HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: VAN HELSING 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 126 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Transylvania, Dr Frankenstein has created his Monster on the orders of Count Dracula, but villagers burn down the castle. Several years later in Paris, Gabriel Van Helsing, a monster hunter in the service of the Vatican, kills Mr Hyde. Despite tiring of his profession and wanting his memories, which were taken away many years before because of his sins, returned to him, he is ordered to search out and destroy Dracula,an assignment especially important because, 450 years ago, a Transylvanian knight named Valerius the Elder promised God that his family would never rest nor enter heaven until they vanquished Dracula. Dracula still lives, but only two of Valerius’ descendents – Princess Ana, and Prince Velkan – remain. The family is running out of time, and the Church is committed to saving their souls. Accompanied by Friar Carl, the ‘Q’ of the Vatican, he sets off for Transylvania…….
I must admit, I got pretty excited in the run-up to Van Helsing’s release. Partly I think it was because I was a big fan of the old Universal monsters, and this was the first major film since The Monster Squad to use them. I just couldn’t wait to see them up on the cinema screen, and I loved it that writer/director Stephen Sommers was a big fan of the old movies. The idea of the vampire hunter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula re-imagined as a cool, youngish hero with lots of cool weapons also appealed to me as a nice twist on the character [though Peter Cushing’s version in the first two Hammers was hardly the stuffy old man people usually think of Van Helsing to be], and of course Sommer’s The Mummy and The Mummy Returns [though sometimes I think, even if it might be a crazy claim, he has never bettered Deep Rising !] were really good fun, if hardly classics. Well, for me the film fulfilled most, if not quite all, of my expectations, but the critics laid into it and, while it did okay, it wasn’t really the smash hit expected from the director of the Mummy films even though it was pretty much more of the same. All plans for sequels and even a spin-off TV series were quickly shelved.
Now I personally think that was a great shame; I would have loved Van Helsing to have had further adventure battling various monsters. Even now, the film seems to either be held up as an especially poor example of dumb, CGI-filled Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, or almost forgotten. As is often the case though, I don’t care what the general opinion seems to be, because I always have a fun time watching Van Helsing. There is no doubt that it could and should have been better, and I don’t dispute that is has problems, but for me they don’t stop the movie from being a good two hours of escapism. The opening, with the villagers, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Frankenstein Monster, gets the film off to a good start, shot in black and white and containing lots of little shots and moments from some of the 30s and 40s films. Then we get the introductory scene for Van Helsing, and his semi-comic battle with Mr Hyde is great fun, deliberately referencing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame as well, though of course Mr Hyde was never a ‘proper’ Universal monster, only featuring in the comedy Abbot And Costello Meet Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, and the wholly CG Mr Hyde is not very convincing.
Sadly, unconvincing CG becomes a major problem in this movie. After merely ten or so minutes of set up, including a wonderful James Bond-like scene in a room full of wierd and wonderful weapons, soon we meet the Wolf Man, and get some atrocious shots of him running along, never looking for once like he is a real creature, though the actual design is pretty good. Never mind, we soon get to a fabulous action sequence [which was actually filmed on the same stage at Universal Studios where many of the original classics were shot] where Van Helsing, Carl and our heroine, the newly met Princess Ana, defend the village against Dracula’s three Brides, who can transform into flying harpies which look really effective and even quite convincing, even if they have no nipples! And so it goes on, the film settling into a series of effects-filled set pieces, and the good thing is that if one bit doesn’t entirely work and the effects are a bit poor, a few minutes later another bit of excitement comes along which is a lot more successful. There is a wonderful fight on a carriage, a rather suspenseful Wolf Man rampage, and lots of great swinging around on ropes and chains, but sometimes it seems like effects are being thrown at you for the sake of it, and towards the end I must admit things do go off the rails a bit.
Throughout, every character seems to behave as if gravity doesn’t exist, and eventually the constant shots going through the air following a particular person who is jumping, falling or flying become too much. Still, the child in me loves an oversized Wolf Man [not the same one who appeared earlier] battling Dracula in the form of a giant bat. The two CG creations roll around in the air, and though it doesn’t look very realistic, I just love the idea of it. The whole production design aspect of Van Helsing is terrific, with both CG and real sets nicely expanding on things from the original films, and when Van Helsing slows down, which is hardly ever, one can appreciate some of the great effort that has been made. There’s a wonderful vampire’s ball set piece, which totally outdoes Roman Polanski’s, and for a while we are allowed to linger on the gorgeous colours, the fabulous costumes, and the grandeur of the interiors. Scriptwise Van Helsing is both childishly simple and needlessly complex. If you think about it, the plot consists of little more than the three main protagonists entering into a castle, indulging in some action, leaving, then entering the castle again or another castle,etc. Despite this, there is much rather laborious stuff about Dracula’s background and motives, most of which could have been removed. Perversely, not enough time is spent on Van Helsing’s background – we are told some interesting stuff but not given enough time with it.
The romantic element in the film is also given short shrift. I’m not saying the film should have spent lots of time on it, but the supposedly sad ending would only really have worked if we had actually been shown something approaching a romance. I’m not automatically a fan of having hero and heroine getting down to it when they hardly know each other, but I could have done with a stronger emotional connection. Then again, that would have got in the way of the action! The film does partially succeed with its monsters. Richard Roxburgh’s Dracula, with his Eurotrash accent and exaggerated expressions, is simply annoying, and he only seems to kill one person, but the Wolf Man looks great design-wise, and I love the way he transforms by peeling off his skin. The Monster also works in my opinion because he’s far closer to the intelligent, loquacious character of Mary Shelley’s novel, although not enough is really done with him. Interestingly, The Creature From The Black Lagoon was originally supposed to appear too. Having him turn up in Translyvania would have been pretty ridiculous, and I would have rather that than thousands of bats and dwarf henchmen, even if it’s rather cool that the dwarves are the Dwerger from German mythology.
Whatever you think about Sommers, you can’t deny he can direct action very well, and even if you get dizzy with all the flying and whirling around, you can still see everything that’s going on. Hugh Jackman is as likeable as always and does convey his character’s torment, though he and Kate Beckinsale have no charisma whatsoever. My favourite performance from the film is David Wenham as Carl, who gets most of the funny lines and even gets laid which Van Helsing fails to do! Alan Silvestre’s score provides the required noisy musical backing but the score isn’t very memorable. A rousing theme for Van Helsing is sorely missed. I am fully aware of Van Helsing’s supposed problems and agree with some of them, but I think it is far better than its reputation, and there are signs of a really good movie trapped in the fairly good one we have. As it is, I get sad every time I see Van Helsing riding off to new adventures at the end, thinking of the sequels that never were, and that must mean the proceeding two hours were more than okay! Then again, I think The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is under-appreciated too!