May 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Van Helsing by Stephen Sommers (Dir)
Universal Pictures Film /
MPAA: Rated PG-13 Runtime: 132 min
Review by Drew Bittner

Official Site / IMDB / Novelization: ISBN 0743493540 PubDate: 04/01/04 272 pgs. List price $6.99
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Directed by Stephen Sommers / Writing credits (WGA) Stephen Sommers

Cast: Hugh Jackman …. Van Helsing / Kate Beckinsale …. Anna Valerious / Richard Roxburgh …. Count Vladislaus Dracula / David Wenham …. Carl / Shuler Hensley …. Frankenstein's Monster / Elena Anaya …. Aleera / Will Kemp …. Velkan / Kevin J. O'Connor …. Igor / Alun Armstrong …. Cardinal Jinette / Silvia Colloca …. Verona / Josie Maran …. Marishka / Tom Fisher …. Top Hat / Samuel West …. Dr. Victor Frankenstein / Robbie Coltrane …. Mr. Hyde / Stephen Fisher …. Dr. Jekyll

It should have been a B-movie lover’s dream. A lone hero facing down Universal’s three great monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman. Should have been.

The problems are not obvious at the beginning. The hero, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), is not the aged physician of the Stoker novel; in this incarnation, he is a swashbucking 19th century James Bond, working for a mysterious interfaith organization based in Rome. He sent to distant lands to seek out and destroy supernatural evil, and he’s amazingly good at it. When first seen, he is in Paris, tracking down Mr. Hyde in the steeples of Notre Dame. It’s a great fight and establishes Van Helsing as capable, resourceful and well-armed, especially with spinning blades that have a number of uses.

Van Helsing Movie Stills: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Stephen SommersVan Helsing is wanted by the authorities and is apparently notorious throughout the continent. Even the folk of a remote Transylvanian village have heard of him, when his next assignment takes him to Hungary on the trail of Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), so that he can help Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) kill her family’s ancient enemy. She is committed to this course of action because the afterlives of her ancestors hinge on it; hundreds of years ago, they were more-or-less responsible for Dracula’s evil and tried to kill him to atone, but since it didn’t take, they’re in Purgatory until he’s destroyed.

Van Helsing Movie Stills: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Stephen SommersDracula, meanwhile, has sponsored the work of a certain Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein is betrayed by Dracula and his hideous servant Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor) and killed shortly after the monster wakes. Dracula is delighted at Frankenstein’s success—though we don’t know why until later. However, his joy is short-lived, as mobs with pitchforks and torches appear to make short work of the patchwork man, setting fire to the windmill he hides in.

Van Helsing Movie Stills: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Stephen SommersVan Helsing arrives in Transylvania with a engineer-friar named Carl (David Wenham) in tow, in time to help the villagers fend off an attack by Dracula’s three brides. (In this movie, vampires are able to move by day, so long as they are not touched by direct sunlight.) His help establishes Van Helsing as an ally to Anna, thus securing part of his objective: help the Valerious family in their quest against Dracula.

From here forward, it would be difficult to describe the conflictVan Helsing Movie Stills: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Stephen Sommersing goals of the characters in full, so suffice it to say: Dracula wants to use the Monster’s lightning-charged body as a conduit to vivify his undead offspring with electricity; Van Helsing wants to know who he was (his only “old” memory is of fighting against the Romans at Masada… does that make him the Wandering Jew?); Anna wants to rescue her brother, who’s fallen victim to a terrible curse and is thus in Dracula’s sway; and  Frankenstein’s Monster wants only to be left alone, to live in peace.

These goals play out in the course of several action scenes, including a coach race where Van Helsing is attacked by Wolfman and vampire brides both and must jump a chasm as well, not to mention a costume party with plenty of supernatural nasties to threaten the hero (take a peek in the mirror while Anna and Dracula are dancing, you’ll see what I mean).

Unfortunately, as the movie goes along, it becomes clear that this is not the light-hearted “let’s have some fun” approach Sommers used when making The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Van Helsing is meant to be a more serious hero than Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’Connell, but despite his snappy one-liners (which have long since become groan-inducing cliches of action filmmaking), he comes off leaden and melancholy, providing no contrast to the… well, leaden and melancholy monsters he fights. If the point is that Van Helsing is as much a monster as they are, well, irony is apparently lost on this movie.

Jackman and Beckinsale do their best with conventional, B-movie grade dialogue and seem to have a bit of chemistry, but the movie doesn’t give them much opportunity to develop this—which is a shame, as it might have helped humanize the distant Van Helsing. Like his other, star-making role as Wolverine, Van Helsing is an amnesiac, but the potential drama of this—self-discovery and feeling lost in the world—is only touched on and fleetingly at that; we don’t develop much sympathy for the character, which is unfortunate.

I can see where Roxburgh tried for a different interpretation of Dracula than Anne Rice’s languid vampires—he is more of a battlefield butcher with a veneer of sophistication than Lestat, for instance—but his performance doesn’t sell the character effectively; it’s hard to say if it’s dialogue or that Sommers didn’t elicit a great performance, as Roxburgh has proven ability. Shuler Hensley as the Monster is quite good, evoking the wretched anguish of a creature that’s been abandoned by its creator and shown nothing but hatred by humanity, but the acrobatics he’s put through at the end are ludicrous. In fact, the entire movie has enough wall-crawling and rope-swinging to qualify it as a prelude to Spider-Man 2.

The movie’s use of effects, models and CGI is quite good, but again, these are mostly things Sommers has used effectively elsewhere. The hideous wounds that close up by magic were done as well in The Mummy and there, we had character we could root for. It’s hard to root for Van Helsing, because the man is such a cipher. Maybe if we knew him better, we’d like him more… or maybe there was just too much packed into one movie. By trying to make every character important, they’ve become (unhappily) rather blah. There are lots of fiddly bits that seem to have been important or more significant, maybe in earlier drafts of the script, but the net effect is that the movie ends up cluttered with detritus that has no dramatic impact—we’re too shellshocked by the end of the movie to care if we know much about Van Helsing’s enigmatic past (we don’t) or if there are enough dangling plot threads to pick up in Van Helsing 2.

In summary, if you don’t ask too much by way of plot or characterization, you can sit back and go “ooh” and “ahh” at Van Helsing. Much like fireworks, the whole experience will probably fade by the time you’ve reached your car.

Oh well. There are probably plenty of monsters left to kill next time…

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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