by Mel Valentin
Stephen Sommers, the writer/director behind "The Mummy," "The Mummy Returns" (and let's not forget "Deep Rising") returned to the multiplexes in the summer 2004 with another big-budget fantasy/action flick, "Van Helsing" based, like "The Mummy" and its sequel, on Universal Studios horror properties. Sommers borrowed Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolfman for "Van Helsing." Sommers' Van Helsing had almost no connection to Bram Stoker's vampire-hunter (or subsequent incarnations). Sommers re-imagined Van Helsing as a comic book action-hero, complete with trench coat, fedora, gadgets, and an enigmatic past. Despite a $160 million production budget and $50 million in prints and advertising, "Van Helsing" failed to draw substantial crowds. An absurd storyline, cheesy dialogue, uni-dimensional characters, soporific performances, over-directed set pieces, and an over-reliance on digital effects contributed to "Van Helsing’s" box-office failure.Van Helsing opens with not just one but two prologues (because one prologue is never enough). In the first prologue, Sommers pays homage to James Whale's 1931 production of Frankenstein. The good doctor, Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West), has just put his theories about life and electricity to the test (yes, we get to hear the classic line, "It's alive. It's alive!"). A mysterious benefactor informs Frankenstein that he wants to use Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) for his own nefarious ends. Angry, pitchfork-wielding villagers approach Frankenstein's castle, eager to torch the castle and everyone in it. The ill-fated Monster flees to a nearby windmill with an injured Dr. Frankenstein, but the angry villagers soon follow.
"Ladies and gents, Stephen Sommers, highly paid Hollywood hack."
In Paris a year later, the James Bond-like Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) pursues the murderous Mr. Hyde (body by CGI, voice by Robbie Coltrane). An extended, CGI-heavy set piece (the second of many) at the Notre Dame cathedral leads to a spectacular burnout. Back at the Vatican, Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong), the head of a super-secret Catholic-run organization, takes Van Helsing to task for refusing to follow protocol (this Van Helsing has an anti-authoritarian streak), but Van Helsing is immediately given a new mission: help the last survivors of the once prosperous Valerious clan, Anna (Kate Beckinsale) and Velkan (Will Kemp), in destroying Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) in Transylvania. The Vatican orders Carl (David Wenham), a mild-mannered, bumbling, inexperienced friar and Q-like weapons expert to assist Van Helsing.
In Transylvania, Anna refuses Van Helsing's help, even as her brother succumbs to a werewolf curse. Anna changes her mind when Van Helsing fends off Dracula's brides, Aleera (Elena Anaya), Verona (Silvia Colloca), and Marishka (Josie Maran) from a daylight attack (apparently, indirect sunlight doesn't bother vampires). Working at Frankenstein's rebuilt laboratory with the help of Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), Dracula attempts to create a super-battery. Only Frankenstein's Monster, however, can power the super-battery. Van Helsing hopes to thwart Dracula's plan and destroy Dracula in the process, but first he has to find Dracula's castle. The fight scenes that follow come fast and furious, with neither side getting the upper hand until the climactic battle at Dracula's castle.
Beside Dracula's patently preposterous paternal desires (because, really, he’s unfulfilled without children and no, adoption wasn’t an option), Van Helsing suffers from a multitude of problems (and sins), including an egregiously, overly convoluted storyline that functions solely to provide exposition between action-packed set pieces, a hammy, over-the-top performance from Richard Roxburgh as a Eurotrash Dracula, a bland romantic subplot, zero chemistry between Jackman and Beckinsale, and over-reliance on digital effects (hello, sensory overload). Frankly, films that cost this much shouldn’t look this bad. The CGI Hyde, CGI werewolves, and CGI vampires are never less than obvious, never less than risible. While CGI monsters might have made sense from a purely commercial perspective (i.e., to achieve a PG-13 rating), they fail to create even minimal scares. Add Sommers' overdesigned Gothic/Victorian world and Van Helsing becomes just one more over-priced, under-imagined summer blockbuster.On the plus side (and there is one), Hugh Jackman is never less than watchable as the James Bond-like Van Helsing. Unfortunately, Jackman’s digital double gets more of a workout than he does, action wise. Shuler Hensley gives a sympathetic performance as Frankenstein's monster (impressive, considering he's acting under pounds of latex). And as bad as some of the effects are, some of the miniatures and backgrounds aren’t (bad, that is). Occasionally, Sommers’ camera bears some connection to the story. A few visual compositions are, if nothing else, memorable, including the windmill sequence that opens the film, a chase by horse and carriage across a shattered bridge, and the combination of makeup and digital effects used to create Frankenstein's Monster. In one scene, the Monster literally comes undone, but that's as close as Sommers comes to the mix of fear and revulsion that defines actual horror instead of the watered-down version he seems to prefer. Ultimately, "Van Helsing’s" few positives aren’t enough to elevate it to the escapist entertainment Sommers and Universal intended.
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originally posted: 01/16/06 01:36:25