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Monster Mess

 

Van Helsing

Stephen Sommers, USA, 2004

Rating: 1.0

 

 

Posted: May 9, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

"I am hollow," laments Count Dracula. Although this throwaway line, delivered early on in Van Helsing, is meant to describe the famous vampire's existence, it could just as easily be a venomous accusation hurled at director Stephen Sommers, whose latest attempt at a The Mummy-style blockbuster franchise is itself undead. It moves, looks and sounds like a regular action film, but it's hindered and defined by its conspicuous lack of a soul.

Van Helsing begins promisingly enough, with a black-and-white prologue meant to evoke the look and tone of classic monster movies. In a Transylvanian castle, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) brings his fabled artificial creature to life on a dark and stormy night, even as a mob of angry villagers storms the castle with torches and a battering ram. But the good doctor won't have to worry about escaping the villagers' wrath, since he's immediately betrayed by the benefactor who's funded his work and given him a place to experiment: Dracula himself (Richard Roxburgh, gamely playing his distinctly de-fanged role as a prancing Bono wannabe -- the Dave Gahan of vampires). Why Dr. Frankenstein should be shocked at this betrayal is only the first of Van Helsing's many questions.

Soon enough, we're introduced to the hero of the piece, re-imagined here as a notorious monster hunter. After dispatching the villainous Mr. Hyde in a clunky scene of PG-13 mayhem, our protagonist returns to his employers at the Vatican (our own Vatican Assassin should sue), where, in one of the clunkiest bits of expository dialogue ever conceived, it's revealed that Van Helsing has no memory of his past, and that his latest assignment -- helping the last of a line of vampire-hunters dispatch Dracula so that the family can enter into Heaven -- might provide some clues to his murky background. After an intended bit of comedy that shamelessly apes the gadget scenes of the James Bond films, the brooding Van Helsing is off.

Sommers' plot, such as it is, only gets more contrived from here. Suffice it to say that with the aid of Anna Valerious, the last surviving member of the aforementioned vampire-hunting clan (Kate Beckinsale, cashing her second genre check in a row following last year's Underworld) -- not to mention his gadgeteer sidekick Carl (David Wenham) and, occasionally, Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley) -- Van Helsing sets out to foil the count's plan to bring to life a brood of baby vampires. Awkward contrivances abound: When we learn that only a werewolf can kill Dracula, for instance, we're never told why, and when our heroes happen upon a werewolf antidote that can reverse the effects of lycanthropy, we're never told how Dracula developed it. And when the Count does finally reveal some creaky tidbits about Van Helsing's past, we're too inundated with preposterous plot developments to do anything but groan.

The cast does its best with this material, although even the charismatic Hugh Jackman fails to invest Van Helsing with enough humanity to make us care what happens to him. The film lurches along from one improbable and clumsy plot point to another, powered by weak dialogue, less-than-rote characterization and effects-heavy visuals that, while technically impressive, are less effective than the herky-jerky works of Ray Harryhausen -- when the human characters interact with monsters, we never once believe that they're inhabiting the same space. (The exception is Hensley's monster, whose patchwork construction and glowing electric brain display an imagination the rest of Van Helsing sorely lacks.)

But that's par for the course for a film whose every line of dialogue, whose every plot device, is hastily engineered to prop up this flimsy foundation for a projected monster-movie franchise. That there are no frights in a film based on classic horror concepts doesn't seem to bother Sommers, whose only moment of something approaching real emotion comes during the end credits, when he dedicates the film to his dad. Given the preponderance of werewolves, vampires and other monster-movie staples he throws haphazardly into the stew, one is tempted to say that Sommers tries too hard to entertain by overwhelming the senses -- except that this soulless monster mish-mash never actually tries to do anything but spawn a swarm of merchandising tie-ins and, Heaven preserve us, a string of sequels.

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