Review: Van Helsing

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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 Wolf Man) 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's 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 (Will Kemp) Valerious 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 were 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 come summertime at the movies. It isn't November for crying out loud. (3.5 out of 5) So Says the Soothsayer.

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