Directed by: Stephen Somers
Release date: 2004
Van Helsing is, very much so, a homage to monster movies of old, especially the Universal movies; we have Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), the wolfman (in wolf form done by cgi, in human form the main wolfman, for there are several, is played by Will Kemp) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) all present and correct. The film also includes Mr Hyde (again cgi but voiced by Robbie Coltrane), although the Jekyll and Hyde movies were made by MGM. As such the start of the film is shot in black and white and consequentially manages to summon that old Universal spirit.
It is Transylvania in 1887 and a mob of torch wielding villagers march towards a castle. Inside Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) succeeds in bringing his monster to life when Dracula enters the castle. It becomes apparent that Dracula has sponsored Frankenstein’s work and now wants the monster for his own nefarious ends, which are not actually mentioned in this sequence. Frankenstein refuses, calling to Igor (Kevin J O’Connor) for help, but help is denied as Igor is in Dracula’s employ. Frankenstein holds Dracula at bay with a sword. “You cannot kill me…” Dracula announces as he walks onto the sword, “I’m already dead.” Victor Frankenstein falls to Dracula’s bite, but what a bite. In this the vampire’s mouths stretch impossibly wide revealing rows of sharpened teeth.
The monster has escaped the apparatus he was ‘born’ upon and throws equipment at Dracula, pushing him forcibly into a fire. He then gathers up his ‘father’s’ body and escapes. There is an impressive cgi scene of Dracula emerging from the fire, burnt but rapidly healing and we see him transform into bat form, or his shadow do so at least.
The mob has followed the monster to a windmill and has set it alight. In an operatic voice the monster shouts out, “Why?” and then the boarding gives way below him and the windmill explodes. The mob scatters as Dracula and his brides fly to the scene.
It is a fantastic opening for anyone with a love of the old monster movies. Though it is apparent that many of the effects we are to see are cgi, Frankenstein’s monster, for instance, is created using animatronic technology giving solidness to some of the effects that computer wizardry struggles to match.
The film flips to colour and to Paris were Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is tracking Mr Hyde. Once Hyde is defeated, Van Helsing returns to the Vatican and to Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong). Jinette heads a secret organisation that seems made up of a co-operative of religions, designed for fighting evil. Jinette gives Van Helsing his next assignment, protecting Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), last survivors of a family sworn to defeat Dracula. We meet Carl (David Wenham) a friar and the Q equivalent, who prepares Van Helsing by providing various pieces of equipment including a gas propelled crossbow. Carl is ordered to travel with Van Helsing, much to Carl’s chagrin. It is off to Transylvania but Velkan has already fallen to the wolfman, presumed dead.
The rest of the film is a rip-roaring adventure in Boy’s Own style. The crux of the story is that Dracula and his three brides, Aleera (Elena Anaya), Verona (Silvia Colloca) and Marishka (Josie Maran), have over the centuries bred thousands of children – all dead and cocooned. These children look like bat-gargoyle creatures. Dracula’s plan is to bring them to life using Frankenstein’s research but the equipment needs a living creature to channel the electricity and only the monster, it becomes apparent, will suffice. Of course the monster survived the windmill explosion.
The vampire lore is quite interesting in this. The vampire brides attack in daylight only hiding when the clouds part and the sunlight is direct. They are all able to take on a bat creature form. It is also interesting that the brides are both given names and very active roles, with desires (the birth of their children) and fears (they fear that the experiment will fail and there children will be destroyed).
There are many nods to other movies, as well as the old Universal black and whites. The look of the brides, in human form, owed much to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in fact the original concept for the movie had been kicking around as a sequel to that film since it’s release. The concept had undergone a radical rethink, however. Dracula grabbing a cross and setting it alight is in direct reference to Universal’s 1979 Dracula. What we discover in this section is that Dracula is immune to most traditional ways of killing a vampire. He is staked by Van Helsing with a silver stake and simply pulls it out and he heals from fire rapidly. In fact there is only one way to kill Dracula in this film, a way I won’t spoil but was too contrived in my opinion.
The other vampires can be killed in more traditional ways. Marishka is peppered with holy water soaked crossbow bolts for example. In the Vatican Carl had invented a bomb that gives out the light of the sun; though he didn’t know what is was for exactly. This is used to empty Dracula’s summer palace of vampires in a sequence that owed more than a little to “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967). In fact, as a further nod to that film there is a mirror sequence, this sequence being quite clever as it reveals the truth of the ball, which Dracula dances at, without being too obvious.
The source of Dracula is also interesting. Dracula was murdered some four hundred years earlier and made a pact with the devil to return as a vampire. His father, unable to kill (again) his son, exiled him to Castle Dracula, an island castle and inescapable – location unknown. Unfortunately the devil then gave Dracula wings. In a nod to Stoker’s novel and the line ‘You yourself never loved. You never love!’ which, in the novel Dracula refutes, we get a similar accusation in the movie, although the answer is reversed when Dracula declares, “No! I have no heart, I feel no love. Nor fear, nor joy, nor sorrow. I am hollow... and I will live forever.”
The Van Helsing character is even more of an enigma. This is not Abraham Van Helsing but Gabriel Van Helsing, just as well as Jackman is much too young to play the venerable professor. In fact if you are a Dracula purist and want the Van Helsing as described by Stoker, press the eject and avoid this film. This Van Helsing has no real memories, he was found by the Church on the steps of the Vatican and is the most wanted man in Europe from authorities unaware that those he kills, at the behest of Rome, are monsters. He has sporadic memories; he can remember fighting the Romans in AD 73 for example. Part of his motivation for the mission is a ripped piece of scroll belonging to the Valerious family that carries a crest identical to that he wears on a ring. He hopes the mission will bring him memories. It becomes clear that Dracula knows him and we discover that Dracula’s murderer was someone called the left-hand of God – Dracula accusing Van Helsing of being that man – one questions then how much of a murder it really was, or if it was a church ordained assassination. However the tantalising mysteries are never fully explained and so remain just that.
The acting in the film is, generally, adequate to good. Sometimes criticised, I thought Roxburgh did a fine job as Dracula. I wasn’t so sure when it came to Alun Armstrong’s sometimes slipping fake accent, but he wasn’t in the film long. Jackman plays the role of Van Helsing well, though perhaps a little too Wolverine, Beckinsale looks great (as do the brides) and ensures that her accent doesn’t slip and Wenham’s comedy side-kick role may not be the funniest I’ve seen but at least does not become too annoying. That said, this is a take your brain out action flick and, as such, Oscar winning performances are not needed.
It is in some of the action that I find myself being most critical, however. There is a horse and carriage jumping over ravine scene that was not necessarily sensible and just came across as a set-piece that could have been done more realistically with similar storyline impact. There is also a swinging on wires sequence at the end that made the disbelief I had suspended admirably, the first time I watched the movie on its cinema release, slip tremendously. Quite possibly unfair given I was watching a film that had monsters and hand held circular saw blades, as well as gas powered crossbows and grappling hooks but those two sequences were a step too far, I’m afraid.
I will mention the soundtrack by Alan Silvestri. Generally stirring there are sequences that can best be described as dance with gypsy jazz guitar and classical choral overlays that were simply stunning and really carried the viewer.
However, the main joy of the film is in the reinvention of the multiple monster movies of yore. It isn’t high art, if you want deep and meaningfuls and pathos go elsewhere, but with good production values and hi-octane action it is certainly above average as a movie, the sort of flick that goes well with a big tub of popcorn. All in all I’d give Van Helsing 6 out of 10, as a no-brainer, slickly produced action movie that, despite a couple of falters in the suspension of belief, is an entertaining enough way to spend a couple of hours and summons all the right warm fuzzy feelings for the monster movies of yesterday. In short it is fun.
The imdb page is here.
There is a homepage with trailer and various downloads here.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Directed by: Stephen Somers