Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2004)

7. Van Helsing

In 2004, there was no movie I was more excited for than “Van Helsing.” My adolescent brain hadn't caught up with the obvious flaws of Stephen Sommers' “Mummy” movies. I was still a huge fan of those films. At the time, it was already obvious to me that Sommers was a true blue Universal Monsters fan. By then, my obsession with the classic monsters was burning just as bright as ever. So the idea of Sommers putting his big budget stamp on the studio's iconic creatures was incredibly exciting to me. The movie did not live up to my expectations. In fact, I was so disappointed in “Van Helsing” that I turned on Sommers pretty much overnight. Thirteen years later, has my impression of the movie changed any at all?

Sommers' film doesn't follow the Abraham Van Helsing of Bram Stoker's original “Dracula.” Instead, this movie is about Gabriel Van Helsing. Van Helsing works for the Vatican, hunting monsters and supernatural beasts all over the world. His latest mission takes him to Transylvania. There, he comes into conflict with Dracula, a villain he has apparently confronted before. The count hopes to unleashes his undead progeny. In order to do this, he needs Doctor Frankenstein's monster. Van Helsing, working up with the daughter of a local vampire hunting family, hopes to stop the Count before he's overtaken by a werewolf curse.

“Van Helsing” was Universal's first attempt to retrofit their classic monster characters as a modern blockbuster. Considering Stephen Sommers had managed to balance horror, action, and spectacle with his first “Mummy” movie, he was honestly a good choice to do with the same with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. The director would mash the classic monsters up with his trademark, over-the-top comic style. He would also mix in some obvious James Bond-like shenanigans. This Van Helsing works for a secret organization, has a grouchy boss, and a sidekick that provides him with wacky gadgets. Sadly, by focusing on these elements, the director looses sight of the horror atmosphere he managed to capture with “The Mummy.” This is a preposterous action film in monster movie drag.

What makes “Van Helsing” difficult to swallow is its brainless screenplay. The script has some seriously huge leaps in logic. Dracula using Frankenstein's devices and monster to bring his offspring to life is a contrived excuse to get the two monsters together. Dracula's castle is occupied with an army of Jawa-like minions, whose appearance are never expounded on. Later in the film, a masked ball occupied by vampires appears. Where or how these vampires became involved in the story is never elaborated on. Van Helsing gains access to Dracula's castle, near the end, thanks to a convenient plot device. Considering how many other castles there are in the film, I'm not sure what's so special about Dracula's. Another example of sloppy writing is how Dracula's weakness – an allergy to werewolves apparently – is randomly revealed: Via a magic painting a character stumbles upon.

“Van Helsing” was prepped to be a franchise from the beginning. Because of this, Sommers made sure to include plenty of hints at a larger mythology. Much like Hugh Jackman's Wolverine character, Van Helsing also has a mysterious past he doesn't remember. More than once, the script hints that this Gabriel may be the archangel Gabriel. These attempt are ham-fisted. The backstory concerning Anna's family, and the laughable way her eventual fate is handled, is totally uninteresting. Add to that a horde of vampire babies – since when can vampires have babies? – and even hardcore nerds found themselves annoyed, confused, and underwhelmed.

With “Van Helsing,” Sommers' somewhat self-destructive relationship with special effects continues. From a design perspective, “Van Helsing” looks pretty good. The monster designs are pretty neat. The werewolves, especially, are fantastically realized. They are huge, fanged, muscular, and pretty much everything I'd want from modern day werewolves. A nice touch has the human host tearing off his own skin when transforming, the wolf bursting through the human body. The production design of the movie are generally awesome. The various gothic castles and Eastern European villages are fantastic sets. The costumes are all great. The visual approach, heavy on fog and bluish colors, suits the classic horror characters just fine.

However, once again, Sommers relies too much on half-baked CGI effects. When left to their own devices, the CGI creations look fine. When forced to interact with actual human beings, the seams really show. The super cool looking werewolf doesn't seem to occupy the same plane of reality as the window he leaps through or the huge cage dropped on him. The vampires in the film are fond of stretching their jaws, revealing their fangs, an effect that hasn't aged well. Dracula's brides turn into bat-like she-demons. This effect is far from seamless, as the human heads often look awkwardly placed atop CGI bodies. There are lots of other examples in the film of the director overdoing the effects.

“Van Helsing” came fairly early in Hugh Jackman's career as a superstar. This was Jackman's first really big movie, after the first two “X-Men” movies. On the surface, the Aussie star may seem like an odd pick for the vampire hunter. He's certainly a long way from Edward Van Sloan and Peter Cushing. Jackman suits the part alright. He has no problem with the action hero elements of the story. He can summon a decent amount of gravatas when the story calls for it. However, Jackman does not seem horribly invested in the proceedings. More than once, he strains and grumbles against a CGI-filled adventure that he's clearly struggling to understand. All things considered, Jackman is the least of the movie's problems. He's mostly fine.

The casting in Sommers' films are usually pretty solid. “Van Helsing,” however, contains two deeply miscalculated performances. This was Kate Beckinsale's second vampire related film, after the “Underworld” films. While Beckinsale was fine in that movie, her acting in this movie is questionable. As Anna, she sports a ridiculous accent that shifts scene from scene. That makes it difficult to take Beckinsale seriously but her performance is, otherwise, quite flat. Going in the other direction is Ricahrd Roxburgh as Dracula. Roxburgh hams it up to grotesque levels. He shouts, sweats, and stretches his face in all sorts of direction. He's not a very convincing Dracula. Moreover, he's a totally ridiculous villain.

Like Sommers' other films, “Van Helsing” has its share of sidekicks. Some of these are more essential than others. Shuler Hensley, an old buddy of Hugh Jackman, plays Frankenstein's Monster. The design is interesting and, while Hensley goes a little over-the-top, his heart is in the right place. Kevin J. O'Connor, after playing a similar character in “The Mummy,” appears here as Igor. His make-up, which makes his face waxy and square, is odd. However, O'Connor is amusingly shifty in the part. Less entertaining is David Wenham as Carl. Van Helsing's sidekick exist mostly to provide him with gadgets, a role that easily could've been diminished. Wenham is supposed to be comic relief but comes off as slightly irritating.

As an action movie, “Van Helsing” features few memorable set pieces. The opening battle with Mr. Hyde in Notre Dame's bell tower is overly heavy on CGI and people flying through the air. An attack on the village by Dracula's brides is cool on paper. The vampire hunter using a steampunk machine gun-like crossbow to battle flying vampire monsters is cool. However, this is undone by the shaky effects. A heavily advertised moment was a carriage chase through the Romanian woods. That scene never quite reaches the exciting level it seeks and concludes with an unconvincing fall into a gorge.

What makes these scenes tolerable are the filmmaker's energetic direction. He frequently has his camera sailing through the air with his characters and actors. The best visual moment in “Van Helsing” is its opening. In gorgeous black and white, we are greeted to a classical sequences of angry villagers chasing Frankenstein into a burning windmill. The sequence is beautifully orchestrated, as a fantastic homage to classic horror... Up until a CGI gear flies into our face, which basically sums up the entire movie in one scene. Sommers includes a couple of other classic horror references too. The masquerade and acid splashed into face is a likely “Phantom of the Opera” homage. The heaving bosoms of Dracula's brides are a likely Hammer horror homage.

Universal had huge plans for “Van Helsing.” The film was accompanied by a direct-to-video animated prequel, a comic book mini-series, toys, video games and even a slot machine. The movie certainly made money, grossing well over 300 million against a 145 million dollar budget. However, the movie was critically despised, causing the studio to decide against continuing the franchise. Since then, Universal had made at least two other attempts to retrofit their classic monsters into modern action franchises. Their latest attempt, the possibly already defunct Dark Universe, was supposed to include a new version of “Van Helsing.” Knowing how the studio is, they'll probably try again some day. While there are elements about “Van Helsing” I appreciate, it's ultimately a senseless and deeply disappointing film. [Grade: C]

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