Van Helsing (2004)

Sadly, Universal did not own the rights to the kitchen sink.
Sadly, Universal did not own the rights to the kitchen sink.

“Adventure Lives Forever*”

Directed by Stephen Sommers
Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh and David Wenham

Amnesiac badass Gabriel Van Helsing (Jackman) is the chief monster hunter of an interfaith order based in the Vatican and devoted to protecting the world from evil. Dispatched to Transylvania along with friar-engineer Carl (Wenham), he is tasked to help Anna (Beckinsale) the last of the line of Valerious, to fulfil their family duty and destroy Dracula (Roxburgh).

In addition to the curse of Valerious threatening the damnation of generations of faithful monster hunters, Dracula has stolen Frankenstein’s research, intending to restore life to the undead spawn sired on his brides. He only needs Frankenstein’s creature (Shuler Hensey) to complete his work. More than any other vampire, Dracula is basically indestructible, but he has a connection to Van Helsing, and a weakness that may be his undoing.

What’s wrong with it?

Possibly-the-Archangel Gabriel Van Helsing is weirdly removed from any of the defining features of Abraham Van Helsing of the original Dracula. This isn’t bad in and of itself, just… weird. If he isn’t Van Helsing, why is he Van Helsing.

The film basically throws ideas at the screen to see what sticks, but it does so with such speed that nothing has a chance to be developed. As a result, the film feels rushed and insubstantial, and yet is two hours long. The film’s central thesis – the link between Van Helsing, ‘the left hand of God’ and Dracula, is only really touched on briefly at the end and never explained.

Anna Valerious’ outfit is just… Okay; Anna Valerious in general. She’s supposed to be a badass monster hunter, but Beckinsale can barely move in the corset and heels, and appears to have had little or no combat training. She doesn’t even get to finish her own designated girl fight.

The brides, clearly cast for looks, can’t act worth a damn; or maybe that’s just the accents. Various people are assaying very bad Transylvanian accents.

The baby vamp pods are just… nasty. As pods, as tiny cutsey bat things… as a concept.

The CGI monsters are just a little too obviously CG.

The plot hangs together on coincidence. Carl stumbles on Dracula’s secret weakness by chance, and the villains capture the Monster by intuiting where in the entire city of Budapest Van Helsing might hide him.

The film’s main action begins on the night of the full moon. After two identifiable night-time periods, Van Helsing is bitten by a werewolf and told that he will turn at his first full moon… in two days time.

Conversely, it takes at least five minutes for the clock to go from the first to the final stroke of midnight.

What’s right with it?

Jackman looks the part, and has an undeniable charisma. Wenham is also affable enough, although he reminds me of… someone I cannot quite name.

Holy shit! He’s channelling Alan Bennett!

Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack is really fucking good.

How bad is it really?

It’s really not that terrible, and that’s part of its crime. With just a little more care and attention, this could – nay should – have been a rip-roaring adventure. To a large degree, The Mummy has damned Sommers in my eyes forever. It was such a perfect storm that I can never quite forgive his ham-fisted attempts to recapture that magic.

Best bit (if such there is)?

  • Van Helsing meets Dracula at a masked ball. The camera pans to the mirrored walls of the ballroom to reveal that only Anna and Van Helsing have reflections.
  • The questioning of the craven Igor (Sommers’ regular craven weasel Kevin J O’Connor) is actually pretty hilarious.
    “Don’t kill me!”
    “Why not?”
    “Well… um…”

What’s up with…?

  • Mr Hyde de Notre Dame? It looks very much as if they failed to get the rights to Quasimodo out of Disney.
  • The resurrection set-up? Van Helsing takes one look at the electrodes attached to the baby vampire pods and instantly knows that Dracula is trying to resurrect them. How? Frankenstein is supposed to have pioneered this work and then died.
  • The gas-powered crossbow? It’s gas-powered, right, but it has a bow arm and a string. What purpose do they serve?
  • The film’s Catholic failures? Van Helsing crosses himself to bless the dead and then cremates a dead Catholic.
  • Dracula’s evil jawas? Just… the fuck?
  • Vladislaus Dracula? I’ve seen this elsewhere. Was ‘Vlad’ felt to be too informal?
  • The ‘uncatchable’ Transylvanian horses? Apparently they also defy gravity, but despite advertised claims, fail to outrun a werewolf, even when travelling by map.
  • Carl’s MAD research skills? He literally resolves one of the secrets of Dracula by treating an antique scroll like a MAD Magazine fold-in.
  • The fucking Lion King moment at the end? Seriously; when Anna’s face appears in the clouds I half-expected it to go into the Simpsons skit with Bleeding Gums Murphy.

Ratings

Production values – Van Helsing is pretty slick, with an excellent score, but the CGI is dated now and was a little clunky even a decade ago. 11
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is not exactly inspiring, but it’s got its moments and very few real howlers (a botched attempt to homage the ‘if you have to shoot, shoot’ line from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a notable exception) and most of the main performances are good. The accents are shonky though, even whatever the hell Jackman is doing, and the brides are terrible14
Plot and execution – There is simply too much in there to be coherent. Perhaps sensing that no franchise was in the offing, Universal threw every monster property they owned into this one, and the results are… garbled. 15
Randomness – Baby bat vampires born dead from undead mothers; Igor and his steampunk cattle prod; werewolves as Dracula’s Achilles Heel. 11
Waste of potential – This film could have been so much better. There are good ideas, they’re just never allowed breathing room. 16

Overall 67%

*In spite of this film’s best efforts.

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5 thoughts on “Van Helsing (2004)”

  1. I covered this recently as well. I thought the CGI was way overdone, and the attempted accents are just awful. That said, the Frankenstein’s Monster design is pretty cool, and the practical effects that do show up are great. I also appreciated the ambiance of the filming location. I overall agree, it is run-of-the mill and mediocre blockbuster, but it showed some foresight in its attempt to create a modern combined cinematic universe years before Marvel jumped in the game. We’ll see if Universal can pull it off with the upcoming “Dracula: Untold” related films.

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