Van Helsing
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

With Van Helsing, Universal Pictures has decided to turn the famous vampire hunter into a superhero. This isn't the same vampire hunter who fought Bela Lugosi's Dracula or Christopher Lee's Dracula. Van Helsing has been turned into an action movie hero who brandishes an autoloading, multi-fire crossbow. He wields spinning saw blades that he uses to slice at the limbs of his foes. He's seemingly indestructible. And as the story unfolds, a plot development emerges that turns him into a true superman.

Previous incarnations of vampire and werewolf tales typically stressed the vulnerability of the people fighting the monsters. That was always part of the allure of the monster movies from Universal and Hammer: a mortal man walks into deadly peril in his quest to destroy unspeakable horror. That's where the suspense resided. However, now Universal has provided a new vision of Van Helsing that posits him as a James Bond type. In one of the early scenes, he even visits a Roman Catholic secret service operation dedicated to destroying monsters, and Van Helsing is given a tour of the facility and shown the weapons available -- much like Q gives 007 a tour of the weapons laboratory in the James Bond films.

Universal's decision to take Van Helsing in this direction has much to do with the expectations that audiences have nowadays versus the expectations audiences had back in 1931, when the original Dracula, was released (or versus the expectations in 1958 when Hammer released their revised take on Bram Stoker's tale, with Peter Cushing as the vampire hunter). Now audiences expect big blockbuster tales, with non-stop action, tons of special effects, and machine-gun paced editing. The old horror tales delivered both by Universal and Hammer look relatively calm in comparison to today's blockbusters.

Now, Universal sees its properties as fodder for multi-million dollar epics aimed at teenagers. Teenagers have always been the major audience for horror films. The whole process of entering puberty and the resulting changes (both physical and psychological) create a wealth of confusion -- mostly about sex -- that monster movies have exploited mightily for many decades. So Universal's plan to aim Van Helsing at a teenage audience isn't really anything new. But at the same time, it's disappointing. They're created a film with no subtlety, a film with no subtext, a film that bludgeons its audience with one action scene after another.

This is how Hollywood prefers to make movies nowadays -- with tons of special effects, CGI galore, and plenty of explosions and broken glass. Studio execs can dictate the development of special effects. But it's harder to control actors and the characters that emerge in screenplays. So in movies such as Van Helsing, the actors are reduced to mannequins. Here, Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale (both very attractive leads) are fed horribly generic dialogue, cribbed from dozens of other horror movies. With their long hair and form-fitting suits, they look like '80s rock stars stuck in a feature-length music video.

With such lightweight lead characters in a movie that lasts for 145 minutes, it's not surprising that the movie drags in spite of its constant flow of action. For example, the first time that Van Helsing gets smashed into a wall by a monster's paw, it's somewhat shocking to see him stand up and walk away relatively unscathed. But the movie repeats this same scene over and over, as Van Helsing and his female counterpart, Anna Valerious, get smashed into wall after wall after wall. Through sheer redundancy these scenes quickly lose their impact. And so goes much of the movie that follows. Everything gets repeated ad infinitum. Werewolves fall from great heights into rivers, and they instantly emerge no worse for the wear. If we get one scene of baby vampires exploding in flight (yes, that's right, no matter how nonsensical it may seem, here we get new-born vampires), why not two scenes of baby vampires exploding? If Beckinsale can be picked up and carried away by Dracula's wives once, why not twice or three times? Van Helsing contains a stunning array of repetition, a real sign of laziness on the part of screenwriter/director Stephen Sommers, who also helmed Universal's recent Mummy movies.

Universal began their revisionist approach to their classic monsters with The Mummy and that was a wise choice because audiences are least familiar with mummy lore. There was room for that film to create an entirely new set of background stories. And the film could pull us into locations that previous movies had only hinted at. But with Count Dracula and the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster, we know the traditions. The material is so familiar that there is less room for developing lore. We know about Transylvania and Dracula's castle. We know that Dr. Frankenstein robbed graves and reanimated the body parts in the form of a hulking brute. We know Dracula's brides can be a sexy trio. So while The Mummy had the freedom to take us inside burial chambers and show us things we had never seen before, Van Helsing is mostly dealing with stuff we already know about; so, here the filmmakers jack up the noise level to a truly deafening level and provide a barrage of developments meant to redefine the lore (such as the aforementioned baby vampires). But most of these developments are simply ridiculous. For example, what exactly about turning a man into a wolf makes him capable of climbing walls like a monkey? What makes Dracula think there is any connection between channeling lightning through a living host (such as Frankenstein's monster) and bringing his legion of vampire embryos to life? What makes the filmmakers think there is any sense in starting the movie in black and white to depict scenes from the past -- because the entire movie happens hundreds of years in the past!

Richard Roxburgh camps it up in his performance as Count Dracula, but like so much of the rest of the movie, he's so over the top that he ceases to have any real menace. Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's monster is one of the few bright lights in the movie; he manages to capture some of the pathos of the great Boris Karloff's performance, but in a much more articulate take on the character (as in Mary Shelley's novel). Here the filmmakers get it right by providing a new twist on the monster lore that is intriguing. But most of the other developments here, as in the veiled suggestions about Van Helsing's own history, add nothing of value to Universal's horror franchises.

Van Helsing is filmmaking on steroids. The screen pulsates with action and explosions, with characters who scamper up walls and vampires who screech while soaring in circles around their prey. There is always something happening on the screen. But it's overkill. Everything is artificially inflated to the absurdist degree. There is indeed some fun in this cacophony of explosions and crashes; yes, it's fun to see Dracula and the Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster in action again, but the inspiration here is purely mechanical (to move money from your pocket to the studio's vaults).

The French Brotherhood of the Wolf (2002) showed a way for approaching the horror genre by going way over the top and emphasizing action movie histrionics. In part Van Helsing is an attempt to forge an American version of Brotherhood of the Wolf with Universal monsters in the starring roles, but director Sommers has produced a hyperactive movie that never ceases to stop moving for fear that its young audience might get bored. You see muscles rippling, fangs getting bared, talons extending -- over and over and over -- and in the process our senses become dulled. The CGI effects become so overused that they cease to thrill us. By confusing pacing and suspense with special effects, the filmmaking becomes trite and hopelessly shallow, providing surface shocks, yes, but never really finding our deep-seated fears.

Real horror exposes sensitive spots in our psyches. It sticks a hot poker into our fear of what happens to our bodies after we die (Frankenstein), into our uncertainty about sexual urges and what they do to our minds and bodies (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wolf Man), into our confusion about the attraction of forbidden sex (Dracula). Real horror makes us shudder; it makes us want to look away because it forces us to confront our fears. Van Helsing makes us want to look away because its jackhammer approach is too damn irritating to tolerate.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: Van Helsing



Photos: © 2004 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.