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14 March, 2009



Year of Release—Film: 2004

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated film of the 2004 Summer Season, VAN HELSING was certainly the most discussed film released that year. Depending upon what you were expecting from this film, you either thought it was tremendously entertaining, or a complete insult to the history and tradition of Universal Horror. As one of the strongest proponents of the classic Universal Horror Films, I can certainly see why some fans felt that the movie was a general insult to all things Universal. I also believe that they are wrong.

Stephen Sommers, best-known for the recent Universal MUMMY films, does a fair job here, but let’s be honest: Great Horror this isn’t, no more than they were. There’s very little in here that would scare anyone over the age of eight, certainly nothing that would terrify most in the audience. VAN HELSING is an adventure film, more akin to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK than the great Universal Horror films of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s.

Sommers’ script, while it serves the purpose, is long on action and short on plot. The dialogue is execrable, and the characters, for the most part, are simply unlikable. It has the same tongue-in-cheek humor that made the two MUMMY films so successful, but lacks the characters (and the actors) that can pull it off.

Sommers’ direction, though widely excoriated, is really perfect for the type of movie that this is, just as it was for THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS. He can construct an action scene with the best, and he has a terrific sense of humor that keeps the mood light and rollicking, with the feel of a Saturday matinee serial. It is the wrong feel entirely for a horror film; but as I said earlier, this isn’t a Horror film.

The cast, with rare exception, is unremarkable. I felt that every one of the lead actors missed the mark, some quite badly. Hugh Jackman’s status as a star completely baffles me; Kate Beckinsale is much better seen than heard; David Wenham, as Friar Carl, Van Helsing’s assistant, is good but the role is far too minor to help. There are two stand-outs in the cast: one in a minor role, one in a major; one a very positive stand-out, one very negative.

The positive accolades go to Kevin O’Connor, whose role as Igor is very similar to the character of Benny that he played in THE MUMMY. With a gift for quirky, strange characters, his comedic deadpan delivery is perfect for this material, and is responsible for most of the humor that works in this movie. My only complaint regarding him is that he gets so little screen-time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film’s other stand-out, Richard Roxburgh as Dracula.

Easily the worst performance in this movie, Roxburgh rapidly supplanted Frank Langella as my least favorite actor in that role. Hammy, overblown, a man who emotes wildly while proclaiming his utter lack of emotion, his is a job of acting that would embarrass one of Ed Wood’s troupe of players. I know Christopher Lee is a little old for the role, but hair dye is cheap, and they’re doing wonderful things with make-up these days.

The cinematography looks good, not great, but acceptable. The Special Effects are the true star of the film; and, as with the rest of the ‘cast’, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. The Wolf-Man design, while not perfect, is the best of the CGI Monsters, and the Vampire Brides are also very effective; while the Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde character is by far the worst. Described by one reviewer as “Shrek with Hair”, the Hyde design is wholly unbelievable, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to any screen Hyde I’ve ever seen. However, the Frankenstein’s Monster, played well by Shuler Hensley, is primarily done with traditional make-up effects, and works extremely well. It’s perhaps the best-looking Frankenstein’s Monster since Karloff last wore the boots.

The feel and atmosphere of the film is there, but not as convincingly as with Sommers’ previous movies. As with most facets of this film, it’s hit-or-miss, with the hits slightly outweighing the misses. The CGI is overused, and is, in many cases, simply unrealistic looking, which destroys what little believability the movie manages to build.

To sum it up, this is an enjoyable movie; not great, not Movie-of-the-Year, but enjoyable if you keep your expectations low. I think that most of the negative feelings about this movie were the result of unreasonable expectations; people believing that they’d see computer-generated clones of Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney, Jr., or experience a truly terrifying film. I kept my expectations low, and, as a result, found myself generally pleased with the movie. My main problem with it is that it is a very good 25-35 million-dollar movie. Unfortunately, it cost 150 million to make. Despite the huge cost of the picture, this comes off as a very cheap movie: The CGI is unconvincing; the acting is barely adequate; the script is, to put it kindly, weak. Things that might be overlooked in a low-budget Indie stand out in a major-studio, big-budget production. Still, I enjoyed this film, while not being blind to it’s flaws. I’d call it a Bargain-bin candidate… not first on the must-see list, but still worth seeing.

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