½*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham
written and directed by Stephen Sommers
by Walter Chaw There are times now and again over the course of Stephen Sommers's unspeakable Van Helsing when the film is so brazenly bad that it threatens to be satirical--so bad that one is left to scramble to pull some sort of gestalt sense from the carnage. But it's just a mess, a cesspool of half-formed ideas and images ripped off whole from The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Hugh Jackman reprising Wolverine from X-Men and Kate Beckinsale essentially reprising her role from Underworld. All of it's wrapped up in a cacophonous jumble of dour mattes, really (really) bad CGI, and an Alan Silvestri score that is itself a rip-off of everything that made John Williams famous (that is, Holst's "The Planets"). Way too long at just over two hours with no story to speak of justifying its length, the piece is stolen by David Wenham as a deadpan 19th century Q, Friar Carl, and grinds to a dead standstill whenever Jackman delivers one of his twenty lines, Beckinsale chimes in with a jarring non sequitur ("There's a bright side to death in Transylvania"), Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's monster threatens to cry out "Puttin' on the Riiiitz," or Richard Roxburgh as Count Dracula vamps around like a diva in a John Waters film. If only Van Helsing were campy.
We're introduced to Van Helsing as he kills Mr. Hyde (an animation voiced by Robbie Coltrane) in Notre Dame, invoking of the overblown Victorian failure of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and establishing Van Helsing as a PG-13 movie through and through: gory but not bloody. Struggling to find equal time for the Universal stable of monsters, Jackman, Beckinsale, and, to a lesser degree, Wenham (who is good enough that I suspect they added a few scenes for him during post), the picture jumps around like a frog on a griddle. It can't make up its mind whether it wants any narrative conflict at all, gumming around something about the cocooned batboy offspring of Drac and his pips, about how sending a lightning bolt through Frankenstein's monster will awaken said spawn, about a cure for lycanthropy hoarded by Drac because a werewolf is the only thing that can kill Drac or something--until finally, it just gives up, setting up, in addition to a carriage chase, a series of long Tarzan swings on makeshift vines and a few carefully mainframed shots of actors standing in front of a blue screen reciting terrible dialogue at a tennis ball on a string.
Rome burns when stuff like this makes it into the collective unconscious. What's lost in pictures like Van Helsing is the truism that there can't be excitement without tension, and that there can't be tension without a connection to the characters involved in the action or some sort of investment in action's resolution. There's a high-speed carriage chase in the film--but where are they going? There's a lot of stuff exploding and collapsing--but do we care if anyone gets blown up or crushed? I did cringe once, when it appeared that Friar Carl had been killed, mainly because right after the impressive prologue, he became the only thing standing between me and self-mutilation. Van Helsing is a vacuous lightshow and, logic following, the only way to make any kind of sense of it, or to squeeze an ounce of enjoyment out of the ordeal, is to run "Dark Side of the Moon" underneath it, project it onto the ceiling, and pipe in the sweet stench of pot and vomit. Groovy, man. Originally published: May 7, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Universal presents Van Helsing on DVD in separate widescreen (covered herein), fullscreen, and "Ultimate" editions. This is a high-profile release of a long film with a lot of extra features, so it's a shame that everything is crammed onto one platter--the opportunity for a DTS track is sacrificed along with precious elbowroom for the video stream. (Apparently the first disc of the "Ultimate Edition"--whose third and final DVD contains the 1931 Dracula, the 1931 Frankenstein, and the 1941 The Wolf Man--is identically configured.) The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer suffers from the jaggies and even some mosquito noise; in all honesty, it's difficult to differentiate between what looks like shit because it was graded into oblivion in post and what looks like shit because the movie is a compressionist's nightmare, but the phrase "you can't squeeze blood from a stone" seems to apply in either scenario.
The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is predictably hyperactive, if, like Van Helsing itself, full of insignificant sound and fury. Van Helsing's flying saw blade does a couple of nifty 360s around the room and the bottom end is fat (phat?). On another audio track, writer-director Stephen Sommers joins editor/producer Bob Ducsay for one of two feature-length commentaries, the second of which reunites stars Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp (a.k.a. Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man). These are like listening to paint dry, with Sommers bragging about having made a movie that's more artificial than it looks (!) and the three unmasked monsters telling dull production anecdotes in conspiratorial tones. Additional bonus material includes:
Explore Dracula's Castle
Click the lightning bolts for close-up views of Castle Dracula--"Discover stunning environments of Van Helsing that you couldn't see in theatres," goes the ad copy. Intimacy of perspective be damned, I think everyone will have had his or her fill of gothic façades and flaming torches by film's end.
Bloopers (6 mins.)
Smug budget boasts are cloaked in self-deprecating humour as a succession of props--a sceptre, a gun, a ring--fall apart at the seams.
Bringing the Monsters to Life (10 mins.)
Sommers and various F/X personnel repeatedly hang themselves with quotes such as "We've done things that they couldn't do back then" (couldn't--or wouldn't want to?) and "I can see everyday life all the time" (as a means of rationalizing Sommers's immature fantasy-scapes). Animatics are juxtaposed with finished work without comment and there are serviceable breakdowns of the MoCap-heavy Hyde and vampire-bride sequences. Assistant Visual Effects producer Joseph Grossberg's allegation that Hyde is the most photorealistic CGI character to date is another of ILM's safely unquantifiable attempts to steal the thunder of WETA and their pioneering work on Gollum.
You Are in the Movie (4 mins.)
The "filmmakers" but not the "crew" are said to be aware of the hidden cameras mounted onto the actual film cameras that generated the fly-on-the-wall footage compiled here (and available as a jump-to feature throughout Van Helsing proper)--an unfortunate class distinction that casts a pall over these already-superfluous vignettes.
The Legend of Van Helsing (10 mins.)
"Professor of English" Elizabeth Miller says that because the literary Van Helsing shares a first name with his creator, Bram Stoker "obviously thinks of that character as the central character." Professor of conjecture is more like it. The remainder of this mistitled violation of one's time is a Hugh Jackman love-in.
Forced trailers for Shaun of the Dead, Seed of Chucky, and a three-pack of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King precede the main menu, while a Shrek 2 preview, a playable level of the Xbox Van Helsing game (playable, that is, if you're an Xbox owner), ROM stuff inaccessible by yours truly, and Van Helsing's trailer and Superbowl spot round out the DVD. A shiny cardboard slipcover hugs the keepcase. Originally published: October 19, 2004.