Van Helsing Review

by Mark R. Leeper (markrleeper AT yahoo DOT com)
May 11th, 2004

    (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

    CAPSULE: Not as bad as it might have been, but
    still no bargain. This is a fast-paced and
    soverblown CGI-fest that leverages off of the
    sold Universal monsters but does not actually
    swant to use them. Writer-director Steven
    sSommers of the MUMMY films handles action
    sscenes well, but is poor with directing acting
    sor even giving us a very good story. This is
    sa film of dubious thrills and no chills
    swhatsoever. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

You can tell everything you need to know about Van Helsing from the poster. The name VAN HELSING conjures up images from the novel DRACULA. Two actors have owned the role enough to play it more than once. One is Edward Van Sloan, and the other Peter Cushing--both of them advanced years and rarely physical. The original character uses his brains, not his brawn. The poster shows him jazzed up, young, and recast as an action hero to appeal to a teenage audience. There is little attempt to make him consistent with the character as written.

That transform on the character is really the essence of what director Stephen Sommers has done with the entire film. The teenage audience does not want a hero who thinks and solves puzzles like how to track down a vampire. They want a hero with big futuristic weapons who can fight CGI villains. And they want the monsters to be equally physical. Sommers previously jazzed up the old Boris Karloff mummy Im-ho-tep and made of him the CGI mummy who was monstrous in all the wrong ways. He showed he could make a computer-aided monster movie and give it an air of respectability by trading off a traditional Universal Studios monster. Now he has moved on to do a film like HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA but with 21st century comic book sensibilities (or lack thereof), tailored for those kids who believe black-and-white films cause eyestrain.

If you don't have a poster, everything you need to know about VAN HELSING you can learn by considering his crossbow. It fires bolts like a machine gun. It has a rocket launcher. And it has a bow with a taut bowstring. Why does it need a bow? Well the story takes place in the late-1800s and they don't want to damage the period feel. Not much, they don't. Of course the women's fashions are skimpy and revealing. I guess that is what clothing was like in Victorian times.

As the story opens Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, just a tad bland for an action hero) is fighting to subdue Dr. Jekyll's evil side, Edward Hyde. Except this Edward Hyde is big like a rubbery- looking Incredible Hulk. Van Helsing dispatches him and that done he returns to Rome. It seems that Van Helsing is a sort of James Bond for a secret organization in the Vatican. Van Helsing gets his orders from Cardinal Jinette. This film's token distinguished actor Alun Armstrong plays the cardinal. (Armstrong's weasel-like looks get him great villainous roles like Thenardier from LES MISERABLES and Wackford Squeers from NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. Here we see far too little of him.) Once Van Helsing is fitted out with new weapons by the Vatican's equivalent of Q he is dispatched to Transylvania to fight a threat from Count Dracula who has a plot for vampirism to break out as an epidemic in a big way. He is given a friar Carl (David Wenham) as his humorous sidekick. (Aren't all sidekicks humorous?) Intentionally or not Van Helsing and Carl seem to be recreation of the heroes of CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER.

Sommers superficially ties his current fantasy creations into the old Universal monster movies, but with little respect for the originals. It is something of a forced fit. In the original Dracula had the power to move about unseen by turning into a bat. Sommers reinvents this power saying Dracula and his brides can transform themselves into bat-winged harpies who attack from the air and have little interest in hiding themselves. It is a complete subversion of the original concept of what a vampire is. The new wolf man is the size of a bear like in THE HOWLING, and borrowing an idea from Paul Schrader's CAT PEOPLE (1982), the human does not transform into the animal but the creature bursts from inside the human's skin and presumably leaves a human skin laying around. Everything is done at a fast pace with one action scene after another to cover over the paucity of plotting. Kate Beckinsale in tight swashbuckling clothes seems rather extraneous to the plot, but she is usually a pleasure to see on the screen.
This is a CGI action-fest rip-off and wannabe from a parallel universe where LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN was an enviable success. Perhaps the film will be a critical success in that world. VAN HELSING gets a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
As a side note, Universal Home Video has released what they call Legacy Collections of their Dracula, Frankenstein, and werewolf films. The timing suggests the relatively good price for the classic films is intended to use them as a throwaway promotion for VAN HELSING (!). After Carl Laemmle, Jr., left Universal the studio never again showed proper respect their horror series and this continues that tradition. The werewolf set includes four classic werewolf films; the other two have five films each. Together they represent all the series films of the three monsters with the exception of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Over the years I had lovingly collected individually VHS copies each of these 14 films (okay, 13 of them). I am happy to get them all at a reasonable price at the quality of DVD reproduction. I am a little sorry to see them dispensed as mere "bonus features." It is one more case of tails wagging dogs.

Mark R. Leeper
[email protected]
Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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