by David Hollands
Right from the onset, it's obvious that Stephen Sommers never meant to set the cinematic world on fire when he wrote and directed Van Helsing. It is, however, quite obvious that he only wanted to provide audiences with a fun time at the movies, complete with adventure, horror, and yeah, even a little heart.Things start off with Victor Frakenstein creating his monster (one can even find the famous "It's alive!" cry here) for Dracula. However, Victor never thought that his monster would be used for evil, and is therefore killed by Dracula so as not to interfere. Frankenstein is then burned as angry villagers torch his hiding place to the ground. From that point on, we find the titular Van Helsing, fighter of evil for the Vatican. His mission is to travel to Transylvania to destroy the vampire Dracula in order to save the soul of Anna Velarious. Before this film is over, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula, tons of midget henchman, Igor, and even Mr. Hyde will make appearances to make for a wonderful good time.
"Enter the cinema, turn your brain partially off, and enjoy."
The most important quality factor of Van Helsing is actually it's originality. Of course, most of what happens in this film is quite predictable, yet most of it is pulled off in brand new ways. The film has practically every classic movie monster here, and it could have easily come down to pointless, maddeningly bad cameos. Not so, as Sommers has used extreme creativity in bringing the monsters together in a single two hour film. Every creature, believe it or not, has a purpose and not a single monster is wasted. Even the appearance of Mr. Hyde, seen here as a hulking monster in the vain of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has a point in the story to enhance Van Helsing's character.
Naturally, even in the most carefree action/adventure films, the characters must still be likable. For, even in a film like Van Helsing, characters must be likable and identifiable in order to add something more to the constant onslaught of mayhem and explosions. If this is not the case, even the most outlandish action and the story will seem soulless and un-involving. Thankfully, the characters are extremely likable here. Sure, they won't be characters with extreme depth, but they will be characters completely appropriate to this type of film. They act naturally, and there's just enough there to allow us to care for them that adds considerable tension to the many suspense or action sequences in the flick. There are even some dramatic moments that happen with the characters that I wasn't expecting, and it was a real nice surprise.
Speaking of surprises, certain story elements of Van Helsing were quite unexpected, especially towards the conclusion. Most of these surprises are actually quite tragic, and they add something more to the film. For example, even though Dracula is quite evil, all he really wants here is to have children and be left in peace. Sure, that sounds maudlin and dumb, but the film handles it all really well. There's also tragedy to Van Helsing's character, especially considering that the monsters he kills will become human before their untimely demise. Towards the conclusion, things take drastically different turns when it even becomes uncertain whether the hero of the piece will actually survive the film. Certain important characters will bite it when you weren't expecting them to at all, which just makes this film feel a lot more than a typical action/adventure piece. While fun, it still tries to add dramatic depth, and it does so extremely well.
Van Helsing is a film that uses computer-generated images a lot, and unlike so many films that fail to reach me on any kind of entertaining level when they do this, this one did. Sure, it's extremely easy to tell that most of the creatures attacking the actors were created and rendered in someone's living room, yet director Stephen Sommers works magic in the way that the audience buys into the illusions. Even though the Wolfman looks more or less like a big digital bubble, I was still terrified on more than one occasion. Although the conclusion of Van Helsing has practically every character in the film becoming digital puppets, my heart was still pumping furiously with excitement. Because, for once, the effects designers actually try to add more life into the creations. When a significant werewolf turns up near the end of the flick, it smiles, reacts, doing pretty much what a human would do in the situation. When Dracula becomes a monster bat, he still has the characteristics of the real actor who portrayed him before this happened. The effects, thus, have a surprising attention to detail about them, which gives them personality.
Van Helsing, once it gets going, never stops for a second. Given that the movie is just over two hours in length, the fact that not a single slow moment is to be found here is a blessing. However, being that the movie also never stops (its basically one huge action sequence after another), it could have fallen flat on its face. For, when a movie, especially an action movie, doesn't slow down in terms of its onslaught of explosions and chases, it actually becomes boring. Big Trouble in Little China, the 1986 John Carpenter cult classic, failed because of that. Thankfully, Sommers is wise to include the moments of rest within the action itself. Sure, the tension and adrenaline levels are still miles high, yet the slight breaks and character moments thrown in in between all the mayhem gives the audience the small injection of calm necessary to become relaxed for a brief moment before the next bit of action begins. As an example, the first major vampire attack is basically in two parts. After five minutes of non-stop action, it pauses, allowing for a brief exchange of information before the action begins again. Really, because of the pauses, the thrill sequences actually become thrilling.
Stephen Sommers directs Van Helsing with a wonderful eye for detail and screen composition. While I am disappointed that he decided to shoot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio (this film would have been simply dazzling in full 2.35:1 widescreen), there's still enough visual panache to keep the audience fully involved. The visuals are often breathtaking, thanks to Sommers' knowledge of depth of field, and the action sequences are exceptionally well shot and edited. Never have I ever been drawn in to films which feature nanosecond cuts, and yet even though Sommers used them many times in Van Helsing, I could still perfectly make out what was happening onscreen.
Where Sommers does falter on occasion is during the tension moments. Occasionally, his build-ups to jumps or the next actions scenes are slightly poor. For example, when Anna Velarious is walking in her home with a werewolf close by, the sequence, meant to be nerve-jangling, can never really fulfill its purpose. That's due largely to the fact that Sommers too often reveals where the werewolf is hiding. Instead of quick glimpses, the audience is treated to werewolf point-of-view shots that give away too much information. Had Sommers kept these to a minimum and had instead stayed close to Anna in the sequence to have a sustained uncertainty, the scary aspects of the scene would have worked quite well. And Sommers completely botches the big surprise scare in this sequence, by cutting to a POV shot of the Wolfman approaching Anna just before the big jump arrives.
Stephen Sommers own screenplay is actually quite well written. Character motivations and much of the dialogue is actually kept in check most of the time. Lines like "We Transylvanians always look on the brighter side of death" are not exactly poetry, but they're completely appropriate to this kind of film without coming off as stupid. Of course, being that it's practically unavoidable in a summer action/adventure film, some of the dialogue does get a bit annoying. When the monsters, especially the Brides of Dracula, keep spouting out lines that painfully spell out the obvious, things get more than a little annoying. Still, these moments are few and far between. However, one major thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is when Anna finally gets her revenge on one of the Brides, she says the cringe-inducing "When you're going to kill someone, kill them! Don't stand there talking about it!". It's as if Sommers expected to get away with the flaws of most of the picture with this one line. Well, it didn't fool me in Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly when a scene along the same lines happened, and it sure as Hell didn't fool me here.
The acting side is really very good. Hugh Jackman makes for a very fun, unassuming Van Helsing. The audience just gets the sense that he's having the time of his life playing the character. Jackman is also able to bring a charm to the part, as well as a vulnerability that helps the film become more suspenseful during certain moments. Plus, it also helps that Jackman is a very good actor, and, although he appears to be playing the same role here as in X-Men, he still plays it very well.
Kate Beckinsale is really only supposed to be in this film for eye candy, which she does pull off rather well. She's also able to act pretty well during moments in which she's required to actually show certain subtle emotions, and her line delivery is really very good. She and Jackman have very good chemistry, which adds to the characters. Still though, Beckinsale could have been just slightly better concerning her Transylvanian accent, but I'm not complaining.
Richard Roxburgh makes for a great Dracula, one who is so over the top that you just can't help but love the guy's work. He's oozing cinematic evil from the very beginning, yet he's also able to control himself. He never lets things get too crazy, and he doesn't let his character become too annoying. He's also able to give Dracula a bit of humanity by adding that tragic aspect of the character into his performance. Great work.
Shuler Hensley is pretty good as Frankenstein's Monster, but the monster was a bit poorly written even from the beginning. Still, Hensley makes the best of the role, and is even able to bring the tragedy of the character through quite well. Still, not even a talented actor can save moments wherein his character begins shouting out quotes from the Bible in the most pain-inducing ways.
The rest of the supporting players, including David Wenham as Van Helsing's partner Carl, Tom Fisher as a psychotic grave digger, and Kevin O'Connor as a wild Igor do a fantastic job with their characters. It's obvious that this was all complete fun for them, and that sense of fun is infectious, and the film is all the better because of it.
The cinematography done by Allan Daviau is spectacular. The lighting is filled with fantastic tones and shadows filled with the deepest of blacks. The opening of the film, which is completely in black and white, is stunning to look at, as Daviau has been able to capture the look and feel of the classic monster movies through the lighting. Also, the lighting during the scenes of CGI madness definitely helps the special effects to blend in with the live-action in a much better way than most of the movies the use an abundance of computer created images.
The musical score by Alan Silvestri is riveting and alive. Just like the film, as soon as it starts, it just never stops for a second. Plus, the music is constantly able to raise a scene to new levels of excitement, drama, or passion. Even when the schmaltzy finale comes around, Silvestri is able to take what was once obvious and clichéd and turn it into beautiful poetry. It's a wonderful, exciting, and pulse-pounding score which hits absolutely every dramatic mark it's supposed to be astounding ease. There are also a few moments here when Silvestri uses subtlety instead of bombast, and the contrast is excellent. For, just like Stephen Sommers, Silvestri understands that constant musical noise will eventually tire out an audience, so he layers the score with both the bombast and the subtlety. Thus, never once during this film did I ever think of the score as lazy or rushed.In the end, Van Helsing won't set the cinematic world on fire, yet it will provide audiences with great entertainment from beginning to end, with a few surprises introduced here and there to allow for this movie to just be another boring summer blockbuster retread. Enter the cinema, turn your brain partially off, apply your earplugs (or don't, depending on your cinema volume preferences), and enjoy.
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originally posted: 05/31/04 11:07:09