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Van Helsing
Review written by: Alex Sandell

When I was five years old, I became envious of my friend Nick, who drew a wonderful picture of a horse.  I was trying to top him with a werewolf/zombie hybrid I was laying out with the crayolas, but just couldn't get it right.  Nick's horse picture received the parental squeal of praise a child looks for, while my werewolf/zombie hybrid had one mother saying, "it's... different" and, sin of all sins, another parent took a look and asked, "What is this?"  My own mom said it was good, but you could see her heart wasn't really in it. 

On the way home from Nick's house, my mom noticed that I was feeling a bit down in the dumps.  "Is it Nick's picture?" she asked.  I nodded my head in that really pathetic way that only kids and retards do.  My mother, never one short on advice, told me that I could be just as good an artist as Nick, "if only I'd give up on that monster stuff."  My eyes bugged out as though I had suddenly turned into a Looney Tune character. 

"You can still draw monsters sometimes," mom told me, "but just draw other things too, like horses, or maybe even a steer."  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  Monsters were my forte.  In defiance, I went home and traced every page of the single issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland that I owned.  Tracing was a bit of a cheat, but I had something to prove:  monsters were a hell of a lot cooler than some stupid horse, or even a steer.  So there. 

Decades later, and I still couldn't draw a horse, even if it was connect the dots, but I stand by my original assertion that monsters are cool (I've also built up quite a collection of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines, which I could always trace pictures from).  Stephen Sommers, creator of 1999's The Mummy and 2001's The Mummy Returns was most likely going through similar experiences in our shared native state of Minnesota, back in the day. 

I've taken heat for giving a glowing review to Sommers' The Mummy Returns.  If I had a dollar for every time some snooty wanker wrote in with a comment like, "you gave Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World a 3 but The Mummy Returns a 9?!?", I could make my own creature feature.  I was more than ready to take similar hits for my review of Van Helsing, but then something odd happened... the movie wasn't really that good.  As a matter of fact, Stephen Sommers' newest romp through monsterville is startling similar to the crappy picture I drew 25 years ago.  I hate to say it but; what the hell is this? 

The movie starts out on a high note:  the Universal globe spins around in old-fashioned black and white.  Suddenly the audience is put into an updated version of any number of the various horror classics from the 20's, 30's and early 40's.  Igor is hanging out with Dr. Frankenstein, who's busy making his monster.  The townspeople are rushing toward the castle, torches in hand, to kill the wickedness that resides inside.  But there's a twist; Count Dracula is overseeing the proceedings.  For some reason he needs Dr. Frankenstein's power to bring back the dead.  Once he has it, the good Doctor becomes disposable.  Frankenstein's monster isn't overly enthused about dad being killed, and runs off to an old windmill (what's up with Franky and those windmills?), which is quickly destroyed by the fanatic townspeople, who are most likely confusing him for a terrorist. 

The next thing we see is a "Wanted" sign with Van Helsing's face.  We then see Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and the film transitions into color and almost as quickly turns from quality to crap.  Helsing is after Mr. Hyde.  While Hyde looks incredibly cool, he doesn't come close to the Hyde we were shown in the mediocre League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Still, this Hyde does the job, and when he swallows a cigar, it's a magic moment in Computer Generated (CG) history.  The fight between Helsing and Hyde is fairly entertaining, but by the time it's over you hope the film slows down a bit to develop some characters and a plot slightly deeper than your average First Person Shooter video game.

Instead we're taken to a Confessional that is actually some secret passageway to Q's laboratory.  Did I say Q?  Oops, wrong movie -- although Stephen Sommers was definitely trying his best to create a medieval tech lab populated with the latest gadgets and weaponry.  The dude supplying the weapons starts off as a complete carbon copy of James Bond's famous lab partner, Q.  Unfortunately, he is sent with Helsing on the mission to rid the world of Dracula, and quickly becomes exceedingly weak comic relief.  It's not that the David Wenham wasn't up for it, it's that Sommers has all but lost his ability to supply anyone, from Wenham to Jackman any good one-liners (although a couple of the "I'm not a Monk, I'm a Friar" type jokes worked). 

The monster-fighting duo end up in a small suburb (did they use the word "suburb" back then?  I didn't think so.) of Transylvania where the townsfolk ask that Helsing and his Friar pal be relieved of their numerous weapons.  When they refuse, our leading lady, Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) enters and asks why they won't obey the town's rules.  Helsing tells her that he's here to help, she says she needs no help, and then Dracula's flying evil white banshee wives come out of the sky, on cue, and prove that help she does indeed need.  I actually did think the flying evil white banshee wives were pretty nifty.  After completing this review, I'll probably go out and buy the newest issue of Fangoria magazine, so I can trace one.

From a visual standpoint, there's a lot to like in Van Helsing.  It's too bad that there's no character development to back up the pretty pictures.  What you get is action, action, action, action, action and then, well, more action.  Critics lean on the "it's like watching somebody else playing a video game" crutch too often, but this time, the expression is true.  This movie is exactly like watching somebody else playing a video game.  Sure, some of the graphics catch your eye, but you'd rather be doing something else. 

The plot is nothing more than rehashed video trash.  "Locate the werewolf antidote before the last bell rings at midnight!"  "Find a way to get across the broken bridge!"  "Locate the big rope you can swing around on to save your Friar friend!"  Where do all the ropes in this movie come from?  People swing around like Tarzan on crank.  I wasn't scared someone was going to turn into a werewolf; I was frightened that they were going to become an ape. 

Dracula himself bites (pun intended).  Richard Roxburgh is about as scary as the Count on Sesame Street, and overacts in a way that would make a Muppet blush.  Another key creature doesn't do much better.  Frankenstein's monster's vocalizations and actions reminded me an awful lot of Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.  I can handle the monster moaning out a word here and there, but in Van Helsing he talks with the frequency of C-3PO.  He even had a "droid-ish" look about him.   

The monsters weren't all bad, though.  As mentioned above, I liked Dracula's wives.  I also thought Mr. Hyde was pretty fun.  And I can't leave out the werewolves.  Although they become one of the biggest plot contrivances in history, they look damn cool.  They're entirely computer generated, and don't look that unique, but there's something special about the way they turn from man to wolf.  Instead of a stretching body, or hair suddenly just appearing, the actual flesh of the human sort of melts off and the hair of the wolf bursts through.  Consider your entire body a mole.  Now consider that mole to be full of hair, just itchin' to escape.

Stephen Sommers does nothing with his human characters.  The audience laughed when Van Helsing and Anna Valerious kiss for no apparent reason.  Sommers never builds a believable relationship between the couple.  Actually, he didn't even bother to let the audience know they were a couple until the kiss.  The kiss ties in with the most ridiculous finale to ever make it on film.  Didn't somebody know better than to release the movie with this ending?  I'd give it away, but then you wouldn't be able to bust out laughing like the people in attendance during my screening of the film did. 

Most of the movie is laughable.  Action piled upon action becomes boring.  Sommers actually had the nerve to let the nothingness bloat itself to over two hours in length.  If it wasn't for the horrible soundtrack that blared out of the speakers throughout the entire film (Alan Silvestri is no John Williams), I most likely would have fallen asleep. 

The saddest thing about Van Helsing is to watch all of the potential this film had going to waste.  Rather than making an intriguing and unique monster movie, Sommers decided to make something Vin Diesel should be starring in.  Next time I attend a Stephen Sommers' film, I'll bring along a game pad.  At least then I can pretend to be controlling the non-stop, noisy and characterless action.

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