Written and Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, and Richard Roxburgh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Some say you're a murderer, Mr. Van Helsing. Others say you're a holy man. Which is it?"
As movie fans, we tend to gravitate towards those formative experiences that shaped us into who we are. More often than not, this involves lionizing and waxing nostalgic about those moves we love, sometimes going so far as to fetishize the format, the box art, maybe even the video store associated with it. Iíve lost count of the number of times Iíve done that here on the site myself, so let me assure you that today is not one of those days. Instead, let me describe one of the biggest movie-going disappointments of my life. Friends, I am here to re-confront the beast that is Van Helsing, a movie that I pretty much obsessed over from the moment it was announced via a cryptic website boasting silhouettes of the famous Universal Monsters. Sure, it was hatched from the mind of Stephen Sommers, who directed a couple of Mummy movies I didnít care for, but I was a dumb 20 year old throwing all caution to the fucking wind, man. The Universal Monsters were my thing, and nothing was going to dissuade me from believing Van Helsing would be the absolute best.
Maybe it was the high of Freddy vs. Jason being good and living up to an almost impossible standard, but I was convinced of this, even in the face of all logic and the increasingly distressing trailers. Finally, the childhood icons that had a hand in making me a horror fan would be gloriously resurrected and usher in a new era of gods and monsters. It was a fun illusion that was shattered almost instantly. Van Helsing wasnít just a disasteróit was an all-time traumatic movie-related event, one that started with me on the edge of my seat in anticipation and ended with me wishing I could hide under the auditorium carpeting. I am not prone to hyperbole, so believe me when I say itís among the all-time worst experiences Iíve ever had in a theater. For years, I have harbored these memories to the point that theyíve become a grudge, but, in the interest of fairness (and with Universalís latest Monsters revival underway, I wanted to see if maybe I had been too hard on it: maybe, just maybe, Van Helsing is much better when removed from my misguided hype.
In short: nope. It turns out that everything that irritated me about Van Helsing is still very much intact 13 years later. That includes the false promise it holds for all of about five minutes, when it opens on a black-and-white prologue evoking the studioís immortal classics. We see Dr. Frankenstein toiling away, once again bringing his Creature to life as torch-bearing villagers storm his castle. Thereís a twist, though: instead of only being joined by a wild-eyed assistant, heís taking commands from Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) himself, who has enlisted the doctor to recreate his life-giving experiments for some unknown purpose. That in and of itself is a pretty terrific, clever hook that opens all sorts of possibilitiesóthe problem is that Sommers wants to explore all off them in the bloated monstrosity that is Van Helsing.
Before we can so much as get our bearings, those villagers have chased the resurrected Frankensteinís monster (who fucking yodels every line of dialogue) to the top of a windmill thatís quickly engulfed in flames, an image that marks the high point of the filmís inspiration, and even itís just echoing James Whaleís masterpiece. Dracula and his brides fly off, their scheme to harness life having been thwarted. Itís not a bad short film, to be honestóunfortunately, though, thereís about two hours of more movie attached to it. Most of it revolves around Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), here reimagined as a monster bounty hunter in the employ of the Vatican. Less the kindly professor you may be acquainted to and more supernatural James Bond (complete with a Q-esque assistant played by David Wenham), this Van Helsing scours the globe to dispatch various monsters and madmen. His latest assignment has him tackling Dracula, who, despite his recent failures, still terrorizes Transylvania. Specifically, heís targeted Anna and Velkan Valerious (Kate Beckinsale & Will Kemp), the last in a line of nobles sworn to do battle with the bloodsucker.
Thereís so much more to it than thatóthereís some nonsense about the Valerious clan being denied entry into heaven of these last two dieóbut in the interest of not bogging this down with a plot recap, letís just leave it there and marvel at how needlessly convoluted this movie is. For whatever reason, Sommers dreams up this complicated mythology that turns into a mystery surrounding Van Helsingís own lineage and amnesia. This script should be exhibit A in the case against the dumb, everything-is-connected plotting thatís plagued blockbusters for the past decade or so. Itís so concerned with devising various twists and reveals without bothering to have the audience invest in the characters that are affected. So Dracula and Van Helsing share some kind of secret past? Who cares when theyíre both such duds? Theyíre not charactersótheyíre a couple of lifeless action figures getting flung around in a digital sandbox.
Characterization is one of the few things in Van Helsing that can be seen as lacking. On the contrary, its chief problem is that itís just too goddamn much. The script is overstuffed with too many subplots, giving the false pretense that the exposition is important when it actually just functions to shuttle characters from one action set-piece to another. These, too, are also far too busy, crowded with unsightly digital monstrosities looked terrible in 2004 and have aged hideously. Van Helsing is often nothing less than an assault on your senses and your taste, almost as if Sommers decided to craft an endurance test to see how long the human eye and brain could process frames cluttered with constant movement. You want to admire the marvelous set designs and art direction, but what good are they when they feel like theyíve been scrawled over with Crayola? At this point, everyone was chasing the dragon that was Lord of the Rings, perhaps in an attempt to see just what could be accomplished with CGI, and Sommers plows right through the sandbox, emptying every single idea that seemed to cross his mind and projecting it right on screen.
Inherent in this is his insistence to to have every single toy in the sandbox. After successfully resurrecting The Mummy, Sommers apparently wasnít satisfied to tackle the rest of the Monsters stable individually. As such, he tosses them all together here for an unsatisfying monster mash that does none of them justice. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde only appears as fodder to establish that Van Helsing is a badass, and, while there is ostensibly a werewolf (read: some overwrought digital bullshit that looks kind of like a wolf), heís mostly an afterthought in the plot, existing as yet another thing to be flung around during action sequences. Eventually, the Frankenstein monster reemerges, providing yet another subplot. In a perfect world, Van Helsing would have been the culmination of Sommerís Monster obsession, a sort of House of Frankenstein style of gathering of familiar monsters and men; instead, it comes across as a premature climax, as if its director just couldnít contain himself and everything spilled out all at once.
Usually, I wouldnít have a problem with such unchained enthusiasm, especially since these monsters are obviously so dear to Sommers. Itís just that the enthusiasm leads to messy, atonal sloppiness that does none of the creatures justice. Roxburghís Dracula is among the worst offenders: he brings neither the charm nor menace of Lugosi as he chomps his way through the film, scenery practically spilling from his mouth with each line of dialogue. An attempt to find a tragic core in the characterís desire to bring life to his unborn bat-children backfires once you realize he just wants them as an army. In the hundreds of years he spent trying to figure this out, it never occurred to my dude to just train an army of bats? It seems like way less trouble. At best, this guy is an ineffectual putz; at worst, heís an asshole with a terrible ponytail.
Nobody else fares much better. Given that heís always been a personal favorite, the Frankenstein Monster feels like the biggest affront. While his design is a pretty cool, soup-up take-off of the Karloff monster and the creature from Hammerís Evil of Frankenstein, thereís no getting past Shuler Hensleyís overcooked performance that turns the Monster into a whimpering, operatic walking pity-party. He sucks in a way thatís emblematic of the film as a whole: despite Sommersís best intentions (the core of the Monster is intact), it comes across as a shrill, bungled attempt that shouts and shrieks its badness with each passing moment. You know youíre in trouble when a film features a villain that literally chomps on a cigar in an early scene.
Surviving the wreckage with some respectability intact are the human leads. Jackman is fine (if not stiff) as Van Helsing, as he adequately grunts and grimaces through all the nonsense, though itís extremely difficult to buy into the supposed pathos surrounding the character since heís practically a video game avatar. At least Wenham approaches something close to decency as Van Helsingís assistant: between this and his turn in Lord of the Rings, Iím not sure why he didnít break out and become a bigger star in the following years. Granted, heís given very little to work with here, but at least heís not obnoxious. Neither is Beckinsale in a very familiar role of a leather-clad woman charged with killing supernatural creatures. The fact that we have so many movies featuring badass Kate Beckinsale slaughtering vampires and werewolves and none of them good is a crime that demands congressional investigation. Of all the people in Van Helsing, sheís closest to the right wavelength: sheís having fun without going too broad, clearly in tune with the proper pulp sensibilities. (Also in tune and deserving some commendation: the trio of Draculaís wives, all of whom look and sound like they were ripped out of a Hammer movie on steroids.)
Other than that, itís hard to find much nice to say about Van Helsing, even 13 years later. Time can only do so much to heal wounds, I suppose: I had hoped that Iíd be more inclined to see the utter fun in it now (when I was an early-twentysomething, everything was serious business), but the truth is that itís just not very fun at all. Forget about it being an embarrassment to a revered set of charactersóitís simply an obnoxious, grating bore that resorts to empty spectacle to grab your attention while making no attempt to actually keep it. At a certain point, it just becomes exhausting. Thereís a reason roller-coasters only last about a minute or so, after all.
If nothing else, though, Van Helsing was at least a genuine attempt at reviving these monsters. This perhaps makes its failure all the more heartbreaking, but itís also worth noting that it sparked an interest in the classics that peaked with the release of Universalís incredible Monsters Legacy collection that collected most of the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man films, complete with miniature busts of the monsters. Despite upgrading all of these films to Blu-ray, that set still sits atop my shelf of favorite movies and perhaps eases the blow of Van Helsing. Thatís probably not the most ideal legacy for a film, but itís better than being exclusively associated with crushing disappointment.
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