Van Helsing (2004)
Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Robbie Coltrane, Will Kemp, Elena Anaya, Samuel West and Stephen Fisher
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Hugh Jackman is cool and the ladies love him. He’s a total badass (see: X2: X-Men United), he’s good looking (see: Hugh Jackman), and he sings and dances (see: Oklahoma!, The Boy From Oz). Hugh Jackman is also probably the sole reason that I not only saw Van Helsing on opening night, but Laura saw it with me.
Van Helsing is brought to you by Stephen Sommers, who was also responsible for Deep Rising,The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King, among others. I’ve seen three of these films and liked one (Deep Rising, which was a campy, tongue-in-cheek monster movie). Van Helsing may well have been advertised as “from the writer/director of The Mummy and its ilk,” but either I didn’t see those spots or I subconsciously blocked them. Whichever is the case, had my conscious mind been aware of the writer/director’s previous efforts, I might have gone into Van Helsing with slightly different (read: lower) expectations.
I can say this: I didn’t like Van Helsing. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say much more without venturing deep into spoiler territory.
Van Helsing begins in Transylvania, 1877. The villagers have their torches and pitchforks at the ready and are marching on Castle Frankenstein. The doctor is in his lab, the beakers are bubbling and the sparks are flying. The opening sequence is presented in black and white, as an homage to the Universal monster movies of old. Lightning flashes, switches are thrown, electricity courses, and the good doctor exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
Dracula is pleased with this pronunciation. See, the count is Dr. Frankenstein’s financial backer. A sort of Vampire Capitalist, if you will. Victor is a bit naive, and it comes as quite the shock when he learns that Dracula has sinister designs for his creation. The doctor wants nothing to do with it, and he pays the ultimate price for his folly.
This is an unfortunate moment for Victor Frankenstein. It is also an unfortunate moment for Dracula and for Van Helsing as a whole. Bad for Victor because he’s dead, bad for Dracula because the monster breaks free of his retraints and starts wreaking havoc, and bad for the movie because Dracula’s bite is the first glimpse of things to come.
I’m talking about special effects. See, when Dracula bites Dr. Frankenstein, it’s not a simple matter of canines extending. No, we get a cross between a tiger shark and a boa constrictor. Teeth everywhere, distended jaw, you know the drill. It’s over-the-top and it looks like open-mic night at the SFX House. Bad.
The monster is able to incapacitate the vampire and, cradling the body of his creator in his arms, flees the castle pursued by an angry mob of villagers. There’s no escape for the monster, who winds up trapped in a burning windmill, crying as the whole mess collapses around him.
A year passes…
The homage is over, so when the scene opens on Paris at night, it’s in full color. Van Helsing is hot on the trail of Mr. Hyde, who turns out to be Shrek’s unpleasant older brother and a hallmark of shoddy computer-generated characters. Everything about Hyde is wrong. He swings from the rafters of the church, moving like an orangutan on speed. When he’s face-to-face with Van Helsing, there’s no eye contact. Oh, the slayer is supposed to be looking him right in the eyes, that much is clear, but he just … misses. Can’t blame Jackman for that. After all, he was probably looking at a tennis ball. Hyde just never fits into the scene.
Hyde isn’t particularly interested in a peaceful resolution, so a tussle ensues. It’s a chance to show off some of Van Helsing’s nifty gadgets and assault the audience with more bad “groundbreaking” special effects. In the end, one of the combatants is not so alive anymore and the other is declared a murderer by a crowd that has gathered on previously empty streets.
Van Helsing goes to confession and finds that the Church has another assignment for him. He’s working for a secret mutli-denominational agency that fights the forces of darkness on Earth. His mission: go to Transylvania and deal with a vampire problem. If Anna Valerious dies before the Count, then nine (nine!) generations (ha-ha-ha!) of her family will be denied entrance into Heaven. Q Division has some new nifty gadgets to help with the job. They’re also sending along a friar named Carl for comic relief.
Anna isn’t the sole hope of the Valerious family, but her brother Velkan isn’t Kate Beckinsale, so he’s going to be effectively removed in the next scene. Velkan is out hunting a werewolf, and he gets himself into a sticky spot. Turns out he’s not hunting alone, though. His sister and a dozen villagers are there for backup. Alas, though everyone is armed to the teeth, Velkan’s gun is the only one loaded with silver bullets. Yeah. Oops.
There’s a lot of shooting, a bit of caged and uncaged werewolf slobbering, and eventually Velkan and the werewolf wind up going over a steep cliff and into a river. So long, Velkan. So long, werewolf. For now.
Van Helsing boards the H.M.S. Surprise but forgets to take any of Master and Commander‘s fairly realistic water effects with him. After a brief sea voyage, he and Carl arrive in the village and are met with less than open arms. The vampire brides arrive just in time to allow Van Helsing to prove his benevolence, and they bring along some of the worst blue-screen effects in recent memory.
A cow is thrown through a roof, the villagers panic, Van Helsing shows off his new gas-powered repeating crossbow, and Anna shows that she is one resilient woman. Actually, she gets the living shit beat out of her and bounces back like a super ball every time. Doesn’t matter whether you throw her through a window, off a roof, or through a window and then off a roof, she comes right back at you with her sword a-swinging. She’s tough. The cow makes it, too.
Anna and Van Helsing should team up, but she’s not convinced. She’s going monster hunting, and she’s going right now. Van Helsing discourages her with a spray of Bat Gas, and when she wakes up, he’s gone and there’s a werewolf stalking her. Great.
This isn’t the same werewolf that took a swan dive with Velkan. In fact, we never see that werewolf again, and there’s no explanation for its absence. Perhaps “there can be only one.” No, this werewolf is none other than Velkan himself, bitten by his dance partner and thus lycanthropated. It’s his first full moon, so he’s shedding like nobody’s business.
Van Helsing isn’t nearly so far away as we might expect, and he comes rushing in to save Anna from a lifetime of scratching at fleas and licking her own crotch. Anna does prevent Van Helsing from killing the werewolf, however, so there’s a good bet that we’ll be seeing him again later.
Meanwhile, Dracula and his brides are scheming to bring their evil offspring to life. Seems that Frankenstein’s monster was going to be key in this little plan, but he was lost in that windmill fire. Big D is banking on Velkan’s werewolf blood being the key, so the furry chap is tied to a platform and raised up to be used as an unwilling conductor for unhealthy doses of direct current. The juice passes through Velkan’s body and outward along cables that are attached to the spawn of the undead, who are encased the same lumpy, brown, disgusting sac that every spawn of every undead from every other movie have been encased in since time immemorial. And the sacs are filled with the same white goo, too.
The fruit of Dracula’s loins are brought to life, and the brides lead them down to the village to feed. Alas, the werewolf blood wasn’t enough, and the little cherubs pop like green zits about five minutes later, leaving their mothers to wail and moan. The spawn of Dracula, by the way, look pretty much like the amazing bat boy of Weekly World News fame.
After a brief fracas with the bad guys (Dracula employs dozens of belligerent Jawas), Kate and Leopold escape the castle and come across the same windmill that Victor and his big boy fled to a year ago. The floor isn’t entirely stable, and they wind up falling through to a cavern below where, lo and behold, Frankenstein’s monster still lives. Anna wants to kill the monster, but Van Helsing can sense evil, and boltneck ain’t it. Three darts from a blowgun in the back, and the monster is subdued.
Frankenstein’s monster, by the way, is pretty much the best critter in the whole movie. As Van Helsing says, he’s not evil. He’s also got green lightning in his brain and his heart. It’s one of the few effects that’s actually pulled off throughout the movie. He turns out to be a very helpful fellow, despite the fact that Van Helsing offers to trade him for Anna.
Oh, yeah, Anna. Dracula captures her. There’s a big chase involving a werewolf, the brides and a carriage pulled by Transylvanian horses. In the process, Van Helsing is bitten by the werewolf, Anna is captured, and every child learns that reindeer Transylvanian stallions really can fly.
Van Helsing and Carl (who has been researching the history of Dracula and the Valerious clan this whole while) plot to get Anna back without giving Dracula the monster. See, Van Helsing lied. Unfortunately, Dracula found out where the monster had been hidden and captured him anyway. Nonetheless, Anna is rescued.
Van Helsing (or, Gabriel, as Dracula calls him … they’ve got a little history, these two, despite the fact that Van Helsing can’t remember it) is going to turn into a werewolf. That’s bad. But Carl calculates that they’ve got forty-eight hours before the next full moon.
Stop. Rewind a bit. Forty-eight hours? Wasn’t Velkan just attacking Anna during his first full moon? Yes, he was. But that’s not important right now. The fact is, the full moon is coming in forty-eight hours. Don’t ask how. It just is.
Carl has managed to figure out how to get to Dracula’s Castle, so everybody packs up their gear to go after his toothiness so they can stop his evil plot. There are thousands more bat sacs hanging from the ceiling of Castle D, and now that they’ve got the monster, the happy family will soon hear the flitter-flut of little wings in the halls.
The good guys also learn that Dracula has a cure for lycanthropy. Why? Well, if a person of strong enough will were to be turned into a werewolf, he might be able to resist the vampire’s command. Oh, yeah, and the bite of such a werewolf would kill Big D.
Gabriel frees Frankenstein’s monster and turns into the only halfway-decent looking werewolf in the movie. Dracula turns into Venger, from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. They grapple. Anna and Carl coerce Igor into showing them where the antidote is, but he double-crosses them. Carl manages to get away, but the final bride shows up and proceeds to kick Anna’s cute little ass.
The monster rescues Anna, and there is way too much swinging on cables between The Two Towers. Again, the bad bluescreen rears its ugly head. Carl throws the antidote to Anna, then rescues the monster from certain death. Gabriel bites Dracula. Anna swings into the wrasslin’ room, administers the antidote just in time, then dies.
Yes, dies. Anna has taken beating after beating throughout the entire movie, then dies after Were Helsing pushes her onto a couch. It’s just too comfy! Gabriel howls and transforms back into Shirtless Hugh Jackman and the ladies in the audience wipe another bit of drool from the corner of their mouths.
Van Helsing takes Anna’s body
back to the Ewok village to the top of a hill, where he burns her on a funeral pyre. And I whispered, “Mufasa!” as her ghostly visage appeared in the blue sky, a single, shimmering tear running down her cheek.