"Truthfully, I have a hard time classifying this movie..."
Stephen Sommers, Writer/Director Van Helsing
Truthfully, I had a hard time watching this movie, though
I did laugh out loud twice and I'm pretty sure I wasn't meant
to. Seeing Stephen Sommers' latest über-hyped period
action/horror effort was like being screamed at for two hours
plus. There was not a single scene in which two characters
looked at each other, exchanged a few words without then immediately
falling to what would be their deaths, or being morphed into
their CG 'synthespians' as they fly ludicrously through the
air. Where is it written that werewolves can defy gravity?
It was as if Sommers trusted the entertainment value of his
dialogue so little, he felt the need to stage CG attacks as
punctuation. It is a frenetic mess with so little drama, I
thought I was watching a showreel for ILM, a showreel incidentally
that would have had me on the phone to WETA, New Zealand.
For all of its dominance in the last decade, ILM seems to
have been saddled with FX assignments that were almost doomed
to fail. It's Sommers' CG ambition that also elicits ILM work
that I'm sure would have better luck being effective (and
believed) if it stayed in the shadows. There were parts of The Hulk that were among the best FX work
I've ever seen. But then the jolly green giant went outside
and threw tanks around...
look. It's a man with stubble and a hat. Sommers has 'paid
homage' to Spielberg before. The Mummy's
Rick is pure Indy-DNA with added pantomime. Jackman's Van
Helsing is underwritten, colourless, and bland. It's a shame
as Jackman is effortlessly charismatic and as this is primarily
a vampire movie, it's odd the star has nothing to get his
teeth into. Jackman pours more humanity into one claw of Wolverine
than in Van Helsing's entire body. He's a cipher, a character
as a means to a universe of Universal horror. Spielberg and
Lucas will gleefully admit that Indiana Jones is of course
an homage to an era of quota-quickies in which each cliffhanger
packed 'em in for next time. Sommers can't rely on such an
excuse. Van Helsing is so derivative of what passes for the
action hero these days, it's a chore and a hard one, to prise
him apart from Mr. Jones.
Helsing, as to be expected, is an all-out festival
of computer generated imagery and yet the film appears (or
'feels') cheap. Even when there was no digital trickery, your
eye scouts the sides of frames just in case. We are introduced
to the milieu via a black and white prologue in which the
early Universal monster movies are visually quoted. It's either
a testament to Sommers' devotion to the originals or Mel Brooks'
talent that made me think of Young Frankenstein and
the brilliance of Kenneth Mars's comic performance; "You
weel roooo the dae that youwerborn a Fra-kensteen!" We
introduce Richard Roxburgh's take on Dracula and, well...
Inexplicably, the marketing people have focussed heavily on
this fresh interpretation of the classic Count. He's so damn
ordinary in the role, you wonder what aromatic fuel the marketing
is powered by. Roxburgh's juvenile spats as 'showing rage'
(especially with 'thet ecksent') are risible. There is a scene
with his three brides at which I laughed out loud. The acting
(which had to be a director communication thing) was supremely
concentrated panto-land and I've seen Roxburgh in other things
and as an actor he is no slouch. Subtle is not a Sommers'
trait. Not that it needs to be. I'm watching a movie designed
for, moulded around and squarely aimed at teenagers and if
my beaten up 30 year old clothes don't fit me anymore, is
it a mystery? I've passed into the netherlands of mainstream
movie going. It's On Golden Pond for me from
now on. I may start to believe that if Van Helsing hadn't been so bloody superficially dull.
the plot. Whatever, as the Americans are fond of saying. Dracula
wants to extract the essence of life from Frankenstein's creation
to give birth to his bat spawn. As you do. The Wolfman and
Mr Hyde both pop up. Hey ho. There are no surprises in Van
Helsing and the CGI is pretty damn corny. It's funny
how Dracula's brides lose their nipples and any sign of genitalia
when they morph into naked bat-like winged demons. They have
been sanitized to, well, to undeath. Sommers also re-invents
and frankly buggers about with the myths and legends built
up not only from Stoker but Whedon too (not that Buffy's
creator bent too many undead rules). In Van Helsing,
Dracula walks the walls like he's communing with Escher's
subconcious. It's ridiculous and makes Dracula into a clown.
Sommers also steals a great gag from Polanski and stages it
half as effectively. If you can, catch Dance of the
Vampires and compare it to Van Helsing.
is also a disturbing trend in action films that Van
Helsing is guilty of in almost every scene. The
posters warn you about it – they call it 'fantasy violence'.
It's an interesting term. It's violence that is 'impossible'.
Problem with violence, fantasy or otherwise, is that it undermines
drama somewhat if you know that huge falls from on high never
seem to injure our human heroes. How can you care when danger
is only relative to how high you are in the cast list? Kate
Beckinsale as the gypsy Anna (an anonymous performance, who
is she? Character or actor?) seems to betray physics on a
regular basis. It's not that I mind watching people smacked
into walls or falling to a ground that in real life would
paté them, like a huge sack of vegetable soup exploding
on concrete. It's the casual acceptance that human action
heroes can survive ridiculous beatings and falls. I used to
accept it (in Die Hard, McClane dies for
certain at least eleven times) but now I am bored by the whole
thing and that robs a film of drama.
Beckinsale dies in the end – so what? As far as I could
see she'd died at least six times already so... Again,
there is no caring, so there's no investment. All there is,
is CG. Does anyone remember the thrill you got watching old Sinbad movies, waiting in anticipation for
a Ray Harryhausen creation to step out of the shadows and
knock our socks off? How did he manage it? Nowadays it's two
weightless CG monsters slugging it out and who the hell cares?
The 'climax' of Van Helsing is a ludicrous
battle between a werewolf and a vampire demon and it's a joke.
would be remiss of me not to mention what the second big laugh
in the film was – unintentional again, I suspect. The only
actor who has a chance to make any emotional connection is
the oft-electricity put upon Schuler Hensley playing Frankenstein's
Phd project. OK, his head tends to split in three and this
makes him a little testy but he's a 'nice guy' under all that
monster make up and soon bonds to Van himself. In stopping
one of the brides making sushi out of the heroine, he urges
Anna to go and save Van Helsing. Anna manages two words –
"Thank you..." I swear the score suddenly slipped
from bombastic meta-orchestration to lyrical calm as we are
invited to admire the creature's humanity. He gives her a
look of such obvious "Hey, you recognise my humanity
and for that I am grateful and sad and..." and WHAM,
the score obliterates the moment. Just as well, as the moment
made me bark with glee it was so misjudged, like watching
the best footballers in the world in an egg and spoon race.
Stephen, you're just not going to manage emotion or
any real eliciting of any kind of feeling. Carry on up the
CG if it makes you happy. It certainly seems to make your
target audience happy.
that's what's important.