Universal // 2004 // 132 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // October 19th, 2004
The one name they all fear.
And with good reason.
It's the end of the 19th century, and monsters are slowly overrunning the world. Luckily for the unsuspecting public, the Vatican (that's right, the Vatican) has trained and dispatched its own professional monster-killer, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, X-Men, Swordfish), to protect the world from the ever-growing threat.
After dispatching the mad scientist Mr. Hyde in Paris, Van Helsing is summoned to Transylvania to hunt down the legendary Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, Moulin Rouge) and his three undead brides. Once there, Van Helsing teams up with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, Uncovered, Pearl Harbor), a heavily-mascara'd Transylvanian determined to kill Dracula so that her family can get into heaven (catch that?). Meanwhile, Dracula is busy at work forming a plan to bring his millions of unborn children to life, which just so happens to require the involvement of -- ta-da! -- Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley, Monday Night Mayhem) and the Wolf Man (Will Kemp, Mindhunters). Funny how that works out, isn't it?
Stephen Sommers's newest monster-movie update, Van Helsing, is the cinematic equivalent of having someone stand in your face, waving his arms and screaming for two-plus hours -- sure, you've seen something with a lot of noise and movement, but all you're left with is a headache. The film is a relentless assault on the senses -- a cinematic power drill to your skull -- that wrings you out without reward. It's the special effects-event-movie taken to its worst degree; character, story, and entertainment aren't important as long as everyone jumps around and yells a lot and everything costs three times what it should have.
The first installment in Sommers's revisionist monster-movie cycle, the 1999 smash hit The Mummy, turned Universal's ploddingly creepy original into a sweeping adventure with a winking sense of humor. That film got a great deal of mileage (much of it thanks to star Brendan Fraser) from its goofy ability not to take itself too seriously -- it was a fun ride in the best sense of the phrase. With the follow up, 2001's The Mummy Returns, Sommers's formula was already beginning to show signs of wear; the fun was vanishing in favor of computer-generated spectacle and an overall more-is-more mentality. Bigger wasn't just better -- it was the only way.
Now we have Van Helsing, a dull and brainless attempt to combine the rest of the non-Mummy Universal monsters into one big orgy of sound and fury. The movie doesn't tell a story, but rather strings together a series of noisy set pieces meant to add up to a plot; Sommers's attempt to force a connection between all of the monsters is as silly as it is convoluted and incoherent. So overblown are the results that Van Helsing makes The Mummy Returns look like a quiet little indie film by comparison. It can't even be recommended on the usual summer-blockbuster basis of Spectacle, because there's nothing in the film that's at all awe-inspiring -- for a film as active as this one, it's surprising how lifeless it is.
Van Helsing is a total mess, yet doesn't even attempt to cover it up or make believe like it has its act together -- every frame of film lets you know just how messy it is. The movie's use of non-stop CGI special effects (expensive, to be sure, but generally ugly and unconvincing), coupled with the pacing and tone, only adds to the overwhelming film-as-video game approach being taken -- it carries about as much weight, too. Note to filmmakers: there is nothing scary or involving about computer-generated monsters (the Wolf Man in particular is reminiscent of that CGI Scooby-Doo abomination); where is the danger present in the heroes interacting with cartoons?
What exactly is Sommers's intention with Van Helsing? Despite the presence of wall-to-wall monsters, he doesn't seem to have made a horror movie -- nothing is designed to be even remotely scary. It doesn't succeed as an action film either; there's nonstop action, but it's disorganized and difficult to follow. There certainly isn't the same lighthearted sense of fun present in Sommers's two Mummy movies -- this is a gloomy, joyless film that shallowly strives for beats of emotional resonance but comes up hollow.
Richard Roxburgh's performance as the Big Bad himself, Count Dracula, might be the single worst thing about the movie. To start, the interpretation of the character (for which Sommers deserves a great deal of the blame) is a miscalculation -- any sort of gothic majesty has been ditched in favor of a rehashed vampire-as-rock-star approach, and it simply doesn't work in this setting. If the purpose of the film -- the very reason for its existence -- is to bring together the classic Universal monsters, why not treat them classically? Sommers's approach could have worked, I suppose, had Roxburgh grounded his performance at all. Instead, his Dracula is so cartoonishly over the top that it goes off into a stratosphere no longer resembling acting. Some may call it "camp," but that's giving it too much credit -- camp is heightened or offbeat, but doesn't totally detract from the movie. In a film that's already over the top in every possible way, Roxburgh's performance is, to put it plainly, awful.
Roxburgh may be the worst offender, but he's certainly not alone in bad-acting company. Whether it's as a result of the cranked-up nature of Sommers's film, or just another symptom, every actor in the film unintelligibly shouts his or her lines and plays his or her role with all of the subtlety and nuance of a hand grenade. Shuler Hensley (Frankenstein's Monster), in particular, gives Roxburgh a run for his undead money in terms of overacting. Hugh Jackman, who made his Wolverine an effectively stoic action hero in the X-Men franchise, is unable to repeat that same success here; his Gabriel Van Helsing (no explanation as to why the character's name has been changed from the Stoker novel, despite every indication that they are one and the same) is humorless and dull. The same is true of his female counterpart, Kate Beckinsale, who seems to have learned her Transylvanian accent by watching Martin Landau in Ed Wood, and who once again gives a performance that makes her appeal elusive to me.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Van Helsing is that it isn't simply a calculated attempt at a blockbuster; Sommers lacks the cynicism of, say, a Michael Bay. No, the director's heart is in the right place -- he really does have great affection for the classic monsters, and the movie is like the realization of some kind of longstanding adolescent fantasy. I'm let down by Sommers's execution of the film, but I'm glad he exists in the world; his excitement about making movies is palpable in every frame (especially the black and white prologue, a perfect indication of just what the film could have been). He's the kid running the candy store -- a regular monster-movie geek with big-budget studio resources at his disposal. Sommers's verve makes it even more frustrating that he's unable to focus that energy into a more coherent film. If he could somehow maintain his same enthusiasm, but at the same time find a way to become a more controlled and disciplined filmmaker, Sommers could really have something. Somewhere between his vision and his execution lies a very good film, and I look forward to the day when he finds that balance.
Universal is releasing two versions of Van Helsing: a standard special edition (being reviewed here) and an "Ultimate Edition," which features the same content for the film itself but also adds the original versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man from the Universal catalogue. The film boasts an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and both are about as good as gets. The image features pristine detail and holds colors (especially blacks, which are everywhere in the film's decidedly dark cinematography) exceptionally well, and the 5.1 audio track, despite being obnoxiously overactive, is lively and makes the most use of its separation capabilities. As much as a movie like Van Helsing can benefit from being seen on the big screen, it's the kind of film that's practically made for DVD, where the audio and video components always receive first-class treatment. It's a shame that so rarely does the quality of the film itself warrant such outstanding technical merit, unless it's Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The disc hosts a boatload of extras, though the emphasis seems to be on quantity over quality. First up are a pair of commentaries, one with writer-director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay, and one with stars Roxburgh, Hensley, and Kemp. There's an inherent problem in listening to commentary tracks for a film that doesn't work, in that the people recording the track are typically too close to the film to see its flaws. As a result, they generally wind up praising elements or expressing feelings about the movie that the viewer is unable to reconcile. That's the case with both commentaries for Van Helsing; despite Sommers's obvious enthusiasm -- infectious, but misguided -- the two tracks showcase a group of people out of touch with the finished product.
Beyond the commentaries, the disc features a series of featurettes and interactive features meant to enhance the Van Helsing experience, but which are nothing more than time-wasting filler. The only thing that might be worthwhile is a brief spot (about 10 minutes) examining how the movie's numerous special effects were achieved -- if you're really into blue screen photography, you might find this one enjoyable.
No one wanted to like Van Helsing more than I did. Growing up on a steady diet of Universal monster movies (a series of books published about the films made up most of my reading material as a child), this film should have played as a "greatest hits" of the monster movies I know and love, but instead came off as overindulgent, obnoxiously bombastic, and kind of stupid. As monster-party movies go, I'll stick with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Heck, even The Monster Squad was more enjoyable than this expensive dud.
Van Helsing is found guilty of excess and overkill. Take away Stephen Sommers's computer and get him some Ritalin. And while you're there, could you get me some aspirin? All that shouting has given me headache.
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Stephen Sommers and Producer Bob Ducsay
* Audio Commentary Featuring Actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp
* Explore Dracula's Castle Interactive Tour
* Featurette: "Bringing the Monsters to Life"
* Featurette: "The Legend of Van Helsing" "You Are in the Movie" Feature
* Van Helsing Game for Xbox
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailer: Shrek 2
* Official Site