings" (therefore taking away some of the virtues of reinvention), cost $148 million and looks it. However, you don't always get what you pay for, and here's why. When I was a kid and movies were still black-and-white, we thrilled to Tod Browning's 1931 classic version because of its simplicity. Dracula (Bela Lugosi) would rest in his wooden coffin during the sunlight hours and go into action only after sunset. The story was absolutely focused on the plan to drive a wooden stake into his heart, preferably while he was reclining without defenses in this box. Sommers, who both wrote and directed the current version, throws in everything perhaps including even the kitchen sink, wasting time with werewolves, Dr. Frankenstein's monster, and Dracula all having receiving filmed versions by Universal Studios, even giving us a battle between Van Helsing and a Hulk-sized Mr. Hyde. There is absolutely no reason to blow Hyde up in this way, making him paradoxically less scary than he was in the Robert Louis Stevenson's down-to-earth saga about the negative side-effects of scientific exploration. Consider this formula when you see the picture: the larger the demon, the fewer scares he engenders.

    The writing is the weakest link in the chain of command, the clunky dialogue giving rise to no small number of unintentional laughs by the audience. Sommers's pace is frantic, giving the impression that he's afraid that members of his audience will actually consider the spoken words: he therefore distracts us with endless visuals, Van Helsing's Sancho Panza in the form of Friar Carl (David Wenham), providing little comedy and less relief. Dracula's brides, who could take the form of blind dates from hell and prom queens depending on which side they wish to expose, are bolstered by standard-issue CGI, while Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valeriou, to whom Dracula gives priority as she is the last of the royal clan, goes through the rules of genre romances by playing hard-to-get at first until she trusts Van Helsing to kill her own wolf-man brother, Velkan (Will Kemp).
    There's little doubt that the $148 million will be recovered, if not completely in the box office, then by the video games that will emerge therefrom. But is anyone actually scared these days by vid-games?

Rated PG-13. 132 minutes. Copyright 2004 by Harvey Karten

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