Van Helsing

Last year, tucked away in my Sunday newspaper, I received a glossy flyer for “Van Helsing,” who would arrive in theaters May 7, 2004, to save the world from such classic Universal Studios monsters as Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, and the Wolfman. If I hadn’t already gone to the bathroom I would have wet myself.

Could it be? The filmmaker behind “The Mummy” inviting us to the ultimate monster’s ball, a flesh ripping, teeth baring, back-from-the-dead homage to the ghouls that haunted my childhood dreams?

Well, a year has passed, and excitement and expectation have been reduced to shock and awe. “Van Helsing” is a cinematic weapon of mass destruction, an overblown, overreaching excuse to see how much money you can toss at the screen before nothing sticks. “Van Helsing” is Teflon movie-making, a slick veneer that hits you over the head like a frying pan filled with scrambled eggs. It may leave an impact, but it also leaves one hell of a mess.

There’s egg all over writer-director Sommers’ face, whose love and adoration for these characters wasn’t enough to keep him from turning them into shells of their former selves. You recognize the monsters, but Sommers has reinvented the legend (s) to fit his whimsy. He’s not so much interested in remaking classic horror films as reinventing them. “The Mummy” was a step up from the original, “Van Helsing” begins in free fall and goes down from there.

Just how far down depends on your reverence for the original films. Younger audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead sitting through a black and white horror film will probably get a kick out of this thundering “Indiana Jones” hybrid. Those who appreciate subtlety and strong narrative will bleed from their eyes and ears.

To be fair, $150 million does buy a lot of bang for the buck. “Van Helsing” is rich in production and costume design, looks terrific in a movie sort of way, and contains enough action to pump up several films. A lot of time and money has been spent to recreate the Transylvania countryside, villages and mountain top castles. Computers fill in the gaps, allowing Sommers to turn common men into roaring werewolves, beautiful women into flying bloodsuckers, and star Hugh Jackman into a soaring super hero for the ages.

In Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” Van Helsing is an elderly professor who suspects the Count is a vampire and sets out to destroy him. In “Van Helsing,” the professor has been transformed into a tussled-haired, trench coat-wearing monster hunter, commissioned by a secret council of world religions to hunt down and kill Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his three vampire brides, who seek Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) to jump start their litter of stillborn vampire sucklings.

By making “Van Helsing” a young, good-looking, strapping hero, Sommers opens the door for a love interest, Anna Valerious, played by Kate Beckinsale. She’s a babe and a vampire hunter, seeking revenge for the slaughter of her family. All good horror movies need a love interest, but Sommers leaves little room for romance as he tosses the hero and heroine from one great implausible adventure to the next. Even at an exhaustive 136 minutes, “Van Helsing” still feels incomplete. Character development is sketchy, the monsters, especially Frankenstein’s creature, look like action figures, while Sommers’ script is pretentious and redundant.

Those willing to forgive such minor details might get caught up in the over-the-top theatrics or the off-screen carnage, which has been designed to make the experience accessible to all but the very impressionable. Some of the action scenes are amazing and spectacular, but when Sommers layers them one on top of the other, they quickly wear out their welcome.

The computer-generated effects are extremely showy, drawing attention to themselves. I miss the old days when studios used prosthetic make-up to transform actors into werewolves. There was a human connection between man and wolf that generated sympathy for the victim. Using computer effects misses the point. Who do we care if a computer-generated werewolf bites the big one?

Surprisingly, the actors seem to be in on the joke, and play their scenes accordingly. There’s no overt winking at the camera, but we suspect these folks are there to live out childhood fantasies rather than make a serious horror film.

They’re in good company with writer-director Sommers, whose desire to make “Van Helsing” larger-than-life excludes any resemblance to reality. Sommers creates interesting landscapes, but occupies them with transparent characters who get lost in the scenery. They only exist to connect the dots.

Horror films, like a good campfire stories, should draw us in before scaring the living hell out of us. “Van Helsing” is the equivalent of sitting on top of a bucking bronco for two hours and fifteen minutes. Unless your mixing paint, all you end up with is a sore butt. The filmmakers rub horse manure all over the screen and expect us to believe it’s stucco. The stench gives it away.

Transylvania Twisted

Mummy director unwraps more movie monsters


Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Kevin J. O’Connnor, Will Kemp. Directed by Stephen Sommers. Rated PG-13. 136 Minutes.


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