Produced by Stephen Sommers and Bob Ducsay
Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J O’Connor, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Sylvia Colloca, Josie Maran, Alun Armstrong, Samuel West, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Fisher.
A dark, eerie setting, superbly grotesque monsters and some spectacular stunts and visual effects – all help create the intended effect in Van Helsing. Director Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns) movie about the nineteenth-century slayer of vampires and evil beings first created in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula also brings together Mr Hyde (and Dr Jekyll, briefly), the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Brides of Dracula. This Van Helsing is not the tired old man of the book but young and sexy and very cool, with the stylish look of Vampire Hunter ‘D’ and the convincing presence of the best evil-eradicating heroes. The stylish look is echoed throughout the production, which is in high-camp melodramatic mode and, in the screening I attended, only lost the audience when the melodrama descended to pure cheese in the romantic scenes between Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale.
After launching Mr Hyde (Robbie Coltrane) to his death from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral with no regard for the stained glass rose window, misunderstood monster-hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) receives his usual response of ‘Murderer!’ from those who find Dr Jekyll’s poor shattered body on the flag-stones below. He is called to the arsenal laboratory of a secret church organisation to receive his next mission – nothing less than to kill Count Dracula. With its alchemical flavour and dark, smoky set, this scene is a sweetly humorous period parody. Diverse experts in the occult from Tibetan lamas to Hindu sages and nineteenth century monks are all working conscientiously on weapons designed to vanquish evil beasts and hellish creatures. In a very funny reference to James Bond and Q, we find bookish geek Friar Carl (played with superb clownish foolery by David Wenham) who has invented the weapons and gadgets Van Helsing will take with him on his mission and who will accompany him, despite Carl’s own protests that he is not a field man, as his assistant.
In the meantime, in Transylvania, Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is disappointed his attempt at capturing Viktor Frankenstein’s monster has failed in the apparent death of both master and creature. Only later will his horrifying purpose in wanting him in the first place be revealed, although most viewers will probably have worked it out long before in the best melodrama tradition.
Van Helsing joins the side of Dracula’s enemies, the Valerious family, cursed never to rest in peace till one of them kills the Count. The last two living representatives of this fierce gypsy royalty are Anna (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), who almost immediately gets himself bitten by a werewolf. His transformations at the full moon, with the werewolf literally bursting out from inside his skin, are impressive, the CG segue barely noticeable.
The special effects are terrific. The three ghoulish flying Brides of Dracula (Elena Anaya, Sylvia Colloca and Josie Maran) are the hellish harpies and voluptuous beauties described by Bram Stoker but brought to life on the screen in dazzlingly vicious ways. The swarming offspring of the Brides and Dracula – Van Helsing (up to his elbow in viscous goop): ‘So this is what you get when vampires mate!’ – are suitable Hellspawn. Igor (an unhealthy looking Kevin J. O’Connor), one-time servant of Viktor Frankenstein and now serving Count Dracula, illustrates the twisted psychological effect of collecting too many body parts.
An unlikely ally for our heroes is the much maligned Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley), whose innate nobility shines through his ghastly appearance. Van Helsing, who can only kill those whose evil he can sense, spares him where Anna would have killed him. His characterisation in this film shows him as a more truly tragic figure than any of his many other film representations.
As the passionate and tough Anna, Kate Beckinsale does not quite match her superb performance as the intense, brooding vampire in Underworld but, despite her slightly bizarre and distracting costume (Transylvanian peasant blouse under a very tight leather corset), puts her best boot forward. The romantic scenes with Jackman are disappointing, their fiery chemistry fizzling into corn syrup. Jackman is every bit the heroic, iconic, memory-lapsed Van Helsing, who is the last to know who he really is, but nearly has every scene stolen by fellow Australian David Wenham, whose comic timing, voice pitch and gait are all perfect and extremely funny.
Richard Roxburgh (another Australian) as Count Dracula is mesmerising, implacably evil and surprisingly passionate. The enormous CG Hellbeast he transforms into is awesome and the final showdown between him and the Werewolf is a well-choreographed, aerial dance of violent shapeshifting.
Shot largely at night with a grimy black and white effect, the cinematography is superb. Scenes set against Prague’s medieval buildings contrast well with stunning snowy mountains or pine forest settings. Dracula’s masquerade ball, in the de-consecrated St Nicholas cathedral and with Cirque du Soleil acrobats and aerialists flying above the dancers, is appropriately, gothically twisted. Highly dramatic music enhances the melodramatic tone and keeps the pace tight.
Some memorable scenes: the hapless cow on the balcony after a Bride misses her intended target; Dracula and the Brides casually hanging upside down as they make plans; Dracula walking up walls and on the ceiling; the showdown between Anna and a Bride in the antidote chamber and Carl finally discovering the proper use of his mysterious unknown weapon, among many others. Although the last scene, meant to be poignant, is so cheesy that the audience in our screening were laughing, the film overall is enjoyable, with plenty of original features and amusing dialogue, fast pace and sexy, spectacular effects for vampire and monster movie fans to be happily entertained.
(c) Avril Carruthers, 4th May 2004
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