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Classic Monster Mash
by Michael Koch on Nov 02, 2004
Van Helsing assembles the crème-de-la-crème of classic horror movie icons- Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, Wolf Man, Mr. Hyde, and fearless vampire slayer Van Helsing- to slug it out in a battle of good versus evil, but just as it promises to become a fun fest of campy, over-the-top entertainment, it falls off the deep edge into a pastiche of movie trivia and idiotic dialogue.
Hugh Jackson plays Van Helsing, a man who has dedicated his life to hunting down and killing incarnate evil. Working in the service of a secret religious order, Van Helsing is dispatched to the gloomy, icy world of Transylvania where he is supposed to lend a hand to Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), the last two remnants of a powerful royal family charged with a centuries-old mission of vanquishing the seemingly invincible Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). What begins as a simple mission ends with a battle-worn outcast who has to confront his unresolved past as he prepares for battle against Dracula.
Van Helsing is writer-director Stephen Sommers' attempt to breathe new life into his favorite movie monsters. However, what worked for him in The Mummy, miserably fails in Van Helsing, because Sommers does not succeed to bring together a triumvirate of monsters in a credible tale that beats previous attempts to clone classic horror franchises (such as William Roy Nell's 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or, more recently, Steven Norrington's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
Think of Van Helsing as version 2.0 of a genre that has seen better days. Everything in the movie has been upgraded in an attempt to capture the video game-inspired imagination of today's youth: Dracula is no longer vulnerable to garlic, crosses, and stakes, and morphs not just into a bat but into a monster; Hyde has become much too big for Dr. Jeckyl's britches; and Van Helsing is no longer an aging professor but a ruggedly handsome loner, who dons a broad-brimmed hat and a cool leather coat, and travels with a friar (David Wenham), who equips him, James Bond style, with an assortment of gadgets and weaponry that make him the nineteenth-century version of 007 meets Blade.
Unlike most upgrades, however, Van Helsing does not deliver. While one can enjoy the movie's esthetics, which are both retro and futuristic, one would be hard-pressed to embrace the movie's flimsy plot, which, like its characters, leaps from one high-wire act to another, only taking a couple of breaks for embarrassing romantic interludes and exchanges between Van Helsing and Anna.
To his credit, Sommers knows his monster movies. The opening of the movie is a beautifully recreated tribute to James Whales' Bride of Frankenstein. Shortly thereafter, however, the movie becomes a appropriation of classic horror gems and recent fantasy blockbusters, as Sommers recreates his favorite scenes from the genre's past (including Murnau's Nosferatu) while imploding the atmosphere with gimmicks and allusions to modern action flicks -- from Bond to Blade to Alien.
Where the movie really shines is in its production design and sets (both digital and real) that seamlessly complement the film's morphing monsters and visual effects. Production designer Allan Cameron recreates a hyper-gothic pocket of nineteenth century Europe that harkens back to the expressionist set designs of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, replete with medieval town squares, graveyards, and castles that make you shiver. By the time it's over, however, Van Helsing smells like a wet dog that just left the theater. If anything, the movie leaves you howling, screaming, and yearning to go back to the classic horror flicks that inspired Sommers' sour monster mash.
Stars: 1 out of 5
by Michael Koch on Nov 02, 2004