2004Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh
hat a tedious and tiresome movie Van Helsing is. The film overstays its welcome by forty minutes and then slaps the audience in the face with an ending so sappy and clichéd that it couldn’t even work had it been tongue-in-cheek. There’s no denying that under the right circumstances a movie like this could work. After all, who wouldn’t want to see a film in which the noble doctor Van Helsing of Bram Stoker’s novel takes on some pseudo-Indiana Jones/James Bond persona in order to battle Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Mr. Hyde? But Van Helsing ignores all the ways in which it could be entertaining and instead becomes a dreary mess.
To say I approached this film with an open mind might come as a surprise, but I did. I daresay I was actually excited about it. For once I cast aside all my bitter, arrogant perspectives and walked in ready to enjoy some mindless action. What I got was the most preposterous, campy monstrosity I’ve seen in a long time.
A movie like this could benefit from a little overacting, but Van Helsing is so ridiculously overacted that it wanders not only beyond parody but past even camp value, returning somehow to a point of such stale sincerity that one wonders if the actors didn’t have hushed meetings in backrooms after each take, concerned about the serious and visible flaws in direction. Most of the actors speak with gaudy Hungarian accents, which is pointless since they’re still all speaking in English anyway. The accents serve only as a constant distraction.
"And if the shock therapy doesn't work, we'll lie him down on the couch and ask him about his unresolved feelings for Mother of Frankenstein."
But a distraction from what? After all, the plot is a sinkhole of good ideas gone bad. See if you can’t wrap your heads around this: apparently Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is in cahoots with Dr. Frankenstein, whom he has contracted to create a monster (Frankenstein’s monster to be precise) that hooks into a machine which will give life to Dracula’s offspring. Offspring, you say? Correct: vampires can apparently conceive offspring that resemble the larva sacks from the Alien movies. However, since Dracula and his three mistresses are technically dead, their offspring in turn are all still births. But somehow hooking Frankenstein’s monster up to this machine will bring them to life.
In the opening sequence, which is a black and white homage to the original Frankenstein movie, the townsfolk storm Frankenstein’s castle, chasing the monster into a windmill which they subsequently burn down. In this way, Dracula loses the key to his machine and his evil plot is put on indefinite hiatus.
Flash forward a year where we find Van Helsing (looking far more ominous than Stoker’s humble doctor) tracking Mr. Hyde, who has just committed another murder. He finds him in a clock tower and a fight ensues. The action in this sequence is more or less passable, but the special effects are, frankly, atrocious. Mr. Hyde looks a lot like Shrek, only a little sleazier. You know it’s a bad sign when the Mr. Hyde in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a marvel of special effects compared to this one.
It's clear that when Mr. Salinger says no visitors, he means no visitors.
In any case, Van Helsing kills Hyde and returns to the Vatican empty handed, hinting at the pointlessness of the opening scene since no information is gained or lost. It’s here that we realize that Van Helsing plays like a witless prequel to the Bond films. It even includes a scene at the Vatican where a Q-inspired friar shows Van Helsing all the new weapons he will use on his quest. This was one of my favorite sequences. Who knew that buried deep within the Vatican Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics would be working together to create weapons to ward off vampires and werewolves? If only Palestine and Israel could cast aside their differences to team up against supernatural forces. Oh, what a better world this would be!
From here the film plods through its material, each step just as predictable as the last. Van Helsing is sent to Transylvania to uncover Dracula’s plot. Here he meets Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hunted by Dracula since she’s the last remaining descendant of the man who vowed to destroy Dracula centuries ago. Of course they end up falling in love because that’s what they’re expected to do in a film like this.
The trailers liken the film to Indiana Jones and, indeed, Hugh Jackman’s performance includes a lot of the dry wit Harrison Ford possessed, but there simply is no sense of anticipation in the movie. We don’t eagerly await the next discovery except as a signal that sooner or later the mystery will be solved and the film will finally end.
But, alas, the end is like a shot in the back just when you think you’re about to escape. I don’t want to give anything away, but imagine the ending of Happy Gilmore in which the golf instructor, an alligator and Abe Lincoln are all waving down from heaven, then rethink how such an ending would work in a dramatic context. I have a rule in which in just about any film ending with a character winking at the camera should be avoided; after Van Helsing I now have a new one.