Van Helsing Review

by Ryan Ellis (flickershows AT hotmail DOT com)
May 19th, 2004

Van Helsing
by Ryan Ellis
May 17, 2004

If 'Stars Wars' and the digital age it helped usher in are responsible for ridiculousness like 'Van Helsing', then maybe the cinematic spirit of the '70s really did die when ILM created its first X-Wing. At least digital F/X have helped to serve the story in films such as George Lucas' original trilogy. That's not the case with 'Van Helsing', which has some of the most over-the-top, phony visual F/X I've ever seen. Writer/director Stephen Sommers remade 'The Mummy' a few years ago, which---for its multitude of faults---was moderately exciting and had a sense of humour. This new Sommers movie tries to tickle a rib here and there, although it's never funny. Or fun. Or interesting. Or entertaining. Or worth your time. People are dying in the world because they can't afford to eat...and Hollywood is spending tens of millions of dollars to make a terrible movie like this. Curse them. And curse me too for spending my money to see it.

Most kids today will have no idea who this Van Helsing fellow is. In the Bram Stoker "Dracula" novel, Professor Van Helsing is the vampire expert enlisted to help the heroes battle Mr. Fangs. Some versions of 'Dracula' have painted the Professor with many fascinating layers, even causing some viewers to wonder if he is also some sort of vampire. In this flick, he's no longer a prof and he's not an older man either. Now Hugh Jackman is in the driver's seat and he resembles the character we know only in name. [Even THAT is different. Sommers changes his first name from Abraham to Gabriel.] His task in this movie is to wipe out all the old Universal monsters who first saw cinematic light over 70 years ago. It's not enough that the original characters had to die in the black-and-white age. Now it's all in drab widescreen colour and none of the deaths are all that tragic.

Any big-budget movie starring Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Wolf Man, is trying to live up to a legend it probably couldn't match no matter who the filmmakers are. Throw in a cameo by Mr. Hyde (of Jekyll & Hyde fame), and you've got some major-league horror icons. Finding a way for all these guys to interact must have been the first thing Sommers did while writing the script. So what we have here is a a Bond movie with Dracula as Blofeld. Van Helsing is a bounty-hunting Bond, ridding the world of vicious villainy. Drac wants to harness Victor Frankenstein's re-animating skills to give life to his bat children. Don't ask. For some reason, he needs the exiled monster of the good Doc Frank to make this work. And the Wolf Man (who is embodied in about 3 different characters in this movie) acts as a hairy henchman. Just to make things even more foolish, Van Helsing is equipped with anachronistic weapons and gizmos.

Kate Beckinsale is Anna Valerious, the Transylvanian daughter of a family sworn to destroy Dracula. They've been failing for years and years. It seems that the conventional stake, holy water, and cross have no affect. What to do? Well, that's a major plot point (which ends up making no sense, believe me), so I won't reveal it. She has to find out what will ice the vamp for good or her family will remain cursed and live forever in purgatory. Bummer. Soon after Van Helsing gets his assignment from the good ol' Catholic church to take care of these bad guys, he's made a new friend in Anna. Since the movie doesn't play up any sexual tension you might expect between the likes of Jackman and Beckinsale, I assumed we'd discover they're long-lost relatives. Alas, apart from meeting cute, I guess all they share is a lust for whacking the blood-thirsty tyrants. In all these battles, fires break out, lives are lost, stuff is broken, and no one important dies until the final reel.

What is Hugh Jackman doing in this? This guy is bound for superstardom and he's a truly gifted all-around performer. Why did he take this role? He's really just playing Wolverine with a Gandalf hat. Like Wolverine, this is a tortured hero accused of being a villain who can't remember his past and is ultimately nothing more than a righteous murderer. Kate Beckinsale is a beauty and these two look great together, although her limited talent can't salvage a dull character. Richard Roxburgh---I gotta say it---sinks his teeth into the role of Dracula. In this case, that's not good. He was scarier as the foppish Duke in 'Moulin Rouge'. He's really quite bad in this movie. Frankenstein's monster is a veritable wordsmith, even rattling off the 23rd Psalm. As played by Shuler Hensley, the character has none of the silent, childlike charm of the Boris Karloff creation. I like that he's still a misunderstood creature, but he's rather wimpy. It's hard to believe that the character created by Karloff would be treated as a McGuffin, but that's exactly the role the Monster plays this time.

So none of the actors escape with much dignity and the people who first dreamed up these original characters must be tempted to haunt Sommers's house from now on. As horrid as his direction and writing is, it's the F/X that I couldn't stand. This movie proves that while video games strive to look more & more realistic (to look like a movie), movies strive to look more & more phony (to look like a video game). Everything is confusing, jumbled, over-loud, and boring. We get to see a climactic free-for-all between a vampire and a wolf, which should have been the one sequence I could rave about. Nah. That's not interesting either. It's just a digital blur. I expect a popcorn movie to use computers to create something we haven't seen before. They've achieved a tiny bit of that, but who cares? The original 'Frankenstein', 'Dracula', and 'The Wolf Man' did far more with far less.

Okay, so was the movie a little scary then? The only fright I had was when I was leaving the theatre. Okay, I sprang out of my seat and RACED from the theatre, but no matter. The fright I had was the realization that they fully intend to make 'Van Helsing' a franchise. Enough major characters survive that they can in fact waste money on a sequel, although I'm hoping cooler heads prevail. When a movie makes a dullard out of Hugh Jackman and a drip out of both Frankenstein's monster and Dracula, that movie should not be allowed to spawn. Not only does this movie rob from the grave of past masterpieces, it spits on the tombstones.

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