Review: Van Helsing
Hugh Jackman is Gabriel Van Helsing, who works for the Vatican in secret, ridding the world of evil monsters on orders by Cardinal Alun Armstrong (in a cameo, with a thick Romanian accent to boot). He is sent to Transylvania to tackle Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his throng of vampires (Elena Anaya among them). Kate Beckinsale plays a gypsy vampire slayer who helps Van Helsing out, whilst her poor brother (Will Kemp) is cursed as a werewolf. David Wenham plays Van Helsing’s assistant Carl, some kind of monk/friar. An unrecognisable Kevin J. O’Connor plays Dracula’s assistant/servant Igor, Samuel West appears early as Dr. Frankenstein, with Shuler Hensley as his monstrous creation, whilst Robbie Coltrane kinda sorta turns up as a gigantic Mr. Hyde.
Oh dear. Stephen Sommers, you sir have gone way too far this time. Turning “The Mummy” into a phony, jokey “Indiana Jones” wannabe with shitty CGI was bad enough (the subsequent “The Mummy Returns” was surprisingly fun, though), but to take several classic horror movie characters and turn it into a 2004 film that is more “Wild Wild West” flop than Universal horror? That’s a criminal offence, my friend. To the stake with you!
Quite possibly one of the loudest, most obnoxious, and stupid films of the 00s, if not all-time, I think writer-director Sommers (whose “Deep Rising” was a fun B-movie, but his tedious live-action “The Jungle Book” was a massive disappointment) was attempting to turn the Van Helsing character into a comic book hero with Wolverine in the role, taking a classic and trying to appeal to a new, ‘cool geek’ generation. Whatever crimes you could charge “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” with, at least it took place in somewhat of an alternate universe, so that you could divorce yourself from the classic characters it was re-jigging. That’s more difficult to do here, I’m afraid (even for someone like me who prefers Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula” to Universal’s “Dracula”). This one sucks, and sucks really hard.
We start off quite well, with an excellent morph from a B&W Universal logo on fire to the usual ‘torch-bearing angry villagers’ deal. If not for a truly idiotic performance from Richard Roxburgh (why does he keep playing villains when he’s so flagrantly bad at it?) with a $2 Romanian accent, this opening segment would be a lot of fanboy/cinephile fun. But Roxburgh plays down to the horror genre, treating it like it’s a kids genre or something. That said, Sommers has pitched this as much more action-adventure/fantasy than horror. Still…no, Roxburgh is just insulting, refusing to take things seriously at all. Look at the late, great Christopher Lee. The man made a lot of schlock (and a lot of outright shit, let’s not mince words), but not once in his extremely long career did he ever phone in a performance nor treat it anything less than as seriously as required. He was a pro. Roxburgh may be a pro too, but not on evidence here. I’m sorry, but I take these characters quite seriously, thank you very much, and I don’t believe Sommers is trying for an alternate universe thing here, so much as a modernised take. So I feel justified in my anger. Roxburgh either thinks this is a kids movie or he’s just a fucking idiot. I’ll let others decide that one, but I will say that I think he should’ve been barred for life from the acting profession here for his embarrassing turn. The crap performances elsewhere in the film, however, probably saved him. David Wenham, unlike Roxburgh, has done fine work elsewhere (he was an hilariously dumb bogan ‘westie’ in “Gettin’ Square”), but he’s playing down to the material, too, with an annoying, comic performance. He’s basically playing Van Helsing’s Q. Yeah, apparently Van Helsing needs a Q. Sigh. The casting of an ironically wooden Kate Beckinsale as a vampire hunter (Wooden? Vampire Hunter? Get it? Yeah…) pretty much tells you everything you need to know here. This is Universal horror by way of “Underworld” but with Sommers’ typical tongue-in-cheek. It’s insulting and more importantly, crushingly boring. As for Hugh Jackman (is he the greatest bloke in the world or what? Does anyone have a bad word to say about him? Doubtful), well even he’s having an ‘off’ day here, a rarity for the usually very solid actor who is generally at home in a comic book world. This is his worst performance to date, he’s corny and surprisingly amateurish.
The CGI here is as terrible now as it was in 2004, possibly even worse (Surprising given ILM and Weta were both involved). Just look at Mr. Hyde, for instance. Like in “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, the flesh is the right colour, but Mr. Hyde just doesn’t look like he’s really there in the same plane of existence as Hugh Jackman, and is too big by half. The Wolfman looks utterly ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever. Why is he moving up walls during his transformation? ‘Coz it looked way totally awesome wicked cool to the director? Well, to everyone else it looks like totally fucking dumb, dude. As for Frankenstein’s Monster, he might look a little like Peter Boyle (and indeed Shuler Hensley played the role in the stage version of “Young Frankenstein”, I have learned), but he’s way too articulate and talkative. So stupid. The absolutely boobalicious Elena Anaya, meanwhile, is utterly wasted in a boring villainess part with unflattering long red hair.
I mentioned the corny humour before, and it truly is counter-productive and irritating. Even if this is action rather than horror, you’re still taken out of the experience because no one is taking anything seriously at all. If the film has anything going for it, well it only has one thing going for it: Aside from the CGI, it looks really amazing. I may not want a comic book version of these characters, but I can’t deny that it looks really slick and cool at times. The use of light and shadow by cinematographer Allen Daviau (“E.T: The Extra Terrestrial”, “The Colour Purple”), is especially appealing to me.
Quite possibly the most obnoxiously loud movie of the 00s (“Batman Forever” from 1995 probably pips it, all-time though), and certainly one of the dumbest. This is a long, ear-splitting slog and no fun at all. Aside from the CGI, it looks awesome, but that doesn’t earn it much praise from me I’m afraid. “House of Frankenstein” this ain’t, not by a long shot (It ain’t even “The Monster Squad”). An absolute stinker, albeit a stinker in a year with a few even worse ones (Philip Kaufman’s “Twisted”, anyone?). Probably contains the most unintentionally hilarious ending of the decade, too. How can you not laugh at that image in the sky at the end?