Director : Stephen Sommers
Screenplay : Stephen Sommers
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Hugh Jackman (Gabriel Van Helsing), Kate Beckinsale (Anna Valerious), Richard Roxburgh (Count Dracula), David Wenham (Carl), Will Kemp (Velkan Valerious), Shuler Hensley (Frankenstein's Monster), Kevin J. O'Connor (Igor), Samuel West (Dr. Frankenstein)
Stephen Sommers' monster-mash extravaganza Van Helsing begins so promisingly that it's a real letdown once it spirals down into meaningless and headache-inducing special-effects overkill.
The opening sequence, which takes place in the distant land of Transylvania, is in black and white and clearly evokes the 1930s Universal horror pictures that are the film's underlying inspiration. We get the familiar sight of Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West) declaring ebulliently, "It's alive! Alive!," but the first twist is that Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is also there, having apparently partnered with Frankenstein in his unholy experiments to bring life to the dead. Their partnership doesn't last long, though, as Dracula kills Frankenstein now that the Monster (Shuler Hensley) has been brought to life. Then the mob arrives with torches and pitchforks, and the Monster rushes off to the windmill on the hill with the lifeless form of his "father" in his arms. The windmill is set on fire and collapses. All of this is shot with a stunning sense of composition and contrast by cinematographer Allen Daviau (a frequent Spielberg collaborator), and while there is plenty of digital trickery, it is done in the service of tone and mood.
But that's where Van Helsing stops being good. The story then jumps ahead a year and moves to Paris, where the titular monster hunter, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), is on a mission to capture or kill the malicious Dr. Hyde, who has taken up residence in the towers of Notre Dame. A longwinded battle between Van Helsing and the digitally rendered Hyde ensues, and Sommers gets his first opportunity to really overwhelm you with movement, taking all the action and cranking it up so that it verges just this side of incoherence.
There is a brief respite when Van Helsing travels to Vatican City in Rome, where he is to get his next set of orders (he works for a super-secret Vatican sect dedicated to eradicating evil monsters in the world). He is outfitted with various weapons by Carl (David Wenham), a friar who is a late-19th-century version of Q from the James Bond films. The weapons are quite technologically advanced for 1888, including a crossbow that fires arrows with the rapidity of a machine gun and a pair of what look like whirring circular saw blades. Although he protests that he is not a "field man," Carl ends up going along to Transylvania with Van Helsing on a mission to kill Dracula because, well, the movie needs a silly, cowardly but endearing sidekick for comic relief.
The rest of the story takes place in Transylvania. Van Helsing hooks up with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), the last surviving member of nine generations of a family that has sworn to kill Dracula. If she does not succeed, she and her entire family will live out eternity in purgatory, thus she has some real investment in seeing the vampire go down. Van Helsing, on the other hand, is much like the titular character in The Punisher: He dourly goes about his business of killing because it's his mission, and the movie suffers accordingly. Sommers clearly wanted Van Helsing to fall into the Batman type of tortured comic book hero, torn between duty and self-loathing. When asked if he is a murderer or a holy man, Van Helsing replies, "A little of both." Despite a few asides and amusing quips, Van Helsing is mostly a downer of a character, and the fact that he is mired in a film whose murky visual palette is composed almost entirely of blacks, grays, browns, and sickish greens doesn't help.
From here on, Van Helsing lurches wildly from one spectacle sequence to another with nary a moment to catch your breath. The monster mash is increased with the inclusion of werewolves, Dracula's flying vampire brides, and thousands of demonic-looking vampire offspring that are born in nasty-looking egg sacks that hang from the ceiling. Dracula needs the secrets of Dr. Frankenstein in order to bring his flying brood to life, which is the basic impetus of the plot, as if anyone really cares. The only scene that stands out at all in this digital mishmash is a florid ball sequence that turns suddenly horrifying. The sequence stands out partly because it's colorful and partly because it relies on real rather than digital performances by a troupe of what appear to be Cirque de Soliel performers. But, mostly it stands out because it isn't mind-numbingly hectic (until the last few minutes, that is). Sommers actually slows down, if only for a moment, to let you admire the impressive production design, which is usually just a dark blur in the background as his camera swoops and flies.
Unfortunately, Van Helsing is the logical next step for Sommers, whose movies have gotten increasingly worse as his budgets have increased. His 1999 breakthrough film, an action-adventure updating of The Mummy, was a silly-fun extravaganza that had plenty of digital special effects, but they were used effectively and with some sense of restraint. Two years later, his The Mummy Returns used its expanded budget to move into the realm of chaotic overkill. And now we get Van Helsing, with the biggest budget of all that allows for the digital manipulation of virtually everything on screen, turning the movie into a frenetic, attention-deficit cartoon that still manages to look kinda cheap. Any sense of fun is drowned by what can only be called visual desperation. Every scene is the cinematic equivalent of an obnoxious kid jumping up and down screaming, "Hey! Watch this! Watch this!" Sommers is so intent on wowing us for every second of the movie's overlong running time that its rote eager-to-please fanaticism becomes repetitive before the movie has even hit its stride.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Universal Pictures