Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Movies That Suck: Van Helsing (2004)

I almost went to see this movie when it was in theaters in the summer of 2004. At the last minute, I decided not to. I can't figure out why. I guess wasn't in the right mood. There was no reason I could see why this movie wouldn't appeal to me: it sounded like a fun, updated monster mash featuring the classic Universal characters and the legendary monster hunter, Van Helsing. Also, even though Stephen Sommers doesn't have the greatest track record possible, I did like The Mummy: it was silly but fun. So, I figured while Van Helsing probably wouldn't be a technically "good" movie, it should at least be an entertaining one. So, is it? Yes... one some levels. On other levels, it's just... bland.

I got it as a Christmas present that year and when I saw it, I wasn't sure what to think. I liked Hugh Jackman and some of the other actors. The film had plenty of action. And the climax featured a gargoyle-like Dracula and werewolf fighting to the death. I should have been raving and cheering. And yet, after it was over, I felt empty inside. I couldn't put my finger on what the problem was. Sommers clearly has a love for the classic Universal films (as everyone should) and created plenty of homages to them. The set design and images were clearly meant to invoke memories of those movies. Also, like he did in The Mummy, Sommers tried to balance some horrific elements with a tongue in cheek sense of humor throughout. But as I said, it didn't seem to work as well in this film as it did in that one. Before I make my final judgments, let's do things business as usual and go through the various aspects of the film, what I liked, what I didn't like, etc.

As I said, I do like Hugh Jackman. He's a charming, charismatic Aussie who looks like the kind of guy you'd want at a dinner party. His characterization of Van Helsing in this film, as many would expect, is far removed from the professor played by Edward Van Sloan, Peter Cushing, Laurence Olivier, and even Anthony Hopkins in various films. Here, he's a swashbuckling monster exterminator with a mysterious past. He's given missions by the Vatican to destroy monsters. In other words, he's like a monster-fighting James Bond. I kind of have a problem with this characterization. Maybe I'm just an old stick in the mud, but I've always known the character as a renowned, intelligent, slightly eccentric scientist who's wise enough to believe in the old legends and to fight off the hideous creatures who are, in his world, very much real. Here, as I said, he's just an exterminator. He doesn't do it because he cares about people. He just does it because the Vatican orders him too. He even hates doing it because those who don't understand what he does think he's a murderer. I'm not saying he's a bad person; he just does it because he's forced to, not because he honestly believes in the greater good or does it because of devotion to a higher power.

That said, Hugh Jackman plays him very likable. While he does do his job because he's made to, when he gets into the mission, he does do what he can to keep innocent people from harm and he is good enough not to destroy the Frankenstein monster because he knows he isn't evil. But, as good as Jackman is, there's just something inherently bland about this character. He's just another mysterious action hero with no past, something we've seen many, many times. And, try as Jackman might, he just can't elevate it above that.

Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious, the last in a long family that Dracula has been exterminating over the years, doesn't fare much better. I honestly don't think much of Kate Beckinsale period. She's hot, that's for sure, but she's not a very good actor. (And no, I haven't seen the Underworld films because just the look of those movies gives me a headache.) She often comes across as a wooden, tough girl in this film. Whenever she tries to convey emotions because her brother's now a werewolf under Dracula's control or because Van Helsing killed him, it never comes across as convincing. It just sounds like somebody who can't act trying to have a moment. When Van Helsing in his werewolf form inadvertently kills her at the end of the movie, I honestly didn't feel anything. Sorry, Ms. Beckinsale, but you're not very good.

One performance that really made me cringe throughout was Richard Roxburgh's hammy to the nth degree performance of Dracula. Maybe the guy is actually a good actor and Stephen Sommers' direction is to blame, but good God! Every single line that Dracula says sounds like an overdone impression of Bela Lugosi while said impersonator is trying to pass a kidney stone. It's kind of funny at first because it's so bad but as it goes on during a movie that's over two hours long, it really starts to get annoying. It's not limited to just his speech. The way he looks is just weird. No offense to the actor but the way his hair looks and the way his costume is designed (no cape?) coupled with that voice just makes it hard to take him seriously. Even his mannerisms are weird. At one point, he waltzes by himself. Waltzes! I know Dracula is a cultured guy but that just looked downright fruity. Maybe Sommers' intentions were good but I can't help but feel like he took the prince of darkness and turned him into a joke. That's what this feels like: a parody of Dracula.

David Wenham as Carl, Van Helsing's friar weapon supplier and assistant, is actually quite likable. He's funny, cowardly but loyal, and is an egghead. I thought the instances where he stresses that he's a "friar" and not really a monk were funny. Every time he was onscreen, I was enjoying every minute of it. They should make a whole movie about him. But, for all I've just praised the character and Wenham's portrayal of him, I must admit something that me roll my eyes when I first saw the film and that's the fundamental core of this character: he's Van Helsing's Q. He supplies him with all the necessary weapons and gadgets he'll need to complete his mission. That confirmed to me right there: this is just James Bond as a monster hunter. Nothing more. It just felt so unimaginative and contrived that I couldn't believe it.

My favorite performance in the film was actually Shuler Hensley as the Frankenstein monster. I liked this extreme version of the sympathetic portrayal by Boris Karloff. I thought the way he was played was very sincere and sympathetic. While I do agree that it's hardly the subtlest performance of this character, I did like that he was cultured and was not inherently evil. I also liked how Van Helsing befriends him at the end and the monster repays him by helping in any way he can. Also, I liked how the monster begs Van Helsing to kill him not just to end his suffering but so Dracula can't use him for his evil purposes.

The other actors were hit and miss. None of Dracula's brides did anything for me. They had no distinguishing personalities or traits. Will Kemp as Anna's tragic brother Velkan did a passable job with his torture of now being a werewolf. Kevin J. O'Connor as Igor is basically playing Beni from The Mummy again, only not as memorable and under less than flattering makeup. I couldn't help but like the character that Tom Fisher played: the weird man who appears to be the village undertaker. I don't know why but there was just something about the way he talked and acted that I liked. As brief as his role was, I felt the way Samuel West played Dr. Frankenstein in the prologue was a far too typical, over the top way of imitating Colin Clive. Finally, as ridiculous looking as his character was, I liked the way Robbie Coltrane voiced Mr. Hyde in the opening mission. I always like that guy's voice and his smug, confident way of playing Hyde was fun.

Now, let's talk about what is probably the film's biggest problem: the over abundance of CGI. This was about the time when filmmakers started to dispense with a combination of practical effects and CGI and just use the latter for everything, even stuff that could be pretty simple. And the computer effects in this movie don't look good at all. I've never been able to understand why big budget movies that used CGI when it was first developed look convincing whereas movies now look fake. Maybe it's because video games nowadays are up to the same level as most CGI used in films, or back then they still used practical effects along with it, or back then, because it was so new, people understood just how far to push it. I don't know. All I do know is that during the action scenes, with computer generated monsters flying or jumping every which way, it feels like you're watch a cinematic from a video game. It doesn't feel organic at all.

Another thing that hampers the movie is the very conception and design of the monsters. Someone (I honestly don't remember who it was) said that when Stephen Sommers is a little kid, he would watch the original Universal horror films on Saturday mornings, eating sugar-filled cereals and his over-energized young mind would fill in what couldn't be created in those films. That's what the monsters in this movie feel like. They feel like a hyper fanboy's dreams of what they should look like. Mr. Hyde at the beginning looks like an ogre that was rejected from Shrek rather than Robert Louis Stevenson's creation. Dracula and his brides, rather than turning into bats, turn into gargoyle-like creatures. It is interesting to see the real actors' faces (at least for the brides) superimposed on the CGI monsters but it still comes across as overkill. I didn't mind the design of the werewolves. They still look fake as all get-out but the actual design didn't bother me (I guess because I've seen much more convincing werewolves that look like that. I don't remember seeing any that had green blood before, though). The transformations, where the victim rips his skin off revealing the werewolf underneath, were an interesting twist but they've been done before in movies like Paul Schrader's version of Cat People and The Company of Wolves. As for the Frankenstein monster, as much as I praised Shuler Hensley's performance, he looks ridiculous. Granted, it is makeup at least (for the most part), but it looks the Karloff character turned into an action figure with the over-sized musculature and the glowing parts of his body. I just couldn't take it seriously.

Now, I know that this is meant to be a fantasy action film so I should suspend my disbelief, which I'm often able to. But speaking practically, this is meant to take place in the late 1800's, right? Look at the weapons Van Helsing employs to battle his enemies: a high-powered cross bow? A Batman-like grappling gun? Automatic saw-blades? An instant death-ray weapon? Again, I can suspend my disbelief most of the time but how am I supposed to buy a guy in this time period using weapons that would make the military nowadays jealous? Especially that cross-bow. That thing never runs out, even further making this feel like a video game. I didn't mind Van Helsing using the practical old-fashioned guns with silver bullets, stakes (wooden or silver), or bow and arrows but this is just cartoonish.

Finally, the nods to the classic movies. Yes, it is cool that a modern filmmaker does appreciate the awesomeness of those old films but it feels like all he can do is try to update and do them better when he makes references to them. He even said at one point that they are now able to do things that filmmakers back then couldn't and while that is true, it doesn't mean you should try to recreate those old films and do things that they simply couldn't do because it makes you look like you're saying you're better than them. (I'm not saying that was Sommers' intention, I'm just saying that's how it feels.) In fact, references to other films, although this mainly applies to when they're done poorly, often make me wish I was watching those movies instead of what I'm currently watching. And the humor. Yes, it does work at times but it really doesn't fit with a movie that's trying to reference those old films because they were never that tongue in cheek. It worked well in The Mummy because that film's only reference to the original was its name: otherwise, it was a completely different film and the tone and effects were acceptable. Here, it just doesn't feel right.

Besides the performances I've mentioned, there are other good aspects to this movie. The art direction and visual look of the film are really well done. The black and white prologue looks really good (though the CGI effects feel out of place) and when the movies switches to color from then on, it has a very lush, vibrant look to it. The design of the villages are also well done. They do kind of look like the design of the classic films but they also have a touch of the Hammer feel thrown in. The ballroom where Dracula dances with Anna especially was very well designed, as well as the look of his castle at the climax. While I did say that the actions scenes feel like video game scenes for the most part, I'd be lying if I said that the scene where Van Helsing and Carl use a carriage to try to escape Dracula's brides or the climax in Dracula's castle weren't exciting. Even though I didn't care for Anna, the image of Van Helsing as a werewolf holding her dead body in her arms and howling mournfully as he changes back is a well-created image. The scene after that where Van Helsing looks up at the sky and sees an image of Anna and Velken joining their family in heaven does bring an aspect of the story to a good conclusion. (Only problem is the effects are a little hard to make out.) Also, Alan Silvestri's music is awesome. The action themes especially were really rousing.

Now, since I had a lot more good things to say about this movie other than films in this category, you may be wondering why I even put Van Helsing in Movies That Suck. Because honestly, despite its good aspects, Van Helsing is, at the end of the day, a CGI-riddled hollow shell of a film. Stephen Sommers tries way too hard to make a modern tribute to the Universal classics and, as I said, his imagination runs overboard so much that it ends up hurting the movie. It's just too overdone. Sommers even planned to make a sequel but I doubt it will happen. Most studios now see him for what he is: a well-meaning but too hyper fanboy who can't keep the effects from overwhelming the movie. So, I don't expect there to be a sequel and given what I've said, maybe that's as it should be.

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