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Van Helsing vs Dracula vs Frankenstein vs Wolf Man
on 20 July 2005
"Van Helsing" is a kitchen sink monster movie, so it is a question of how far it can go before things fall apart, which for me was pretty far. The best part of writer-director Stephen Sommers' film is arguably the prologue, done in glorious black & white as a wonderful homage to the Universal monster pictures of yesterday. In Transylvania the torch bearing peasants are storming Castle Frankenstein, where the Victor (Samuel West) has just brought his creation (Shuler Hensley) to life and is screaming, "It's alive! Alive! Alive!," the words immortalizing by Colin Clive back in 1931's "Frankenstein." However, there is a twist in that Dr. Frankenstein is working with Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who is after the secret of creating life for his own purposes. Events take their tragic course and then we pick up the story a year later in color with the title character (Hugh Jackman) in Paris on the trail of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (who actually turns out to be a different literary monster).
To be clear, this is not Abraham Van Helsing, the wise doctor of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, but a mysterious monster killer whose first name turns out to be Gabriel. I would say that he is decked out like Solomon Kane, but that has nothing to do with any of the Universal monster movies. He is dispatched by a secret organization in the Vatican to go to Transylvania and kill Dracula. Not just because the count is an evil vampire, but because the noble house of Valerious has been fighting Dracula for several hundred years and the entire family can only go directly to heaven, passing purgatory or worse, if they kill the vampire before he wipes out their family, which is now down to Prince Velkan (Will Kemp) and Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale).
Apparently Dracula knows about the deal as well because when Van Helsing gets to Transylvania the vampire launches an attack with his three brides, Aleera (Elena Anaya), Verona (Silvia Colloca), and Marishka (Josie Maran). Fortunately, Van Helsing has a new sidekick, Carl (David Wenham), a friar who is clearly the Vatican equivalent of James Bonds' Q. Carl main creation is basically a mechanical crossbow that shoots like a machine gun. However, technology is of limited value when you are dealing with monsters.
Sommers plays with the rules of his monsters a little bit. This time around werewolves do not sprout hair but rather claw off their skin to reveal their fur (and visa versa), which I found rather effective. The Frankenstein monster has a touch of the industrial revolution about him and is one of the more human characters in the film. As for Dracula, it seems that driving a stake through his heart or shoving a cross in his fangs no longer has much effect and our hero has to discover exactly what you have to do to this particular vampire to get him to bite the dust.
In the end there are two flaws that undercut the effectiveness of this film. The first has to do with the new werewolf rules, because I am still not sure when you turn into a werewolf and the whole transformation bit ends up speeding up to meet the demands of the plot. The second is the idea that Van Helsing and Anna are too busy trying to be superheroes (or Tarzan), swinging around on cables and such. There so much swinging on such things, over enormous distances, that the idea is done to death and just becomes a sort of running joke. Add to this that at the end Sommers tries to over a transcendent grace note that is rather lame. Fortunately the end credits are pretty cool, so you can still leave the theater having good thoughts about "Van Helsing."
I was not grossly offended by this film as are some aficionados of the classic Universal Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man films have admitted to being. For throwing three major characters into the mix "Van Helsing" does a good job of making the pieces fit overall and providing a nice summertime roller coaster ride. The attempt to build chemistry between the hero and the heroine us really nothing more than an attempt to put off their kiss as long as possible and the mystery as to what Van Helsing cannot remember anything about his past is also a minor matter. This movie is about monsters fighting monsters and on that part the film delivers with the volume turned all the way up.