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Van Helsing
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Written by Stephen Sommers, based on characters created by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, Guy Endore, and Robert Lewis Stevenson
Van Helsing
 
Principal Cast
Hugh Jackman -- Van Helsing
Kate Beckinsale -- Anna Valerious
Richard Roxburgh -- Count Vladislaus Dracula
David Wenham -- Carl
Shuler Hensley -- Frankenstein's Monster
Elena Anaya -- Aleera
Will Kemp -- Velkan
Kevin J. O'Connor -- Igor
Alun Armstrong -- Cardinal Jinette
Silvia Colloca -- Verona
Josie Maran -- Marishka
Tom Fisher -- Top Hat
Samuel West -- Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Robbie Coltrane -- Mr. Hyde
Stephen H. Fisher -- Dr. Jekyll
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

"Igor, why do you torture that poor animal?"
"It's what I do."
Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing is the first example of Hollywood gigantism we'll be treated to this summer season, and the summer's first rotten candy apple. Similar big budget efforts, with their cross-pollinating media, are on the way, and if Van Helsing were any better, it would have had a huge advantage in being so early out of the gate. Van Helsing's signature set piece -- a fierce carriage chase through the evening woods -- is a lurching collection of moments cribbed from other adventure films, as poorly sewn together as Frankenstein's Creature himself, and stuffed with a numbing array of CGI images. Besides his main inspiration of Universal horror films, Sommers also draws on James Bond films, The Matrix, Alien, the television series Get Smart, and even -- good Lord, this can't be intentional -- Young Frankenstein. This raiding of popular culture for the stocking of a clip-n-paste library of digital bodies and backgrounds is Van Helsing's raison d'etre. It is voracious in the way it absorbs source material and as assaultive as The Exorcist's Regan in the way it regurgitates it back at you. If you blink, I think you might miss Sonic the Hedgehog falling beneath the carriage wheels.

The plot, convoluted as a Los Angeles freeway cloverleaf, involves Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his brides needing Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) so they can zap bolts of electricity through him and thereby animate their thousands of dead, cocooned children. Van Helsing is a Vatican operative who destroys evil creatures and, after an introductory sequence where our hero squares off against a CGI Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane), is dispatched to Transylvania in order to assist Anna Valerius (Kate Beckinsale, in full-on Underworld mode), an ass-kicking wunderfrau and the last of a family line that has fought Drac for the past four hundred years. Accompanied by his sidekick, the scene-stealing Friar Carl (David Wenham), Van Helsing pursues the vamps, rescues Frankenstein's Monster, blows away numerous flying vampire babies, rolls around with a wolfman (one of three in this thing), and faces off against Dracula himself, who possesses the secret of Van Helsing's past. And the Monster gets to swing from several cables like Tarzan, and Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor) chases Carl across a bridge with a cattle prod, and there's -- well, there's just more. As if with the push of an "Enter" key, this thing just keeps growing and growing.

Van Helsing has an appreciated sense of humor -- not all of it intentional -- but it sabotages its best intentions time and again. You often can't tell if a particular scene is intended as sly homage, snarky joke, ham-fisted melodrama or deliberate camp. Such bungling of tone forces you to react in the same manner to almost every scene and flattens your interest; in a film as overlong as this one, it's deadly. And it keeps the otherwise likeable, capable cast from doing honorable work.

These Universal horror characters are venerable icons, and almost anyone who first encountered them before the age of twenty-five could tell you what they love about them. Sadly, I don't think Sommers is able to do that. The werewolf curse is used purely as a plot device, transferred first to Valerius' brother and then to Van Helsing. Frankenstein's Monster is there to anchor scenes that elicit compassion vs. hatred, and try to prove that our hero isn't just about the job; while Dracula is a hammy creation (though ably played by Roxburgh) with too much uncomfortably in common with Tim Curry's Dr. Frank N. Furter. The vampire brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca & Josie Maran) are I'm-not-complaining eye candy, and special effects opportunities -- no more.

Van Helsing could have been better. The idea of a Victorian era Nightstalker isn't, in itself, bad; a peripatetic rogue agent in 19th century Europe, battling demons, vampires and wolfmen, has potential. But this picture -- and what the hell, let's blame it on Stephen Sommers and his inability to swerve from this torture -- is too cynical in its motivations and execution to leave the dead end road it races along. If Jackman thought this would be his tentpole picture to complement the X-Men series... well, it depends on how readily you'll accept naïve disappointments.

Copyright © 2004 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.


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