Van Helsing (2004) – movie review

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Movie Review by Dr Kuma

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Kevin J O’Connor

Director: Stephen Sommers

This is a movie I’d been waiting for for ages. Universal had promised to bring their classic monsters up to date and the premise sounded fantastic, a classic horror fans dream. We’d been promised this before (the remake of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for example) with no classic monsters (bar the director’s camp mummy films) making any appearance on the silver screen for ages, then, like a bus, four monsters came long at once, all in the same vehicle! I jumped on the bus VAN HELSING, ticket in hand, hoping (or rather expecting after all the hype) to be taken somewhere special, but around twenty minutes into the trip, I found that it was going somewhere I really didn’t like. Its destination wasn’t Transylvania as it should be but somewhere I didn’t find thrilled to be. The bus VAN HELSING was as lost as I was, going round in circles, cutting corners and missing obvious warning signs that it was heading down the wrong track, with its much hyped conductor/driver/director Sommers asleep at the wheel. What a shame. I got out and walked home under grey thunderous skies.

The movie started off fantastically well; the famous Universal globe, the trade mark of its great classic horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s turning into the tip of an angry villager’s torch, headed towards a black and white castle. Great I thought, this is going to be a homage to the past. However, not everything is black and white, which is a shame, because that’s the only part of the movie that works. The plot then takes us to a battle between Van Helsing and Mr Hyde, which I’m surprised Twentieth Century Fox let Universal use as it’s virtually a carbon copy of the CGI monster that appeared in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. At this point I started to wonder. I love the animation and slightly false look of something that looks like Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation as they add to the fantasy. What I can’t stand however is bad use of CGI. The last Bond movie lost a lot of fans who all point to the terrible use of CGI in that film as the point where 007 sold out and VAN HELSING falls under a similar shadow. At best, like the really good transformation sequences of the werewolf (very graphic for kids it’s got to be said) it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s less effective than the Penisaurus from FLESH GORDON over 20 years ago which was made for about $200. As at least 70% of the movie’s running time must contain CGI, this makes it more of a computer game than a film.

The story is as complex as a vampire’s reflection (e.g. there isn’t one) and whatever semblance of logic or sense there was supposed to be (Dracula using Frankenstein’s monster to stop him being killed by a werewolf!!!!) is forgotten as we head from one set piece to another.

Universal have great hopes for this (but less hope than their fans had in them which says it all), but in reality, this should have been released in the summer holidays, as it’s a rather violent kids movie, no more, no less. Those who love the Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney movies will think it terrible, like drawing a moustache and glasses on the Mona Lisa or another masterpiece. Those who aren’t fans of the black and white classics or are around 8-12 years old will like it as it will be the first time most will have seen these monsters on a cinema screen. On the cast and monsters themselves, Jackman is fine if far too Australian to have a name like Van Helsing, he’s more Van Halen than Van Helsing and no Peter Cushing, I think he may have thought this was X-MEN 3 (there’s plenty of reference). Beckinsale really spoils her copy book after the great UNDERWORLD. It’s not totally her fault as she’s mostly just a figure in a CGI effect hitting walls or falling through tree branches or swinging from broken bridges for most of the time, so we can’t really say it’s her performance that is bad, although her accent is hilarious. Roxburgh as Dracula is as charismatic as a fart in a spacesuit, but as I mentioned, the monsters, especially Frankenstein are re-imagined well and I liked the vampire brides, although they were just pale imitations of Harryhausen’s Harpes from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. If you really want to see the best VAN HELSING style movie ever, then get hold of CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER made by Hammer Films in the 70’s.

Dr Kuma’s verdict: I’ll give this film two ratings: If you want a couple of hours of computer generated effects flashing on a screen that you can’t control because you have a hotdog as opposed to a joystick in you hand, then you’ll enjoy this movie which looks like it’s based on a game anyway. (or if you’re a boy between 8-12)

4 out of 6 stars

However, if you’re a fan of the Universal classics, then buy the boxset DVD’s of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN released to coincide with this and stay home and chant the spell from the classic WOLF MAN. I’ve included this famous poem below plus my own little rhyme to show how the two versions vary:

THE WOLF MAN – Universal 1941:

Even a man who is pure at heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms

And the Moon is full and bright

VAN HELSING – Universal 2004:

When a film that was a work of art

But made in black and white

Was then remade with twice the cash

And turned out twice as shite

For those who like the originals

1 out of 6 stars