“We Transylvanians always look on the brighter side of death” – Anna Valerious
Sometimes, things just don’t work out as planned. When I was choosing films for this year’s line-up, I had thought to put in some vampire movies. My intention was a Hammer vampire film, Brides of Dracula (1960) minus Christopher Lee, but showcasing Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing character instead. And then, we’d go on to Van Helsing (2004) as a contrast. But then, I was tempted by Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire which is another excellent vampire movie, with a different slayer – so it all still worked. Alternative takes on the theme. Genius, I thought. I began to really look forward to my screening of the Van Helsing DVD, because it had been at least fifteen years since I’d watched it and remembered virtually nothing.
That was merciful. Maybe I had just blanked it out subconsciously.
Director Stephen Sommers had a great deal of success with rebooting the Mummy films for Universal in 1999 & 2001. These played down a lot of the horror, they became adventure films with a monster, and the whole Mummy concept lends itself to that, because let’s face it, the Mummy isn’t the most engaging of the Universal Monsters. He shuffles around and looks for his reincarnated girlfriend, basically. Trying to launch Van Helsing as an action hero, played by Hugh Jackman dressed like the WWE’s Undertaker was taking, literally, a leap too far. Especially when those leaps are taken with a gun that shoots grappling hooks and cables, like Batman’s. As you might have already guessed this is far away from Edward Van Sloan or Peter Cushing’s run-ins with Dracula and his family. And that, in the main, is the problem.
What makes it worse is that the film starts off so well. It’s a chaotic, frantic homage to Universal’s monster movies filmed in black and white, set on a stormy night. The villagers have lit their torches and are storming Frankenstein’s castle with a battering ram, while Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is impatiently waiting for Frankenstein (Samuel West) to finish his work on his Karloff-inspired creation (Shuler Hensley). The Monster escapes with the deranged assistant, Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor) to a nearby windmill – which according to tradition is set on fire by the villagers, and the Monster is presumed killed. That’s a classic Universal epic right there, hitting all the tropes gloriously.
Then, we turn to colour and…well, let’s take a look, shall we?
A year later, in 1888, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is in Paris, on the trail of Mister Hyde a ridiculously mis-proportioned CGI creation that looks like something out of a Popeye cartoon, voiced by Robbie Coltraine. Although the film tries throughout to be a homage to Universal, and despite the fact that this scene culminates in Notre Dame’s belltower – the badly executed computer graphic Mr Hyde ruins it. Yes, it’s possible that this was just early CGI and I’m comparing it to today’s more advanced methods, and results – but DAMN). Van Helsing isn’t the elderly academic we know from previous films, he’s a young leather clad action hero, packed with James Bond-like gadgets, hooks and lines like Batman, wisecracks and a mysterious past.
This is Gabriel Van Helsing (yes, they even changed his name) can’t remember his past. He was discovered crawling up the steps of a Church and is now, kind of a secret agent working for the Vatican, vanquishing evil. As bad as this sounds, there’s worse – including a scene in the Vatican catacombs where he receives his new field equipment (gadgets) by a Q-like abbot. These include a telescopic silver stake and a light emitting grenade, as well as a crossbow with a machine gun setting. (I’m not kidding) His next mission, assigned to him by the M-like cardinal is to go to Transylvania, destroy Dracula and protect the last two members of an old Romanian gypsy family the Valerians.
The film has an over-reliance on the abundance of CGI creatures and backgrounds that weigh the film down, and there’s an unseemly effort to cram in as many monsters as possible. But that’s not to say that some scenes aren’t marvellous to watch – Van Helsing’s arrival in a small Transylvanian village, only to be attacked by three flying female vampires is well worth watching and well executed. I very much liked the conceit that the werewolf transformations weren’t a physical mutation of the human form metamorphizing into a wolf, but rather, the human tears his skin off to reveal fur of the wolf within. The human is only a disguise for the wolf.
But other than that, there’s very little of interest here and the proposed sequels, which probably would have explored Van Helsing’s background were quickly shelved when the box office receipts killed the idea off quicker than a stake through the heart.
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