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George Lucas realigned the movie landscape when he introduced a shallow but sure-fire commercial idea into his escapist adventures: eliminate all the 'boring stuff'. Modern action thrillers are composed exclusively of major climaxes. Story backgrounds and character setups are revealed in yet more action scenes; anything that can't be covered in an exposition dump or a reference to another action blockbuster just isn't there. Thrillers that still aim for character complexity and a point of view are more often than not criticized as too slow, too talky, too boring. Who needs a history lesson or a slice of good literature? What succeeds is a video game that delivers a steady flow of kinetic agitation.
Universal controls a rich heritage of classic movie monsters that most everyone knows and loves, even if they haven't bothered to watch the originals from the 1930s and '40s. Since the early 1980s filmmakers have tried to launch modern versions of Universal greats. But straight remakes or re-imaginings of the classics just haven't been forthcoming.
Instead we have the hollow CGI epics of Stephen Sommers, whose 1999 The Mummy pretty much trashed classic gothic horror forever. The original Egyptian ghoul was turned into an undefeatable action special effect, sort of a ghostly The Terminator. Thanks to the plasticity of CGI, Sommers made his Mummy into a non-stop action show owing more to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anyone with a brain was insulted but the kiddies came in droves. Sommers' success proved that new audiences want a new kind of entertainment -- high calorie, low protein, zero intelligence.
Sommers wrote and directed a Mummy sequel; when it spawned successful spin-off pictures all was well in Universal City. 2004 saw the writer-director springing forth with his magnum opus, a $140 million monster rally that pulls all of Universal's heavy hitter monsters into one big monster mash. Sommers major move is to reinvent the character of Van Helsing (the scholarly vampire hunter from Bram Stoker's Dracula) as an all-purpose action hero.
Sommer's Van Helsing is overloaded with borrowed traits. Like James Bond, he's a secret agent for the Vatican equivalent of MI6, and possesses a license to kill monsters. He has an official "Q"- like armorer in the friar Carl (David Wenham of Public Enemies). They travel together in a way reminiscent of the Hammer film Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Van Helsing blunders into old legends to face ancient foes, like Indiana Jones. Like The Highlander he has a deep, deep past identity as an eternal warrior named Gabriel. Van Helsing is himself a supernatural being, although he doesn't know it -- his Vatican spymasters have erased his memory. As all the action is between superhuman creatures in an art-directed Transylvania, little human context is allowed to slip in. The torch-bearing mobs and moronic villagers have no real stake in the proceedings.
Star Hugh Jackman plays Van Helsing, a choice that encourages a crossover association from Jackman's Wolverine character in a (ahem) competing comic book franchise. At one point Van Helsing's vampire killer gets to turn into a werewolf, allowing Jackman an opportunity to howl anew. Finally, Jackman's Van Helsing is a Matrix- like fashion statement in his designer leathers and cool hat; he swaggers like a Sergio Leone gunslinger with his silver-bullet pistols, sawblade throwing discs and a crossbow that works like a machine gun. Sommers even borrows a key Eli Wallach line from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and gives it to his leading lady: If you're going to kill me, kill me -- don't talk!" 1
Van Helsing fulfills the six year-old's need for constant, non-stop movement. Major fights, chases and monster mania are separated only by a few show-off establishing vistas of Paris or the mighty Carpathian mountains. As soon as the action begins, the characters are replaced by CGI animations, enabling them to swing through the air, take 40-foot falls, slam into stone walls and be jerked off their feet by flying monsters, without having their limbs torn from their sockets. I realize that this is part and parcel of the video game ethos, but in a movie the result is an immediate loss of dramatic interest. There's no real jeopardy, nothing is at risk. If the characters are invincible cartoons, how are we supposed to care what happens to them?
The story is a monster rally, all right. A B&W prologue introduces us to Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley, from Jackman's TV version of Oklahoma!), a neat construction whose head keeps peeling like an old orange to reveal an electric brain whirring inside. Sure enough, by act three everybody's calling The Monster, simply "Frankenstein".
As in a couple of original Universal plots from the 1940s, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is trying to duplicate Dr. Frankenstein's experiments for his own purposes, and needs The Monster to serve as sort of a battery charger. This Dracula not only walks up walls, he can transform into a flying demon, as can his three Vampire Brides. They become horrid harpies, nude but not really -- their pasty white naked bodies are anatomically challenged and appear to have swirling robes molded into their skin. Neither sunlight nor crucifixes bother Drac and his vampire minions. They morph into fanged demons in a cartoonish way not that much different from the Tex Avery-like transformations in the comedy Mask. The first couple of fanged faces are startling, but after that the effect weakens considerably.
The ancient legend of Dracula has been embellished with a noble family called Valerious (not to be confused with the valiant family called Nobilius) that's been trying for 400 years to eliminate the darned son o' the devil. Velkan, the last male heir (Will Kemp) becomes a werewolf, which in the hyped logic of Van Helsing makes him ferocious fifteen-foot monster. For over two hours this monster rally races from one ineffectual clash to another. For all their powers Dracula and his fetching demon babes are incapable of eliminating Van Helsing or his newfound girlfriend, the final Valerious heir Anna (Kate Beckinsale). Anna climbs mountains, swings from cables hundreds of feet long and assaults castles in high heels; her ridiculous outfit looks like it came from Fredericks' Fall Leather Fetish catalog. I mean, nobody pauses to eat in this movie but if poor Anna needed to visit the ladies' room, she'd need twenty minutes to extricate herself from all the buckles and straps. Perhaps the reason Anna has so much trouble subduing her vampire foes is that she's too restricted in the leather bustier-corset, and can't draw a decent breath.
It doesn't matter. The beautiful Ms. Beckinsale is there for the close-ups, and CGI animation takes over for the rest. The unending fights become a colossal bore, as we really don't care about any of the characters. Hensleys' Frankenstein Monster is the only one who captured my interest, as writer Sommers has given him a human dimension that's lacking elsewhere.
At one point the action pauses for a ten-minute steal of the Vampire Ball from Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, with borrowed elements seemingly added from a checklist: scarlet gown, reflection-less mirror, big dance choreography. That's when we finally realize that Sommers' movie is little more than a sampler box of scenes taken from other movies. The worst thing about this "See's Candy" approach to filmmaking is that in one go, Van Helsing uses up the commercial novelty of most of the ideas in the Universal monster corral. Who wants to see a traditional Universal Frankenstein movie after the monster's been relegated to 6th-banana support status in this movie?
As if the movie weren't already crowded with undeveloped ideas, Sommers introduces Van Helsing in a confused Paris episode, tracking down the infamous Mr. Hyde. As everything in Van Helsing has to be overstated, this Mr. Hyde is a ten-foot Hulk- like brute inexplicably hiding in the bell tower of Notre Dame, the old stomping grounds of Quasimodo. We get the idea, I guess, that Van Helsing is a wanted criminal as well as a Vatican operative, something perhaps intended to be exploited in a dozen Van Helsing sequels that were never made. Sommers' story payoff is a mechanical deadline plot device. Dracula's big ambition is to give life to his "progeny", a horde of flying demons waiting in egg sac cocoons that remind us of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Alien. Illogically, the rather small monsters are capable of carrying off humans in flight, even though their mothers, Dracula's brides, could barely lift one person by themselves.
I wasn't there to see how theatrical audiences reacted to Van Helsing; the fact that I probably wouldn't have made it through the entire film is neither here nor there. But it reportedly didn't return its investment. After this year's G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (the less said the better), Mr. Sommers is now the resident genius writer-director behind the upcoming remake of When Worlds Collide, to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Who knows, maybe it will be the best movie ever made.
Kevin J. O'Connor is a villainous Igor, while Alun Armstrong plays the cynical Cardinal that dispatches Van Helsing on his mission from a secret lair far beneath the Vatican. The Catholic Church, we're assured, is the guardian of everything good and virtuous in the world. Okay, I guess ... I can still remember the tough customer Father Merrin, Agent of The Cross, the righteous dude who took on the horned one, up close and personal. He carried a License to Exorcise.
Universal's Blu-ray of Van Helsing is a beautifully encoded version of this hyperkinetic Gothic headache-inducer. The images look great at all times, even when the animation illusions fail to charm. Too many special effects can be numbing, or at the very least lose their "special" quality. We were asked to believe that a man could fly in Superman: The Movie but by the end of this thing we're not likely to believe anything we see on a screen, ever again. It's all just a cheap effect, folks -- the cheap kind that costs enough to run the Los Angeles Public School System for a year.
Allen Daviau is the cinematographer of note, and when given a real set with real characters to light he creates some attractive images. The extras reflect Universal's new Blu-ray policy of "the more the merrier", as we're given plenty of commentaries, docus, making-of and technical pieces, ad materials, gag videos and scenes re-viewed from multiple video cameras hidden on the set, including time-lapse cameras. Industrial Light & Magic figures heavily in the features showing the development of characters and settings ... a lot of this film was composed on computers. If Van Helsing is your cup of blood, there's plenty here to enjoy. For the select élite who have invested in specially rigged theater seating, the disc is also D-Box Motion Enabled. In his commentary, writer-director Stephen Sommers comes off as a very nice fellow who takes the Universal monster heritage very seriously.
There's no denying that Universal didn't abuse its own monster heritage. The 1940s saw two or three free-for-all monster rallies that sapped some of the charm from the series -- even if they're still popular with kids and fans. It's amazing to think that the famous Frankenstein meets the Wolfman probably has fewer than three minutes of real mano-a-claw monster battling -- Van Helsing has at least 90 minutes of same. But the new movie can't touch the effectiveness of 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the comedy programmer that respects the monsters and creates some truly interesting situations. The thrill moment where Lon Chaney Jr's noble Wolf Man plummets from a castle parapet, pulling Dracula down into the waves, is still breathtaking. Nothing in Van Helsing has that kind of basic impact.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Van Helsing Blu-ray rates:
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