***1/2 (out of 5)
May 7, 2004
Hugh Jackman as VAN HELSING
Kate Beckinsale as ANNA VALERIOUS
Richard Roxburgh as COUNT VLADISLAUS DRACULA
David Wenham as CARL
Shuler Hensley as FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER
Kevin J. O’Connor as IGOR
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
BY KEVIN CARR
Ahhhh… after “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns,” Stephen Sommers tackles the rest of the monster squad from the Universal vault. For me, Stephen Sommers falls in the same category as Renny Harlin. He’s one of the best hacks in the business.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Stephen Sommers’ films (even his early foray into action/sci-fi/horror, “Deep Rising”), just as I love Renny Harlin’s films (including his early “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master”). But I will be the first to admit that they are total bubble-gum and popcorn flicks.
I also am a huge fan of the old Universal monster movies, and anyone who has those films in their blood should feel a special connection to “Van Helsing.” Oh, sure, there are plenty of folks out there badmouthing “Van Helsing” because it they consider it a bastardization of these classic films. But those people need to go to their local library and check out a copy of “The Ghost of Frankenstein” or “House of Dracula.”
Don’t – I repeat, DON’T – compare this film to the original Universal horror movies like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy.” These early 1930s films were classics in the genre. They were event films steeped in rich artistry. Instead, “Van Helsing” should be seen as a homage to the sequels of these movies – the ones that became franchises in the 1940s.
The Universal horror movies of the 1940s were fodder for Saturday matinees. They weren’t meant to be serious horror flicks – and neither was “Van Helsing.” It’s a comic book, much like “Hellboy” or “Blade.”
“Van Helsing” tells the story of Gabriel Van Helsing, a mysterious warrior for a secret order of the priesthood. It is Van Helsing’s mission to vanquish evil from the face of the earth, and in this film he tangles with Mr. Hyde, the Wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. There’s also a secret to Van Helsing, considering he’s hundreds of years old, still looks like a sexy Hugh Jackman and can’t remember much of his past.
Van Helsing is dispatched to Transylvania to destroy Count Dracula. With the help of Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), the last in her blood line that was sworn to kill the Count, Van Helsing faces the living monsters as well as those of his past.
A lot is riding on this film for Universal. With a massive $160 million budget and an array of hopeful spin-offs, this is a gamble. It’s also the first real chance Hugh Jackman has had to be an action hero without steel claws bursting from his knuckles. In that respect, Jackman makes a worthy Van Helsing, although he’s not as engaging of an action star as someone like Harrison Ford was in his day.
David Wenham actually steals the show from the stoic Jackman. Wenham’s masterful portrayal of sidekick Carl is a riot. He’s a 19th-century Q who comes along for the ride, and he hits his marks perfectly without being annoying.
Kate Beckinsale does a decent job in this film – a vast improvement over her last vampire movie “Underworld.” Wearing a corset and tight pants throughout the film, she looks great, although she might want to lay off the botox if she ever expects to regain her smile.
Stephen Sommers’ script is both excellent and terrible at the same time. It wasn’t just a standard monster movie and actually had some nice twists and turns in the plot. While it was predictable, enough was going on with the characters that I didn’t feel bored.
The real problem was the dialogue. Holy cow, was the dialogue ever atrocious!
Being very forgiving of Sommers’ work, I like to think that the terrible dialogue was put in there on purpose, inviting the actors to over-emote like the old 1940s flicks (although I suspect this might not be true). Even if this is not the case, tell yourself it is, and you’ll be able to swallow the movie a little better.
The biggest problem in the film is Richard Roxburgh as Count Dracula. He just doesn’t cut it as the literal son of the Devil. His wishy-washy performance is enough to make Bela Lugosi turn over in his grave. But it could be worse. They could have cast John Travolta.
If you’re looking for a serious Frankenstein or Dracula movie, you won’t find it in “Van Helsing.” There’s a lot of action and a lot of CGI. Some may say too much CGI, but I would defend the film with the simple explanation that it is nothing more than a comic book on celluloid.
So, buy the extra large tub of popcorn with plenty of butter, ‘cause that’s the kind of movie this is.