Recipe for Monster Mash: Van Helsing

Reviewed by Tee Morris

Van Helsing poster

One part Dracula. One part Wolfman. Many parts Frankenstein's Monster. (Hold the Abbott and Costello.) Add a dash of brooding, mysterious hero. Sprinkle in hot chick with sword, sexy harpies, old castles, and interesting gadgets for a steampunk aftertaste. Garnish with Jekyll and Hyde. Serve chilled. Your order of Van Helsing has arrived. Enjoy!

Our epic story opens in Transylvania, with Dr. Victor Frankenstein uttering his immortal proclamation of creation. He has created life! But the townsfolk of Transylvania 6-5000 are not at all happy about it. Well, the Doc does have one fan present: his patron of science, Count Dracula. (Yeah, you heard me right. The Count Dracula.) The Count and his (1, 2, 3. . .) three brides (A-ha-ha-ha-ha! cue lightning and thunder) are thrilled with Victor's achievement. So happy, in fact, that they decide to proceed to the next phase of the experiment. "Wait a minute," Victor asks, "What next phase?" There's an argument, there's a scuffle, there's a mad dash to a lonely windmill, there's a fire, and then there's Dracula and "Vladimir's Angels" all watching their dreams go up in smoke.

Jump ahead one year. Paris. A prostitute lies dead in the streets. A masked man gives final rites to her before heading to Notre Dame Cathedral to settle the score. The prostitute's killer is none other than Mr. Hyde (who has, apparently, disassociated himself from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and the masked man (armed with gadgets that would make James Bond smile) is Gabriel Van Helsing, wanted across Europe for murder, assault, and square dance calling. Van Helsing is a one-man army against anything that is going bump in the night, lurking under kids' beds, or terrorizing unsuspecting virgins at summer camp; and he's doing all this in the name of the Man. No, not God. . . the Pope. You see, Gabe's working for The Big V! The deal between the two of them is pretty straight-forward: Van Helsing rids the world of evil, and the Vatican helps him snap this memory block he's got concerning a forgotten past. (Personally, I would have held out for paid vacations, benefits, and a time share in the Bahamas. . . .) His new assignment is to head out to this backwater country called Transylvania and help out this family of gypsies that have made a pledge to God to kill Count Dracula before they can enter Heaven. The Vatican's been keeping score, and so far. . .

Vlad's Villains: 8
Transylvania Gypsies: 0

The bases are loaded, it's the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and it's looking bleak on getting the gypsies home. Time to send in the Gabe as a designated hitter.

Van Helsing reaches Transylvania and finds out that this town is Party Central for all kinds of beasties. There's the vampire, sure. We got that. But the boys back in Italy failed to mention the werewolf problem. Oh, and that Drac's batty bitches are just that. . . harpies with attitude. And while Van Helsing is trying to help out the gypsy princess, Anna Kournikova Baklava Victoriasecret Kickyouinthenuts Absolutelybadass Valerious, he discovers Dracula's master plan for world domination. . .

. . .and something about his own forgotten past.

Something I seriously dig about Stephen Sommers: He's honest as a director and a writer. In The Mummy Returns, Sommers dressed Brendan Fraser in a leather jacket and fedora as a response to critics of The Mummy when they kept drawing comparisons between Fraser and Harrison Ford. When he made The Scorpion King with WWF sensation, The Rock, over half the film included brawling or one-on-one fighting of some kind. So with Van Helsing, Sommers opens the film with an angry mob wielding pitchforks and torches. The first spoken dialogue: "It's alive! ALIVE!" And finally, the entire opening is shot in black and white.

Come on, folks, if you don't know exactly what kind of movie you are about to get, then take a good look at the approach of my review! And if you are still expecting some kind of significant film experience when seeing Hugh Jackman go Victorian on some vampire's ass, then you are expecting way too much from Van Helsing.

This movie does not disappoint. It delivers exactly what it promises: a monster mash! Dracula. The Wolfman. Frankenstein's monster. Igor. This is a "Who's Who" of movie monsters, and while a story featuring so many Hollywood heavy-hitters could come across being contrived, Sommers cleverly works it all out in a tight little story around Dracula's desire to procreate, and why the Vatican is willing to supply Van Helsing with all these killer (literally) gadgets to stop him. Pretty clear and easy to follow, unlike Hellboy which had so many plot holes you could drive a horse-drawn carriage through them. I'm sure Hellboy had a plot is somewhere in there. . . but by the time you find it, the movie slams on the brakes and ends with the abruptness of a Jackie Chan movie. The only reason Hellboy managed to avoid the world of aimless films (where Hulk currently reigns as king) was the performance turned in by Ron Perlman. Had anyone else been in the title role, the movie would have been unwatchable.

Van Helsing has Hugh Jackman in the driver's seat, and he doesn't have to try to be cool a la Blade or Buffy. It's just coming to him naturally. But he's not alone. This film features a full cast of actors who are all enjoying this massive roller coaster ride with their audience hanging on for dear life. Okay, okay. . . maybe Richard Roxburgh (Count Dracula) indulged a bit here and there, but I'm giving him a pass. He was in the zone. The biggest (and best) surprise was David Wenham. You might remember him as Faramir, Boromir's younger brother in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of The King. Completely ditching the fresh-faced, stud boy image, Wenham plays Friar Carl, the "wacky inventor sidekick" to Van Helsing. I'm here to tell you that Faramir may not be the warrior his brother was, but he is one funny guy!

And Kate Beckinsale in a corset, armed to the teeth with various firearms and edged weapons. Bonus. Hey, if the girls get their Hugh, it's only fair.

But Sommers is being very honest as he puts all this together. In the same way Pirates of the Caribbean did not think itself anything other than a pirate movie based on a theme park ride, Van Helsing does not try to be anything other than what it is: an homage to monster movies. Not the over-the-top gorefests like David Cronenberg's The Fly, John Carpenter's The Thing, or any Nightmare on Elm Street offering. . . . Sommers salutes the classics from Karloff, Chaney (Lon, not Dick), and Lugosi. There are also a few nostalgic nods to the classic Hammer House Films that featured Price, Lee (Christopher, not Bruce), and Cushing. And I would be kidding myself if I didn't admit that Van Helsing gives a tip of the fedora to James Bond via the gadgets from Friar Carl, not to mention Dracula coming across as a stylized Blofeld-esque villain.

But if you are still expecting Van Helsing to be some sort of Oscar-caliber, severely monumental, ground-breaking piece of cinematic Fantasy, Sommers adds in dialog at the beginning of the film to help you out. . .

Igor (to Dr. Frankenstein): Master. . . you have been so very good to me, you have been so very kind. . . (points to Dracula) but he pays me.

This is your clue-by-four that the movie should not be taken seriously.

If you approach this film as if it's Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein or Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, then yes, you'll be sorely disappointed. Approach Van Helsing as you would Kill Bill, Army of Darkness, or Big Trouble in Little China and you'll have a ball. Let Matrix: Reloaded/Revolutions and Star Wars: Episodes I & II try to be important, poignant, and meaningful, only to come across as pretentious, self-righteous exercises in ego stroking.

Van Helsing dares to be something that SF/F/H should never forget to be: a whole lot of fun.

 

Copyright © 2004 Tee Morris

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Tee Morris is one of the two authors behind Morevi: The Chronicles of Rafe & Askana, an epic Fantasy adventure published by Dragon Moon Press. Written with Miss Lisa Lee, Morevi was a finalist for the "Best Fantasy eBook of 2003" Eppie, and can be found in both print and digital formats, online and in brick-and-mortar bookstores.