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Van Helsing (2004)
Director: Stephen Sommers

review by Christopher Geary
Spoiler alert!
After his success with two Mummy films, blockbuster auteur Stephen Sommers revives three other classic Universal monsters in a single production. It steers well clear of similarities to the series of Abbott And Costello Meet... comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but doesn't quite manage to avoid critical comparison to Fred Dekker's sublimely amusing The Monster Squad (1987). More recent influences are readily apparent, too. Whereas The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen featured abundant characters from literature and screen adaptations of classic science fiction and fantasy adventure - assembled into a superhero team to fight a lone supervillain, Van Helsing tackles the primary myths and monsters from gothic horror, and pits the vigilante hero against them all with the odds clearly on the baddies' side. Van Helsing is a cine-literate but culturally unsophisticated fantasy disrespectful of the established backstory lore about celebrated screen ghouls of fang and claw. It revels in its abundance of explicitly spectacular set pieces, and suggests that the wicked can only be defeated when the nominally human hero ignores the traditionally effective powers of good (such as symbols of religious faith) in this frequently visited genre, and simply opts to use the supernatural force of evil against itself. Unfortunately, the storyline has no honestly sympathetic characters, so with only a couple of fast-rising movie stars striking dramatic poses amidst all the mayhem, why should we even care who wins the battle?
   In the best Hammer pictures, Peter Cushing's fearless vampire slayer was a venerable old doctor. Here, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, 'Wolverine' in the X-Men movies) is a macho gunslinger with no memory of his past (sounds familiar?) working for a secret Vatican group dedicated to keeping the world's forces of evil in check. This Van Helsing is a trendy reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's familiar character, one more inspired by James Bond and Indiana Jones than the Dutch scientist as portrayed since the 1930s. Ultimately, Van Helsing is a hectically paced 'ride' or 'event' movie with largely bloodless horrors and very few genuinely scary scenes.
   A lavishly photographed black and white prologue details the bad guys' rewritten origins. Victor Frankenstein (the unfortunately bland Samuel West) re-animates his patchwork creation (Schuler Hensley), with lightning, as usual. The mad doctor's devilish work at the command of ambitious Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, straying bravely close to camp) ends with a burning windmill in a bold yet unsatisfying tribute to James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). We may easily guess that Frankenstein's monster survives the inferno, but might not expect to see the handicapped but resourceful Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor) again, yet there he is later on, standing in for absent lackey Renfield as Dracula's human subordinate. While plotting to unleash 'children of the night' across the world, Dracula struts about on ceilings with his bat-winged brides Aleera (Elena Anaya), Verona (Silvia Colloca), and Marishka (Josie Maran), all delightfully attractive in lowcut costumery but unhealthily grotesque as flying grey vamps.
   We first meet our hero in Paris, where he's hunting nocturnal terrorist Mr Hyde (an apish digital creation voiced by Robbie Coltrane) and, as with the aforementioned League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, there's a nod towards The Phantom Of The Rue Morgue. However, Sommers cannot resist adding yet more throwaway genre references with a signature line from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Soon enough, Hyde is dispatched and reverts to Dr Jekyll, cementing Van Helsing's ill repute, in Europe, as a stone killer. Every hero demands a sidekick of course so, after a briefing on the details of his new mission from Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong, bringing much needed gravitas to his cameo role). Van Helsing recruits Friar Carl (David Wenham), initially a somewhat cowardly inventor, who unsurprisingly rises to the challenge of self-defence and spree killing and, just as predictably, survives every mortal threat with limbs and wits intact. For the main plotline's vampire hunts in Transylvania, Carl helpfully supplies Van Helsing with appropriate gadgetry (in the Q-approved manner of a 007 movie) including a nifty automatic crossbow and some flash-pot explosives.
   Van Helsing meets his match in the form of Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale, quite fetching in her combat corset), whose brother Velkan (Will Kemp) is doomed to become the Wolfman. Here, CGI is seamlessly combined with the special effects' makeup and judicious use of prosthetic appliances and yet both the transformation scenes and the werewolf attacks have all the life storyboarded out of them. A local gravedigger, identifiable only as Top Hat (Tom Fisher), is kept busy after Dracula's formidable brides launch their air strike against his town, and he gets the movie's funniest exit line when caught loitering beneath the full moon. The first appearance of Dracula's legions of offspring is eerily reminiscent of Harryhausen's stop-motion animated harpies in Jason And The Argonauts (1963), while the galleries of pulsating egg sacs recalls both Alien (1979) and Gremlins (1984). The presence of dwarfish homunculi as slave labourers (just possibly an allusion to Phantasm), milling about in the background of the Count's new bioelectrical lab offers another scene-specific creature to Van Helsing's existing monster mash, without explanation or believable purpose in the narrative.
   Enjoyable though Van Helsing certainly is in terms of extravagant 'horror lite' action set pieces, its plot and mise en scène swings wildly from rudimentary and pointlessly imitative, to MTV-style fast cuts and confusingly dizzy virtual-camera movements. Minimal characterisation and the headfirst rush of fantastic imagery leaves the audience gasping for air - not from what the director no doubt hoped would be 'breathless excitement', but from our unanticipated failure to stifle an occasional yawn. Van Helsing zips and rips along with amazing speed, displaying its extraordinary technical accomplishments without pause for thought, a brief chance to ponder the heavy ironies, or even a moment's peace for consideration of a battle's outcome - before we are faced with the next energetic clash. There's barely sufficient time to present us with the rules of engagement, let alone a 'why we fight' pep talk, so Anna hurriedly recounts her family heritage while re-arming herself with knives, guns, swords and stakes. The continuing barrage of visual effects squeezes all humanity or fighting spirit out of the picture.
   Despite several modernist contrivances, there's no resemblance to the gory Blade movies, Dracula 2001, or John Carpenter's western homage Vampires. This is very much in the blatantly frivolous style of a Michael Bay action film, with that irritatingly 'Hollywood' director's usual trait of fast-forward pressure upon every new scene to surpass or outshine the previous one. Do not expect any gut-clenching suspense, unexpected shocks, poignant tragedy or genuine thrills. Van Helsing is a formulaic, overproduced screen vehicle intended to elevate the talented if unexceptional Jackman to A-list status, and raise his international celebrity profile to exalted household name-above-the-title leagues. By all means, see this for its 'popcorn' value, but look elsewhere for superior genre entertainment.
Van Helsing

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Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing

Kate Beckinsale as Princess Anna

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