directed by Stephen Sommers
starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham
The very name of the literary-legend vampire hunter sends a thrill-chill down some Stoker fanatics’ spines.
The TV ads are enticing, depicting a film full of action, romance, and of course, vampires, werewolves and the odd-creature-out Frankenstein monster.
The usual free-movie-scounging riff-raff pouring into an advance screening is peppered with second-generation Goths wearing Fields of the Nephilim leather dusters, boots and black lace. They’re hoping to see the souped-up Bram Stoker’s Dracula that the trailers have hinted at.
They’re in for a surprise.
More than two hours later, the crowd flees the theatre like lemmings from a sinking ship; for many, Van Helsing had proved to be an ordeal to sit through. For me, it was one of the worst movies I have seen in years. Together, we found out that what the ads and trailers don’t let on is that much of Van Helsing is a spoof of the monster genre, a self-destructive, quasi-comedic film that isn’t funny.
Attire aside, I had much in common with the 21-century neo-noir types around me. The ads for Van Helsing looked great, Kate Beckinsale is simply ravishing, and Hugh Jackman – claws or no claws – has presence to spare.
And, with a black-and-white intro paying homage to the original Frankenstein, Van Helsing gets off to a great start – with a twist. While Doc Frankenstein zaps his pieced-together protégé to life, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, Moulin Rouge) is in attendance, cackling with satisfaction. It seems that the Dark Lord has underwritten Frankenstein’s costly experiments, with an agenda of his own. But those ignorant townspeople spoil it all, sending the monster and his creator up in flames. Cut to Paris, where the second – and last – really nifty scene of the film takes place. High up in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Van Helsing (Jackman) is duking it out with Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), a nimble, psychotic giant. The great CGI brawl ends with Jekyll falling to his doom, and Van Helsing once again being labeled a murderer by the common citizenry.
It turns out that Van Helsing is a member of a multi-denominational secret society called the Order, a Vatican-based organization dedicated to stamping out extraordinary evil around the world. Amnesia-suffering Van Helsing is their reluctant hit man. When he reports back to his superiors, viewers get their first taste of lampoonery as Van Helsing tours a James Bond-spoofing weapons lab, where 19th century assassin gadgets abound (including a collapsible silver stake). It’s even got its own version of “Q,” a friar named Carl (David Wenham, Return of the King). Van Helsing takes the friar in tow on his next assignment ? to protect the Valerious family of Transylvania against their arch-enemy, Count Dracula.
Upon their arrival in monster-burg, the pair learn that the clan Valerious is pared down to one ass-kicking aristocrat, Anna (Beckinsale). Before they can properly introduce themselves, Van Helsing and help defend the town against a shades-of-Pearl Harbor daylight raid by a squadron of winged Succubi. Armed with an automatic crossbow, the vampire hunter saves the day – and gets Anna’s attention.
From this point, the film bogs down in a convoluted, tedious (approximately 140 min.) screenplay that involves Anna’s brother-turned-werewolf, Dracula roosting on thousands of succubus eggs, and a resurrected Frankenstein behemoth (Shuler Hensley, who’s inspired by Peter Boyle’s classic performance, but doesn’t come remotely close to matching it.)
The half-hearted tragi-comedy monster is just one example of this cinematic disaster’s many schizophrenic tendencies. There’s some great action scenes and a few scary moments; the cinematography and sets are spot-on, including a lush, Romantic masquerade ball. However, for some bizarre reason, the film continually interjects attempts at humor that are so out of place, it made the preview audience laugh uneasily at first. In one overly-dramatic moment, Anna muses that she’s never seen the sea, prompting Van Helsing to look directly at the camera. Dracula postures like a third-rate Lugosi, and his trio of winged wenches are consistently, painfully overwrought. And it goes on and on, complete with an over-the-top orchestral score.
By Van Helsing’s dreadfully lame finale, the audience’s laughter was of the derisive hoots-and-howls variety, underscoring the film’s fatal drawback: a campy action movie requires consistent wit and cleverness (see: Army of Darkness); if a send-up spoof is the goal, have an inspired, funny script (see: Young Frankenstein). Van Helsing, possessing neither attribute, just confuses and angers an audience caught in a film studio’s version of bait-and-switch.
It’s hard to imagine what director/writer/producer Stephen Sommers was thinking of while he was creating Van Helsing. His well-balanced Mummy flicks were great fun, for the most part, and light-years away from this irritating oddity. Anyone who has seen Beckinsale’s last awful flick, Underworld (hey, that one was about vampires and werewolves, too!) will understand how the English starlet once again became a pawn of celluloid con artists, but Jackman? Maybe he’s taken a page out of Nicholas Cage’s playbook and is raising money with this super-stinker to fund his own “serious” movie. In any case, his resume’s list of credits is sure to run in reverse order from now on, with this bomb at the bottom.
Van Helsing: http://www.vanhelsing.net/