Retro Review: Van Helsing

Okay, I admit it. I am a fan of monster movies. If you were to point out the quintessential staple of monster films you would have to look to the stable of creatures that populated the Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s.

The films that made the likes of Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman) household names. How can anyone forget those performances?

What made those films of the 1930s so impressive and magical were that they were about the monsters themselves. We learned about the curses, the damned and the beast within. Even if they were alien to us we still felt something for them which is strange since we are talking about the Prince of Darkness here.

When the end of the Universal Monsters arrived the studio started teaming up their creatures with classic “monster mashes” like “Frankenstein vs. The Wolf Man” and “House of Frankenstein”. The latter is still a personal favorite.

With the emergence of “Van Helsing”, Universal is looking to bring back a long dead monster franchise in a big new way.

Like the monster mashes of old, “Van Helsing” very loose premise begins with the world famous murderer/monster hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) finishing off his latest assignment and returning to the Vatican.

In the holiest of cities, Van Helsing is directed to aid a brother-sister team of Anna (Kate Beckinsale) and Velkan Valerious (Will Kemp) in bringing down the notorious Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Dracula has been destroying the Valerious family lineage for over 400 years. For the mission, Van Helsing decides to bring reluctant Friar Carl (David Wenham) to aid him.

Upon their arrival in Transylvania, the duo learns that they aren’t exactly welcome and furthermore it seems that Dracula has a master plan of his own in the works and that Velkan Valerious may have been compromised.

The plot thickens as we learn about Dracula’s master plan and how it links to other legendary creatures such as Frankenstein, three vampiric brides, vampiric progeny and the Wolf Man himself.

For the most part “Van Helsing” is the dawn of the 2004 summer movie season and as a popcorn action effects-laden romp, it scores. It has every single element one needs from a summer movie.

I did on the other hand have about a handful of problems with the film itself. I was a little distracted by the lighting in the film which I am sure has been dimmed to cover some of the effects flaws. Director Stephen Sommers is still getting flack from his Scorpion King creation at the end of “The Mummy Returns”.

I also cringed a lot at the film’s version of Dracula. Roxburgh was excellent in his slimy, nasty and disgusting role in “Moulin Rouge” but that same allure is just wrong for Dracula. In this film he comes off more as George Hamilton’s Dracula than a debonair Gary Oldman or Bela Lugosi version of the vampire. And with that said the film hinges on this powerful foe but he is awful. The film needed Dracula to be more like Arnold Vosloo’s Mummy and less of a caricature. A lot more work was needed on this casting and re-imagination.

My favorite creatures in the film were the vampiric brides and of course the CGI werewolves. The scenes involving these carnivorous brides diving and swooping as they fly was so much fun. Van Helsing’s rapid-action crossbow trying to take down these evil divas was pure popcorn fun. The CGI keeps getting better and that makes for some nasty werewolves that are so much fun.

I felt that the whole Frankenstein concept and inclusion in this film was cheap and unnecessary. You really have to look to the film’s plot for the blame. I wanted more from Frankenstein.

As for the humans in the film, Jackman is still one of the best leading men around and he does bring a lot to the role of the monster-hunter but never really has a chance to act in the role. I have always been a huge fan of Kate Beckinsale, no matter what she has done. In a lot of ways I loved her in this film but in other ways she was one of the most wasted elements. Director Sommers break-neck pacing of the film doesn’t allow for much connection between Jackman and Beckinsale so you really aren’t ever sure if they have chemistry.

The story and how it interconnects the legendary lineages of the monsters is interesting and reminiscent of “House of Frankenstein” except instead of having a mad scientist you have Dracula as the scientist. But was it really necessary to have so many monsters in the first film. The film almost suffers from “Batman” sequel syndrome in that it was trying to include so many characters at once without really fleshing out any of the central ones.

As a whole I felt that the film reminded me more of the era of monsters after Universal’s golden age. The film feels a lot like a Hammer horror film with a huge effects budget. It is just too bad Peter Cushing wasn’t still around to play the priest who sends Van Helsing on his mission.

To be blunt, it is pure popcorn fun and why not since that’s what we love a brainless flick once in a while.

3.5 out of 5

So Says the Soothsayer.

3 thoughts on “Retro Review: Van Helsing

  1. Hey, Soothsayer, I must admit that your language is quite impressive for a film review.
    But aren’t you a biiiit too pushy about some things in the movie, that you didn’t like?
    Like the Dracula character: okay, he might be a caricature, but if you didn’t understand the plot in its profound meaning, then you didn’t understand that the sense of humor was an essential taste in ‘Van Helsing’. You surely saw how each character (including the father who sends Van Helsing to missions) had his/her humorous performance. The friar is especially attractive with his goofiness, and Dracula is his opposite but still he has style and graciousness in his moves, talks, looks, etc.
    In fact, did you think of the ‘contrasts’ in the movie as ‘special effects’? Light is what we all live for, darkness is the abyss of evil and death. You should have commented on those more than stressing on Hugh Jackmans’ lack of acting – he’s a monster murderer after all, and that is Stephen Sommers, for god’s sake!
    Did you get the chance to read the lines after the last scene? It said “To my father”… Such a dedication is not for missin’!
    And about the love between Anna and Van Helsing – how do you expect love to be a center role in a plot where good versus evil is the center. In addition, there is love – it is just slightly prompted. It is more like protection and faith in each other, than kissing and stuff. But is is also tragedy – when the werewolf Van Helsing kills her… by accident. The idea is that those Valerious generations need to enter St. Peter’s gates and for that to happen – the last of them needed to die as well. With that – their love too. Hence, the stress was on how family honor needs to be kept, rather than wasted, so the character of Anna is not wasted at all!
    So, please do not assume this movie as just pure pop-corn fun. The actors and the whole crew put more than that into it.

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