A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 
     

VAN HELSING j
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2004, PG-13, 131 mins.

Gabriel Van Helsing: Hugh Jackman / Anna Valerious: Kate Beckinsale / Count Dracula: Richard Roxburgh / Carl: David Wenham / Velkan Valerious: Will Kemp / Frankenstein's Monster: Shuler Hensley / Igor: Kevin J. O'Connor / Dr. Frankenstein: Samuel West / Mr. Hyde: Robbie Coltrane

Written and directed by Stephen Sommers

 

I stare at the screen in those dark ominous multiplexes oftentimes shocked, appalled, and dismayed by what a $170 million dollar budget can apparently get you, cinematically speaking, these days.  These grave notions are especially true with the advent of the summer movie season, which usually is giving birth in the early weeks of May.  Donít get me wrong, the summers of the past have frequently offered a taste of the best films of the year.  Unfortunately, a considerable number of these films are bloated, overstuffed, and relentlessly and sadistically marketed enterprises that fail to offer any real value at all.  In simple terms, there are big, they are ugly, and they are most certainly very bad. 

Enter VAN HELSING, a film that will most assuredly gain a valuable place at the end of the year on my list of the worst films of the year. 

I am really not sure where to begin in my literary tirade and verbal slicing of this film.  And hey, donít get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a good monster film, but only if itís done well.  VAN HELSING was written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who also gave us 1999ís wonderful THE MUMMY.  I think that the success of that film could be attributed to the fact that everyone in that film had their tongue placed firmly in their cheeks.  It was not played too seriously and not too campy at the same time.  Warm, funny, whimsical, and likeable characters populated it and it found the right balance of being scary, droll, satirical, and campy.  The actors never played it too straight, nor too silly.  It was kind of a slick, polished, innocuous and adventurous film that left you with a smile on your face. 

VAN HELSING has none of that. 

Hugh Jackman (X-MENíS Wolverine) is the title character who looks like every late 19th Century monster hunter should look like - a cross between the Phantom of the Opera, WWEís Undertaker, and a Chipendalesís dancer.  Before we are introduced to him the film opens in a wonderful black and white sequence that shows and angry mob hunting down Frankensteinís monster.  They eventually track him down to a windmill, torch it, andÖ.you know the story.  Itís a shame that the sequence cuts forward to the future and into colour, because the fantastic B&W visuals of the introduction, which give a real flavour for the 1930ís Monster films Summers is apparently trying to pay homage to, are shamelessly abandoned.  A gutsy and logical choice would have been to do the whole film in B&W, butÖnahÖthat would be too gutsy for the populist filmmaker in Summers. 

This leads into our introduction of Van Helsing, whom is established as the James Bond of the monster fighting world.  Hell, he even has is own Q of sorts who provides him with weapons that, as far as my History degree tells me, could have never existing at the time (I especially like the ludicrousness of the gun that shoots out stacks with the pace of a machine gun.  After he shoots out seemingly hundreds of rounds you are left wondering Öhow could it hold so many?)   

After Helsingís defeat of Mr Hyde (yes, that one!) he goes to the Vatican (his bosses) and is given orders to, well, battle more monsters, I guess.  He travels to Transylvania in search of Dracula and meets up with the beautiful Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale).  Her brother, apparently, represents the last of nine generations of a family who will never find eternal rest until it kills Dracula.  I guess itís by sheer coincidence and cinematic convenience that if you kill Dracula, all the vampires he created will also die.  Anna dislikes Helsing at first, but she warms over to him and realizes that, hey, they make such a cute vengeful couple. 

Oh, did I mention that the Wolf man is in this too? 

There are a lot of problems with VAN HELSING, one of them not being its wonderful visual pallet.  This ranks right up there with one of the best looking-bad films I have ever seen.  I especially liked the bold and gothic art direction, the huge and expansive scenery.  I loved the look of the opening Frankenstein sequence and truly admired the visuals of a party scene set in Budapest later in the film.  The costumes are quite good and Summers really spares no expense at providing these imaginative sights. 

Itís such a shame that Summers imagination stopped there.  VAN HELSING has million dollar visuals with ten-cent characters and narrative.   The story is dull, convoluted, and all over the map and really suffers from lethargic pacing.  The film is also about twenty minutes too long (I did not realize that they could drag out such a simple concept so long).  The film is one long 135 minute ride involving screaming, yelling, shrieking, fighting and things that explode and is followed by more screaming, yelling, shrieking, fighting and things that explode and is finally concluded with the inevitable screaming, yelling, shrieking, fighting and things that explode. 

The fighting is so endless that after about the third fight you are left tired and bored.  There is really no sense of danger and urgency in the fights, as clearly nothing can be done to harm Helsing or Anna.  Anna, curiously, spends 90 per cent of the film being punched, kicked, pushed, and slammed up against walls and hurled hundred of feet in the air, without a scratch or a broken bone on her.  Her resistance to injury was so unintentionally funny that, at the end of the film, when she is hurled for the hundredth time against a wall by one of Draculaís brides and a small trickle of blood emerges from her mouth, I jumped up and screamed, ďFinally!Ē 

The casting also seems vaguely out of place.  Hugh Jackman is surprisingly uninspired and lacks that element of danger, intensity, and raw animal charisma that made his portrayal of Wolvernine so effective.  He seems stiff, bored, and unengaged and forgets (as Brendan Frasher in THE MUMMY did not) to play the role a bit more for laughs and whimsy.  I kept on thinking that a Ron Pearlman would have been better.  Kate Beckinsale is also inexplicably cast as a hunter, but she plays the past so stoic, so stern, and so seriously that she forgets that this is VAN HELSING, not BRAM STOKERíS DRACULA.  She also curiously slips in and out of Transylvanian accent and is, letís face, too darn gorgeous to be taken seriously as a hardened vampire hunter.  She ainít no Sigorney Weaver.   Richard Roxburgh (who played the Duke in Moulin Rouge) is horribly miscast as Dracula.  He looks like the lovechild of Antonio Banderas and Bono and is about as scary as them both put together. 

The film is also a cinematic deadzone of CGI overkill.  Summers spares absolutely no expense at using the advances of computer technology to create his crazy world and creatures.  But what he does not realize is that this technology needs to be incorporated well with other special effects tricks (see George Lucas and Peter Jackson) to create a cohesive whole.  There is so much overuse of CGI technology in this film, sometimes breathtaking, other times distractingly awful.  I felt a curious detachment from many of the sights, especially the creatures which are, quite frankly, not given the life and believability that Yoda and Gollum had.  A final battle between two CG creatures is done so fast and is cut so frantically its as if Sommers realized how lacking in soul and life these creature had that he could not hold shot s on them. 

Funny, the old Universal Monster films featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman were dark, dreary, atmospheric, and kind of scary (for its time).  None of VAN HELSING is scary at all.   If anything, its an overly long, obnoxious, overbearing, loud, and crude action film that places fighting and yelling in the forefront and mood, character, and story in the background.  I think that there is only three ways to do these films well. First would be to do it straight and scary.  Second would be to do it whimsical, light, and balance it with action, adventure, and scares.  The third would be to do it as an all-out comedy ala YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.   VAN HELSING is too stupid to be the first, too inconsistent to be the second, and too unintentionally humorous to be the third.

 
 

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