“Van Helsing,” Universal’s latest attempt to revive the action-packed creature feature, begins promisingly enough with a faithful homage to the studio’s classic monster pictures of old. The opening scene follows a mob of angry villagers (is there any other kind?) as they storm Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. It’s shot in black and white and – for a little while, anyway – captures the eerie, fog-ridden atmosphere of such horror staples as “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man.” Then Dracula shows up, puts a beat down on Dr. F., and everything quickly shifts into dreck.
Shortly thereafter, we’re introduced to Hugh Jackman as the titular Man Without A Past who hunts classic monster types while dressed like a better coiffed Vampire Hunter D. He works for a shadowy secret religious order (is there any other kind?) that protects the rest of humanity from the creatures of the night (Van Helsing’s sort of a 19th century Carl Kolchak, only better armed). After returning from Paris on an unsuccessful attempt to bring Mr. Hyde back alive, Van Helsing is assigned the task of traveling to darkest Transylvania to save the Valerious family. It seems the brooding Velkan (Will Kemp) and his fetching sister Anna (Kate Beckinsdale) are the sole remaining members of the clan, thanks to their generations-long war against Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, channeling Gary Oldman from “The Professional”).
Tagging along on the mission is Carl (David Wenham), the secret society’s equivalent of Q from the Bond flicks, who handily outfits Van Helsing with a gas-powered automatic crossbow and some sort of sunlight bomb (one can only imagine the applications such a weapon might have against vampires). Upon arriving they’re attacked by Dracula’s three brides, who can each effortlessly change from a hot, cleavage-baring vampire babe (is there any other kind?) to a screeching, nipple-less harpy (as in “Fantasia,” bare breasts are fine as long as there aren’t any areolas).
After wasting approximately 14,000 crossbow bolts slaying one of the brides, Van Helsing joins forces with a reluctant Anna to fight the Count. Truthfully, she has little choice: the Valerious family appears to be dying out because none of them can fight for s**t. Anyway, it’s a fine plan, except nobody knows where Dracula is. Oh, he couldn’t possibly be holed up in Dr. Frankenstein’s abandoned castle, so let’s not bother to look. At least, not until Velkan, newly converted to lycanthropy, shows up and drops a hint. After entering the castle, Van Helsing and Anna uncover Dracula’s unholy scheme: use Frankenstein’s machinery to bring the vampire’s undead spawn to life by channeling electricity through Frankenstein’s monster. Followed by, one would assume, Ruling the World.
Those seeking classic monster lore are better off looking elsewhere. Vampires in “Van Helsing” can come out in the day, provided the sun’s behind a cloud, and werewolves revert to human form if the full moon is obscured, which allows plenty of opportunities for writer/director Stephen Sommers to continue the endless parade of unimpressive CGI. And for those of you looking for comparisons to “The Monster Squad,” the wolf man in “Van Helsing” would indeed appear to have nards, since all werewolves are modestly covered in shredded, Incredible Hulk style pants when in human shape.
The final third of “Van Helsing” is bad filmmaking on a level equal to anything Golan-Globus ever produced. Sommers suspends the laws of time and physics and forces his characters to spout some of the cheesiest dialogue imaginable. Although unlike most bad movies, which have you pondering how to sneak out, “Van Helsing” actually encourages you to keep watching, just to see how bad things actually get. By the hilariously corny ending, I could see “Van Helsing” joining “Rocky Horror” and “Showgirls” as a midnight movie where audiences engage in drunken call and response, affectionately mocking Beckinsdale’s Boris and Natasha accent and Roxburgh’s overwrought histrionics.
I’m familiar with the concept of a “popcorn movie.” And as capable as I am of suspending disbelief (it’s a movie about vampires and werewolves, for crying out loud) or “turning my brain off” to enjoy a movie, you’ve got to meet me halfway. Give me something from a movie with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a fairly talented cast, of whom only Wenham and Kevin J. O’Connor as Igor stand out.
Sommers is obviously a big fan of the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Witness “The Mummy,” which was a surprisingly enjoyable sleeper. Unfortunately, in his attempt to mimic the roller coaster pace of “Raiders” he makes the same mistakes as he did with “The Mummy Returns.” Namely, he crams in so much action there’s no time left to develop any of the characters beyond vague archetypes or flesh out the frankly ridiculous plot. Sommers must be hoping to deaden our senses enough to keep us from asking questions like, “How many times can they incorporate swinging from a rope/chain/cable into one film?” or “Why don’t those stupid vampire chicks kill Anna and get it over with?” or “If Velkan is one of the last two members of the Valerious family, why are they using him to bait the wolf man?” or “Who builds a road on the edge of a cliff, and while we’re at it, what is it about a stagecoach’s construction that might cause it to explode like a Ford Pinto?” I could go on, but it all boils down to the fact that “Van Helsing” is a cacophonous mess. Save your money and go buy the recently released Universal classic horror DVDs instead.
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