Van Helsing Reviewby Robin Clifford (robin AT reelingreviews DOT com)
May 7th, 2004
Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) has a past that he cannot remember and a present that he cannot forget. Charged with the destruction of evil by a powerful but secret, worldwide religious organization, he is set with a mission that will bring him to a nightmare world of fantastical creatures where he must hunt down and destroy them in "Van Helsing."
Stephen Sommers, who wrote and helmed the incredibly popular "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns," has a good eye for capturing the look and feel of the classic Universal horror films of the 1930's and 40's (updated, of course, to take good advantage of the high tech effects since developed by Hollywood). With his latest opus, "Van Helsing," Sommers ups the ante considerably with his reported $200 million budget and kitchen-sink story that would make the old filmmakers from Universal's horror library proud.
"Van Helsing" begins where the 1931 horror classic "Frankenstein" leaves off. The mad scientist and grave robber, Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West), is jolting his newly assembled creation with millions of volts of electricity as the village folk storm his imposing castle. "It's alive!" the doctor declares as a giant battering ram smashes the castle's entryway. The crowd will be upon him soon and his begins to gather his notes and brand new monster to escape. But, things take a twist from the original work when Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) enters the picture and demands that the mad doctor give over his creation and the machinery that brought the monster to life. When Frankenstein refuses, the count takes matters into his own fangs and kills the scientist. The monster, carrying his master's body, is chased into an abandoned windmill and, as in the '31 original, it is put to the torch.
Flash ahead a year to Gabriel Van Helsing, the renowned monster fighter whose trade has earned him the ire of those unfamiliar with the world of mystical creatures that surround them in the late 19th century. When we come upon Van H, he is examining the body of a young woman just brutally murdered. In the distance, a giant figure runs off and the hunter takes chase. It is Dr. Jekyll, in his Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) form, that Van Helsing pursues and he confronts the huge, powerful and evil foe at the behest of a secret, religious society tasked with bringing all the supernatural creatures of the world to justice. Van H is supposed to bring Dr. Jekyll in unharmed, but Mr. Hyde thinks otherwise and the two do battle. You know who will win but the confrontation is exciting and funny all the same.
Back at secret headquarters, Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong) gives amnesiac Van Helsing his latest marching orders - to find and destroy the most evil incarnation on earth: Count Dracula. He is sent to Transylvania to find and destroy the wicked creature but not before he is well equipped by the society's main munitions maven, Friar Carl (David Wenham). (In just one of the film's many reinventions, "Van Helsing" parallels the James Bond films and utilizes Friar Carl as a good substitute for Q.) With rapid-firing crossbow, silver stakes, holy water and other paraphernalia for the fight against evil stored away, Van Helsing takes Carl into tow and they head off on their arduous journey to the wilds of Central Europe.
The bulk of "Van Helsing," as you would guess, deals with the monster killer hunting down the count to destroy him. But, as I said, this is a kitchen-sink film, so the vaunted vampire is not the only foe to face. Van H and Carl must also do battle with Dracula's three brides, a giant werewolf, untold numbers of vampire spawn, Frankenstein's monster and, more down to earth, contend with the beautiful (and human) Princess Anna Velarious (Kate Beckinsale) - the last in the line of the aristocrat family that has been decimated by Dracula during over 400 years of battle. For the next two hours we see the life and death struggles as Van Helsing and his cohorts strive to bring down his enemies and rid the world of evil.
Sommers's script reinvents rather than rips off (well, it does rip off a bit) such films as the Universal horror library - "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Wolf Man," "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," Frankenstein Meets Dracula" and on and on - and borrows liberally from many a modern horror and adventure film. "Indiana Jones," "Aliens," "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" (with some evil Ewok-like creatures), the aforementioned "James Bond" franchise, "Gremlins" and more are fodder for Sommers jam packed screenplay. Couple all of these other sources with the obviously expensive computer generated F/X, furious fights, bombastic score by Alan Silvestri (way too loud, in my opinion, and I'm not the only one to complain) and non-stop action and we have what may be yet another franchise in the making.
When you have hundreds of millions of buckaroos to spend on a flick like "Van Helsing" a good portion of that cash better show up on the big screen. It is. Sommers and his special F/X crews - there are eight, count them, eight, effects houses credited - spent their time well with such creations as Mr. Hyde (a cross between Hellboy and Andre the Giant) and the Wolf Man and Dracula's ability to walk up walls and across the ceiling.
Acting, as expected, takes a back seat to the F/X machine but Hugh Jackman uses his inherent screen presence so as not to be overwhelmed by the CGI. Kate Beckinsale plays the bodacious babe princess with a physicality that makes her the equal of Van H. Richard Roxburgh gives an amusing turn to his Dracula role with his "I'm so bored" demeanor. Shuler Hensley, heavily made up as the Frankenstein monster, gives a sympathetic perf akin to Peter Boyle in "Young Frankenstein" - but without the comedy and soft shoe dance. The rest of the supporting cast does what they can opposite the F/X machine.
Techs are on a level you would expect considering the huge budget. The CGI fans are going to scrutinize the F/X but the average bear is just going to enjoy the show. I give "Van Helsing" a B.
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