Tuesday, August 14, 2012

George Bell reviews Van Helsing

I've watched Van Helsing three times now, and while I keep finding things to like here and there, it just doesn't come together as a whole.

I really, really wanted to like it more than I do. I'm a fan of Stephen Sommers, and I see what he was trying to do. He wanted to make one big homage to the classic Universal monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.). That's a noble sentiment, but when ambition outstretches the material, it's time to re-evaluate. Sadly, the changes that I think needed to happen never materialized, and we're left with this mess of a monster movie gone wrong.

Van Helsing's biggest mistake is how much ground it tries to cover in terms of combining all these different elements from separate stories. The basic plot centers around Dracula using Dr. Frankenstein and his monster to figure out how to create and sustain life. Dracula and his three brides have tried - and failed - to make their offspring viable, but nature just wasn't having any of that. There are also werewolves involved, and Van Helsing is sent by the Vatican to kick some holy ass. That's all well-and-good, but the end result is muddled. Even at a bit over two hours, the story feels like it was only told half-way. No, that doesn't mean I want a four-hour-long director's cut.

What I actually want is more about the character of Van Helsing. Throughout the movie, there are hints about his past. He doesn't know anything about his life before he started working for the Vatican (however long ago that was), but Dracula obviously knows everything about him. During one conversation, Dracula even hints at the nature of Van Helsing's very existence. But the information train stops dead in its tracks after that. Why? Well, because Sommers' story allowed no room to flesh out that back story.

Instead, the movie is bogged down with silly things like an ill-advised fight at a ballroom dance; an over-long fight sequence to introduce Van Helsing to Anna, Kate Beckinsale's character; a lame fight at the onset with a crappy-looking CG Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde monstrosity; and I could go on. I understand that the movie is supposed to be fun and filled with excitement, but some of that crap could have been toned down or taken out completely in the name of exploring who Van Helsing actually is. There didn't need to be werewolves. At all. Why is Frankenstein's monster the key to keeping vampire babies alive? I have no idea. Somehow, electrocuting him is the solution to all vampire offspring staying alive, but the movie never really talks about why. It just...is. Near as I can tell, all Dracula really did is send an ass-load of volts through his babies' cocoons and poof! They're aliiiiiiiive!

Also, if Anna's lineage is directly involved with Dracula and has been trying to kill him for centuries, why didn't she know about Van Helsing through anything other than reputation? At least that's how it came across to me, and shoddy storytelling like that kills a lot of the experience. I would have much rather watched a story centered on the intertwining of Anna's family with Van Helsing and Dracula. Oh, well. The moral there is to want less things in life.

The special effects are front-and-center most of the time, and they're not always good. I love the look of the film, but its great style is only achieved through practical means. Whenever CG is used for anything, be it a werewolf or Van Helsing hopping around the screen, it looks pretty terrible. To compound that problem, I just don't like the monster designs, especially the werewolves. Check out their stupid, stupid ears, for example. On the acting front, I couldn't get behind Richard Roxburgh's performance as Dracula. His melodramatic style (along with his Brides) just didn't mesh well with Jackman's very straight portrayal of Van Helsing. It's kind of like they were acting in two different movies. Oddly enough, though, I did enjoy Shuler Hensley's take on Frankenstein's monster. I suppose it's harder to judge how over-the-top that performance is, since the character is a man made from bits of other people, and his head opens up like a jewelery box. My basis for comparison is a little lacking, let's say. Oh, and Igor was awesome, but pretty much everything Kevin J. O'Connor does is fantastic. My favorite scene with him was when Van Helsing asked why he shouldn't kill him, and his only answer is a sputtering non-sentence followed by sad silence. It's not easy being Igor.

As I said before, there are fun bits that shine through every so often. David Wenham plays Carl, the rough equivalent of Q to Van Helsing's Bond. Carl is a friar who makes all of Van Helsing's gadgets and accompanies him on his adventures. He's also a good bit of the comic relief, and he does an admirable job in that regard. At one point, Carl saves a girl from being taken away by flying vampire babies. She asks him what his reward should be, and oh, what's that? Sexy time? Against all odds, she agrees to his request. That was unexpected and pretty funny, I thought. I also can't overstate how far the practical effects go when it comes to helping me enjoy the movie despite all the lameness throughout. I'm pretty sure even the old-school effects are doctored up, but the enhancements are of the stuff that makes every adventure seem timeless. Of course, the CG then inevitably rears its ugly head and craps all over that sentiment. Sigh.

I have to say, even though it's pretty obvious I don't think Van Helsing is a good movie, I can still admire the attempt to make something interesting. I listened to the DVD commentary, and it's evident that the movie was a labor of love for Sommers. He sat down to write a small movie and ended up creating a love letter to days long gone. It's something I can get behind in concept, but in practice, this time it just didn't work out.

My rating will have to be a Bad. If you're familiar with Sommers' body of work, Van Helsing definitely isn't at the bottom of the list. Unfortunately, it's not at the top, either.

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  1. It's definitely not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoyed it. Especially David Wenham, as you mentioned. I even mentioned him in my first podcast when asked "Who's the most underrated/underused actor?" The one thing I liked the most about this movie was the score, I just loved Van Helsing's theme.

    1. Yea, the music was good. I'm going to pick this one up on DVD for cheap sometime soon. It's not that good, but it's nowhere near as bad as G.I. Joe was. This one at least has some merits.