What can I say about VAN HELSING that has not already been said by the good folks at Rue Morgue? In their review, they noted that we have gone beyond MTV filmmaking, and straight into PS2 filmmaking. Indeed, MTV mechanics would seem passe by the recent Hollywood blockbusters. And sure enough, VAN HELSING plays like a video game. Check that, VAN HELSING is like watching someone else play a video game.
It doesn't start out that way. In fact, VAN HELSING contains one of the most intriguing openings of any Hollywood picture this year. Bathing itself in the gothic black and white of the old Universal monster movies, we open on Castle Frankenstein where naturally, the villagers are about the burn the damn thing down again. Everything looks beautiful, blending the beauty of the old with the advancements of the new. There is even a great gag when Dr. Frankenstein turns from the window to see the Count looming over him. "Wha-? Oh, it's just you, Dracula." Seems Drac has been helping the good doctor in his monster making. But as is often the case, things twist around and nobody really gets what they want. It's a fun, exciting opening that suggests something wonderful as the film advances. But sadly, the second the film shifts to color, all of that is flushed right down the toilet.
After dispatching a Mr. Hyde that looks more at home with THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN than with Lon Chaney, Van Helsing returns to a Catholic order with heavy ties with the Vatican. Van Helsing has been working for the Holy Order for sometime now. He was left in their care for as long as he can remember, everything before that is a blank. His job for the church is to rid the world of demons and monsters. Some might say he does this so the church can fight evil, some might say he does this because it would be bad for church business otherwise. Whatever, the film doesn't explore these intriguing notions fully. Neither do we get more than a scene's worth of exposition as to how Van Helsing must live as a fugitive since the church does not acknowledge his existence. It's kind of like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with wooden stakes.
Anyway, the Order of Wedonthavetimetoexplain sends Van Helsing off to Transylvania, where a bunch of vampires are killing off several members of a Romanian family. Helping him is Carl (David Wenham), a cowardly friar with a genius' grasp of chemistry and an overwhelming urge to lose his virginity - don't ask. Van Helsing arrives in Transylvania, a beautiful set by the way. He is met with suspicion but wins the villagers' hearts and minds when he repels a vampire attack, killing one of them.
Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale - UNDERWORLD) is the last official surviving member of her family. Her bloodline has been dedicated to stopping Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) from taking over the world. Things have resulted in a stalemate and she's not very optimistic about her future prospects. Anna's brother, cursed with the mark of the Wolfman is also alive and Dracula is trying to use the beast to bring Anna to him or get rid of her once and for all. Van Helsing, Anna and Carl all try to unravel the mystery, discovering a convoluted plot which involves the Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster, a trio of vampire brides and the hatching of a bunch of vampire cocoons. You heard me, I said "vampire cocoons."
The only reason for VAN HELSING to exist is so it can throw as much at the screen as possible. The film delights in accessing as much monster folklore as it can get away with, and then accessing a bit more for good measure. If you ever check out the Spanish films of Paul Naschy (a.k.a. Jacinto Molina), you will see the same thing happen. Those films move at a steady clip and never feature just one obstacle. Naschy, who sites the original monster team-up FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN as a major influence, throws in everything but the kitchen sink. But there is a major difference. I have loved pretty much every Paul Naschy film I've ever seen, and I did not enjoy VAN HELSING.
So why do I condemn VAN HELSING when it does the same thing as the Paul Naschy films? In Naschy's films, you can sense a real love for the material. He treats every plotline with the whimsy of an old serial, but with the seriousness and care of an artist and fan of a classic genre. I have no doubt that Stephen Sommers has a profound respect for the material. But his film does not play like the love letter he would like it to. It plays like a serial all right, but a serial on ecstasy and none of the beauty remains.
I enjoyed Sommers' DEEP RISING for what it was. I also liked both MUMMY films much more than many of my peers, bad CGI and all. But there comes a time when you say "enough is enough." VAN HELSING contains all of the Universal monsters Sommers loves, but it seems to exist in an emotional vacuum. The plot gets so convoluted that it's easy to get lost. Catching up again is hard enough, caring enough to bother is even harder.
The iconography is corrupted by the technology in the same way that STAR WARS has been corrupted by countless revisions in the special effects department. I have nothing against CGI. In many cases, I think it has aided genre films on a level we've never seen before. However, one must always be careful when dealing with any kind of special effects. The effects should exist within the story, strengthening the narrative flow. Instead, the effects are the story and they are the only flow that matters. There is a lot of issues that are briefly touched upon in VAN HELSING and any one of them would be worthy of more attention. But the film itself lacks confidence and immediately jumps into action sequence after action sequence as if it didn't trust the audience's attention span. It doesn't help that only half of the CGI effects are convincing. Beautiful sets and costumes aside, $160 million shouldn't look this bad.
Then there are the performances. First the good. Kate Beckinsale continues her unprecedented winning streak that began with LAUREL CANYON and continued into the intriguing UNDERWORLD. She is by far the best thing in VAN HELSING. She brings an exotic Romanian femininity to the part that is needed to offset all the sturm und dang on the screen. Also, she proves herself to be a better action heroine than any of the Halle Berrys or Jennifer Garners out there. She's also the only one able to convey a convincing amount of pathos as she is torn by her allegiance to her afflicted brother and her need to protect her town and bloodline.
Now for the bad, which is everything else. I was amazed by Hugh Jackman's turn as Wolverine. This is a character who has quite a history himself and it would take someone special to fill those claws. Jackman seemed to come out of nowhere and did an amazing job. He should be perfect in this part and it's obvious that he would like to be. But the script shortchanges him again and again, never allowing him to channel his emotions. Every time we get a little bit of what makes Van Helsing tick - his memory loss, his fugitive status, his need for acceptance, etc. - the script jumps onto the next special effect. I have already mentioned the effect this has on the film's presentation, but another casualty is Jackman's performance. Jackman has good intentions in the part, but it only seems half-realized.
If you like your Dracula from the Frank Langella School (i.e. lame), then you're in luck. Otherwise, the main villainous focus of Van Helsing is nothing short of God-awful. Richard Roxburgh was the repulsive Duke in MOULIN ROUGE! which was my favorite film of 2001, bar none. Here, he's basically combined the Duke with a member of the Rat Pack and added fangs. Dracula is not sexy or seductive. Dracula is not menacing. Dracula does not look like he should pose much of a threat. It is the sorriest Dracula since John Carradine's whipped and retarded Count from HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, way back in 1944.
Aside from these three, there no characters, just set-pieces. Shuler Hensley doesn't do anything with the Frankenstein Monster that hasn't been done many times before. It is equally distracting that he has a glowing green ball where his heart should be. It's as if Dr. Frankenstein was strapped for parts, so he threw an XBox in his chest. As Carl, David Wenham should bring levity to the film. Instead, he's an annoyance. The official purpose is so Carl can play Q to Van Helsing's James Bond. But Bond didn't need to cart Q wherever he went and Q didn't spend most of the time cowering in the shadows our trying to get laid. In the same school in Kevin J. O'Connor as Igor - wait, let me check that, yes they misspelled it! The part most closely resembles Bela Lugosi's diabolical turn as Ygor in 1942's GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, an under-appreciated gem if there ever was one. But really it more closely resembles every other part O'Connor has been in, most notably Beni from Sommer's THE MUMMY. Sommers has put O'Connor in all of his films except THE MUMMY RETURNS. There hasn't been much difference in any of these parts. In DEEP RISING, he was fun, in THE MUMMY he was a breath of fresh air. But here, he imports his role from THE MUMMY, complete with the vaguely Arabic accent. This time out, O'Connor is more distraction than attraction.
All of this takes a backseat to the astounding stupidity of most of the film. People swing on cables that seem hooked to nothing - maybe they lassoed the moon? A horse and carriage jumps over a giant chasm in a scene that makes the similar bus jump in SPEED highly plausible in comparison. The end battle contains a battle of CGI monsters, where they bounce off lab equipment like they were caught in a pinball machine. And all of that does not even scratch the surface when it comes to the many, many ridiculous set-ups in VAN HELSING.
This was a blueprint for greatness. VAN HELSING could have been the film that fulfilled the promise of earlier films, such as CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER. All of the elements were there in the script for something truly wonderful. They should have taken what they had and fleshed it out, creating a multi-layered, yet action-packed adventure. It would have been the foundation for an entire franchise of amazing films starring one of the most exciting horror adventure icons ever. Instead, they just added a bunch of glitter to the unformed pieces. They scaled back the enticing story and added an overdose of adrenaline. It's a great travesty that this is what has become of a such a good idea. VAN HELSING is one of the biggest disappointments of 2004.