Van Helsing
2004
In a plot inspired by the writings of Bram Stoker, vampire hunter extraordinaire Dr. Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) travels to a mysterious region of Eastern Europe on a quest to vanquish the big three -- Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), the Wolf Man (Will Kemp) and Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley). On hand is Van Helsing's intrepid assistant, Anna (Kate Beckinsale), the heir to a family committed to hunting down and destroying the Count.

Scott Hardie: “It was ok.”

Charged with combining Universal's greatest classic-cinema monsters together into one film, writer-director Stephen Sommers apparently decided to include Universal's greatest plot holes and clich├ęs as well. This is precision formula filmmaking; undermining its jokes and shocks because you know exactly when each one is about to happen. This is the kind of movie in which every punch sends its victim flying twenty feet through the air, and no one exits a building without smashing through a giant window. Its plot is seemingly constructed entirely out of contrivances: At least thirty times, someone arrives at the exact moment and location they are needed by the plot with no explanation of how or why they happen to be there, and frequently they disappear with no explanation either. These contrivances, which eventually become amusing by their sheer frequency of occurrence, are not limited to characters: Wouldn't you know that the stroke of midnight happens at the exact second when one character needs it to survive, without having watched the clock to time it? Or that there are two separate full moons in a film that apparently takes place in less than a week? Or that one character translates an ancient Latin inscription into a rhyming verse in modern English? Or that the heroes walk into crowded downtown Prague with Frankenstein's fucking Monster without anybody raising an eyebrow, despite constant references to how easily noticeable he is? I realize that films involving automatic crossbows and sunshine grenades require some suspension of disbelief, but this plunges over the line and into some deep chasm of implausibility, gleefully inventing wild coincidences all the way down.

I felt myself turning bitter while my disappointment with the film grew. If I don't have enough time to watch all the good films that come out, why should I waste it watching bad ones like this? Why should anybody? Besides time, it's a waste of 150 million dollars that Universal will likely not recoup. The sad part is that if more time/effort had been put into the script, something that costs 0 million dollars to improve, then the film would have gotten better reviews and gotten a bigger opening and had longer legs at the box office, and would have broken even or come close to it. It happens sometimes that bad movies make big profits, but why be in the business of making bad movies when good ones often earn even more money? Universal spoke openly about their hopes to turn this film into a franchise: sequels, a TV series, a theme-park attraction, video games, everything. But how would anybody be interested in all that if the film is so forgettable?

The script is its weakest link. Whenever the characters begin to discuss their feelings or insights or anything not related to the plot, they can barely get out two sentences before something attacks them. When the film is ending and the characters are saying their various goodbyes to one another, they don't actually say any words at all because the film can't imagine what they might have to say to one another; they stand there gaping at each other in silence. (I wonder if "meaningful glance here" was actually written in the script.)

The film does have one huge element in its favor: Most of its humongous budget was apparently spent on its production and special effects. This is a beautiful film, in which the CGI doesn't merely enhance the action but is also used to fill in voluminous sets and populate them with bizarre sights. The masquerade ball, the vampire hatcheries, the mountaintop castles, the carriage chase; these expansive set pieces would have been impossible without computer imagery, and the film is enriched by them. I wish that less of the film was set in darkness so that I could better see these sequences, but they're still impressive. The film employs excellent cinematography; images like the werewolf atop the flaming carriage and Van Helsing atop the Notre Dame will stay with me.

Miscellaneous other comments:I read that "Abraham" was changed to "Gabriel" so that the studio would own the rights to this otherwise public-domain character. To me that defeats the purpose of even calling him Van Helsing; they should have just invented a new character, as though this one has much to do with the literary version anyway. Sommers, giving interviews, has said that he didn't think audiences would take an "Abraham" seriously as an action hero, and if I didn't halfway agree with him I'd call that a slap in the face to Abes everywhere.Major continuity problems with sound. Anna doesn't hear a baby hatching two inches from her ear. Dracula's helpers don't hear Anna and Van Helsing loudly discussing their plan a few yards away. Adding to the recurring contrivance of characters instantly appearing whenever and wherever needed is that they almost never make a sound; they're just standing there waiting for the heroes to arrive and need them for something. (I *did* enjoy Dracula's little speech about hearing Van Helsing's heartbeat.)It always bugs me when one movie character shushes another one because a threat lurks nearby, then proceeds to talk loudly about that threat, as Van Helsing does to Anna in the pit under the windmill. (I like the reference to Sherlock Holmes; I merely take issue with the shushing.)Near the end is a prolonged claws-and-fangs duel between a werewolf and a vampire, both smashing up a laboratory like bulls in a china shop. That is what I wanted out of "Underworld" last year and never got.What the hell were those little things helping out Dracula? I don't remember ever hearing of those things before. They looked like the art director just got bored and crossed an Ewok with a Jawa.I loved the shot-for-shot tribute to "Frankenstein" at the very beginning; it had me hoping momentarily that this film might really be something. Immediately after this sequence, the film should have played the fantastic closing credits to get us even further in the mood.My favorite line was when Anna held back Igor and told him she would enter the room first, and he merely glanced back at her and replied, "Unnnnhhhh." That's my Igor!

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