Van Helsing

May 1st, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Filmink

Director: Stephen Sommers

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham

About a year ago now, Universal released some early artwork sketches from Van Helsing’s pre-production. Very manga-styled, one showed a lithe, black-clad figure holding up an elegant crossbow, his cloak billowing in a forbidding wind.

It looked like the final product might be a cut above the usual bloated, churned-out, computer-generated, over-marketed movies they start releasing now it’s the American summer holidays to try and separate 15 year old boys from their money. A striking visual style and a sombre darkness (frequently promised but rarely captured) seemed to be the flavour Universal were following.

Then the omens turned bad. Universal started cranking the marketing machine up to fever pitch. They went on record saying they’d earmarked it as their ‘summer movie’. Hope that they’d hold on to the anime-inspired tone the early sketches alluded to faded, but it was still hope.

No such luck. If watching movies is like eating popcorn, Van Helsing is like swallowing mouthfuls of unpopped kernels and injecting the butter straight into a vein.

The personalities attached to the project notwithstanding, the real star is a bank of Macintosh G5’s in a post production facility somewhere, spending nights and weekends rendering the almost constant computer generated graphics that turn Van Helsing into a Playstation game on amphetamine withdrawal.

Following the opening sequence (an understated homage to the classic monster movies of the 30’s mined from Universal’s own back catalogue), there’s no mistaking you’re in blockbuster territory. It’s Bram Stoker meets The Matrix, as the titular vampire hunter unleashes an array of appropriately clanking metal weaponry that would give James Bond performance anxiety.

What’s wrong with Van Helsing? Well, the premise (not the script) is quite brilliant, so the tendency is to be harsher than Van Helsing perhaps deserves for being a take-your-brain-off-the-hook action movie instead of a dark, edgy new look at a classic legend.

Van Helsing himself (Jackman, shaping up as this decade’s Harrison Ford) is a tortured man, a lone soldier in 18th century Church’s ongoing effort to cleanse the earth of evil (in the form of vampires and werewolves).

Sent to a remote village in the Transylvanian Alps, he finds the townspeople terrorised after repeated attacks by vampires who come in on the wing to feed.

The harem of Count Dracula, they’re hatching a scheme to give life to thousands more of their kind, thanks to a procedure perfected under Dracula’s employ by Dr Frankenstein in creation of his famous monster.

Van Helsing teams up with the young woman sworn to destroy Dracula and lift the curse on her family (Beckinsale), and a junior cleric Carl (Wenham), a weapons inventor and as corny a comic sidekick as there’s ever been, always there to come up with a dopey but loveable line at the opportune moment. Studio executives imagined audiences laughing pleasantly saying ‘Oh, that Carl’, but the reality is that he’s more like Jar Jar Binks, and you’ll wish Van Helsing would turn his gas-powered crossbow on him and put us out of our misery.

A production-line script, the token secret in Van Helsing’s quest (to give the character ‘depth’), a plot than takes ten minutes while the remaining 90% of the running time is filled with orgies of pixelated action makes Van Helsing just another blockbuster you’ll have forgotten about by the time you’ve left the cinema car park.

If there’s one thing extraordinary about this film, it’s the first huge American event movie not only headlined by an Australian actor, but the main cast contains three of them (plus one Brit).

That’s certainly something we should be proud about, it’s just a shame that for Australian actors to make it big in the movies, they have to move to Los Angeles and prove themselves more as blue-screen technicians for post-production houses than actors.


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