The Rube’s Review: Van Helsing (Universal, 2004)
I LOVE Universal monster movies! Calling me a fan is just an understatement. My collection of UM collectibles is full of 60’s Soakie toys, PEZ dispensers, masks, artwork, model kits, Super 8 films, signed collectibles, and about 60 years of action figures and toys. I’ve seen the classics so many times I can almost repeat every line. I go to the conventions when I can. I took a tour of Forrest Ackerman’s house. I’ve been to David Schow’s home and saw his huge collection UM/Creature from the Black Lagoon memorabilia. I’ve jumped at the chance to be Ben Chapman’s (RIP) personal assistant for a weekend during his Creature from the Black Lagoon collectible signings. I have even been privileged see lost footage of Jack Pierce’s makeup effects for the Mummy and Frankenstein monster (which you only get to watch if you’re a student at Joe Blasco). Yeah… I can say without a doubt, the Rube is an uberfan of Universal Monster movies.
Back in 1999, writer/director Stephen Sommers had a major hit with his re-imagining of The Mummy. He took a classic story about love, loss, and revenge and turned it into a non-stop adventure for a whole new generation of monster fans. As an uberfan, I really enjoy watching the (new) Mummy adventures. I always thought there was so much unexplored territory for that character (Imohtep/Mummy) and was very happy with Sommer’s new editions to the Mummy’s lore. Even though some parts/ideas didn’t work for me (ie. piranha-like scarabs and mummified priests), the Mummy (and it’s two sequels/prequels) still work as a whole and deliver that classic Universal Monster feeling that was missing from modern day creature features.
The bigwigs at Universal were so impressed with the movie’s positive response and box office success that they wanted to do a full relaunch of their famous monsters line, but the studio wanted something big… bigger than any monster movie they ever released. So they let Sommers have full reign of their franchises and let him run wild. When news got around about the new Universal relaunch, UM fans couldn’t be more excited. With the writer and director of the Mummy at the helm what could go wrong? …then Stephen Sommers fucked it all up – big time – for all of us with Van Helsing.
The beginning of the film does a great job setting the good ol’ Universal Monster vibe. It opens with a B&W scene of Transylvanian villagers armed with torches and pitchforks, breaking down the doors to Castle Frankenstein – it doesn’t get more Universal Monster than that! Victor Von Frankenstein has just brought his “creation” to life but then you have another guy dressed in black that is, lets face it, being a little bit melodramatic, but it’s okay because right before you get sick of him *BOOM!* the creature throws him and a sparking, electrical gizmo into a huge fireplace. The burned figure walks out and regenerates.
Okay, he’s Dracula, we get it. The villagers follow the Frankenstein monster to a nearby windmill (which for some reason is filled with liquor and bibles) and while setting it ablaze, Dracula and his half naked Brides show up just in time to cry over big Frankie’s fiery demise. At this point you’re just all pumped up to see more monsters, explosions, and sexy vampires!
So the action starts up again with an exciting cat and mouse chase through the rooftops of Paris. During their grande fight, there is some clever/friendly banter between a gadget wielding Van Helsing (played by that “Wolverine guy”) and a CGI behemoth, aka Mr. Hyde. Let me tell you it’s very entertaining, but it ends too quickly when (for some weird reason and no explanation), the monster turns back into Dr. Jekyll and falls to his death. I really like this scene but kinda reminds me of something… “video gamey.”
Turns out Van Helsing is a paranormal crime fighter that works for a secret sect of Catholic Church that is determined to rid the world of evil. After being reprimanded for his extreme actions, Van Helsing is instructed to go to a small village in Romania to investigate a blood feud between the house of Dracula and the current ruling gypsy clan, the Valerios. The Valerios family is on the verge of being wiped out and if they don’t succeed with their promise of destroying Dracula, nine generations of their family will not be let into the Kingdom of Heaven and their souls will be lost in purgatory forever.
Armed with a gas-propelled auto-crossbow (BTW – the kid’s toy version is really cool) and partnered with his court appointed Friar, Carl, they’re off to Transylvania to battle the forces of evil! Then… the movie just falls apart. Even though it’s entertaining, every scene that follows makes you feel like your watching a video game that includes Van Helsing fighting whatever monster/boss for that scene/level and obtaining power-up weapons and/or info on the villain’s weak spot from his Friar buddy.
There are plot points that are just confusing and make no sense (I’ll let you find them) and if it wasn’t for the cool special effects, sexy vampire brides (Aleera is my favorite), and the acting ability of Kevin J. O’Connor (one of my favorite character actors) as Igor I wouldn’t have even finished watching this train-wreck. Hugh Jackman does his best with what he’s given, but sometimes he seems as confused as the audience watching the film. That said, referring the Van Helsing film as a Universal Monster film is PURE BLASPHEMY! You cringe every time that you have to listen to Richard Roxburg’s (Dracula) atrocious overacting or Frankenstein’s unneeded Shakespearean speeches. The whole premise of why Dracula needs the Frankenstein Monster is just absurd (I won’t spoil it for you).
My number one pet peeve, though, is messing with the original Wolfman gypsy speech by adding extra verses just to integrate it as a key plot point for a new movie. This just rubs me the wrong way. Also, since I was working at “We Be Toys” at the time, it seemed like the whole reason why this confusing crapfest came out in the first place was to sell toys, and there were a lot of them… that sat on the shelves… for months… gathering dust… and finally sold at discount or got sent to a local landfill to finally rest in peace.
When I saw it in the theater, children either fell asleep or were squirming outta boredom so much that parents took their kids and just left. Even though it had a strong opening, overall Van Helsing did very poorly at the box office causing Universal Studios to abandoned all ideas for a sequal/trilogy. In my opinion, with all of this movie’s problems and video game like qualities, they should have just changed the film’s name to Castlevania: The Movie… which when you think about it would have made more sense and probably made millions.
I still watch Van Helsing from time to time. I really do like some of the monster parts, especially the chick fight at the end with Vamp-a-whore Aleera and Princess Anna over a werewolf cure in a bottle of hydrochloric acid(?). During this battle Aleera get splashed in the face with acid and even though it’s CG’d, her disfigured image reminds me of the old-time makeup effects of Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore… I liked how Stephen Sommers really tried to bring back that old Universal Monster feeling. I think that he has done a great job with his Mummy movies and other films (check out Deep Rising), but he just missed the mark when it came to Van Helsing, which is just a shame. I would have loved to have seen more adventures of the man in black battling other villains and monsters of yesteryear.