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Van Helsing

Forget everything you may know about the novels of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson. Hollywood has been shredding them for years. Forget everything you may know about Universal's classic monsters. Hollywood has fed on itself for years. Forget everything you know about coherent storytelling and consistency from scene to scene. Hollywood has rendered them dead in favor of CG. Instead, remember that man, special effects are really cool, and you just might enjoy Van Helsing.

If we must give credit to writer/director/sampler Stephen Sommers, it is for loving too much. Like Quentin Tarantino, Sommers is clearly a product of the movies he grew up worshipping. But unlike Tarantino, he learned the wrong lessons from them. Where some might have seen heart and soul, Sommers saw make-up that could only be improved by digitization.

It was cool in the thirties to see a vampire turn to dust through trick photography, so it would be even cooler to see one melt, writhe, ooze, undulate and perhaps eventually disintegrate in as slow and vivid a manner as possible. At some points, these monstrous transformations are like lava lamps out to suck your blood. Cool it may be, but it's also very very empty.

The plot of Van Helsing exists only as the barest of frameworks to hang the effects upon. Many summer box office hits have been guilty of similar crimes, but this one seems so tragically close to being actually fun.

Sommers starts things off promisingly enough, by bringing us into a classic scene from the original Universal Frankenstein. Or so it seems. Villagers have gathered with their torches around Castle Frankenstein, while on a distant hilltop we can see a windmill just aching to catch fire. Even zooming inside the obviously fake sets doesn't arouse any suspicions as the handsome Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) prepares for his greatest triumph.

No, the first inkling that Van Helsing will go wrong is in the mincing rock star version of Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) prancing around. Owing far more to Pete Burns from Dead Or Alive than to Bela Lugosi, this Dracula has no introspective side. The vampire lord commits evil acts for the hell of it, whispering his plans to Victor before killing him. We don't hear his scheme, but really, it matters so little and ultimately makes no sense.

What does matter is that Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley) has the most soul of any character in this film. He bellows his lines operatically, and later on shows a great predilection for scripture. At least that guarantees some dialogue with meaning, even if it is out of context.

And what of the title character, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman)? We meet him in Paris, an outlaw hunted by the gendarmes and dressed somewhere between Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane and The Shadow. That won't be the only pulp hero Sommers shoves into Jackman. After dispatching a "surprise" monster at Notre Dame, played unrecognizably by Robbie Coltrane, Van Helsing descends into the bowels of the Vatican (call it the Vatcave) to be revealed as a holy James Bond, complete with his own Q. In this case, it's an inventive Friar named Karl (David Wenham). And just in case you miss the comparison, Sommers dutifully imitates the introduction of gadget sequences from many Bond films right down to the off-hand explosive destruction of a mannequin.

Once things get rolling in Transylvania, viewers have to turn off their brains if they hope to survive. It's just one huge action sequence after another, with Van Helsing being a worse shot than most Bond villain henchmen. At least these sequences will be absolutely killer in the videogame, and indeed, they're so dependent on CG that they might as well actually be the game.

Careening from set piece to set piece, the few quiet seconds are filled with false monster lore that Sommers forgets to actually use. Gypsy Anna Valerious (an exceptionally bosomy Kate Beckinsale) comments that werewolves only shed under the light of their first full moon, a headscratching factoid if ever there was one. There's also troubling evidence that in Transylvania, the full moon seems to come around every few days. No waxing and waning when there's chaos to be sown.

At times Van Helsing gets so loud and logic-free that you long for a soundtrack by Queen or at least Jim Steinman. The movie may have arrived thirty years too late, or at least too late for the days when I'd go to movies in an altered state. It would have fit right alongside rock fantasias like Phantom of the Paradise or the classic Rocky Horror Picture Show. More than one scene has ample opportunity for characters to break into song.

And unfortunately, few people involved in the cast seem to get that. Beckinsale, though gorgeous, does not seem to see the humor in her impossibly thick "Transylvanian" accent. The Brides of Dracula don't see the humor, either, but make up for it by writhing a lot and sounding strangely like Arianna Huffington.

Countering them, Roxburgh hardly bothers with a dialect but at least seems to be having a good time. If anything, he's not over the top enough.

For the first time, I felt like Jackman was just taking a paycheck. A great, potentially career-killing paycheck. He doesn't even bother to hide his Australian accent, a strange choice for a guy that's supposedly Dutch, taken in by the Vatican, and then revealed to have darker secrets that still would take him nowhere near Australia.

Only Wenham, as the reluctant sidekick and Friar, strikes the right balance. Moreover, it's such a departure from his role as Faramir in The Lord of the Rings that it really showcases his versatility as an actor, not to mention his pretty good comic timing.

The kaleidoscopic horror will be enough to warrant a viewing, and if Van Helsing were to show up on cable on a boring Saturday afternoon, it would easily suck me back in. But you know what? So would Digby, The Biggest Dog In The World, so that's not saying much.



Derek McCaw

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