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With: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor, Shuler Hensley
Written by: Stephen Sommers
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality
Running Time: 132
Date: 05/03/2004

Van Helsing (2004)

0 Stars


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1930s and 1940s, Universal stumbled upon a huge cash cow with its monster series. The studio made a few great films and several good ones, but it wasn't long before they simply grew lazy and began teaming the monsters together in increasingly silly films.

In films like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, the Wolf Man and Dracula try to get help from Dr. Frankenstein (or his offspring) and wind up destroying castles or windmills and the like. The whole thing came to an end when Universal began plugging the monsters into films with Abbott and Costello.

Cheesy though they are, these films still have a certain element of unpretentious fun. The people behind them were often trained "B" movie directors who were no doubt having the time of their lives. Most of the cast and crew was reunited picture after picture, and so it must have felt like family.

Now comes Universal's latest, Van Helsing. Like those earlier films, it too is lazy. But it's also pretentious, pathetic, hysterical, illogical and just plain stupid. It's easily the top contender for the worst film of 2004, though I pray I don't have to sit through any other candidates this bad.

The original Van Helsing was an educated old gent who helped destroy Dracula. Now they've made him a younger man (what else would you expect from Hollywood?) with long hair and a cool costume and lots of gadgets, played by Hugh Jackman. The film completely ignores whatever time period this may be and gives him modern gizmos like tranquilizer darts, spinning buzzsaws and a rapid-fire crossbow.

Van Helsing works for a secret organization of monks who watch the evil in the world. After an unconnected prologue in which he fights and destroys Robert Louis Stevenson's Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), he is sent to Transylvania to help the last descendant of the Valerious family kill Dracula. Apparently, if he succeeds, then the previous generations may enter the Gates of Heaven at last.

The last descendant happens to be a sexy, bodice-clad babe Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) with lots of makeup and hair products, who can also do backflips and wield a sword. Together, their job is to stop the Wolf Man, kill Dracula and find the Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley) -- although their job requirements seem to waver at any given moment. The characters constantly change their minds about whom they want to kill and whom they want to save.

It's bad enough that the plot -- as written by director Stephen Sommers -- wavers all over the place, but the dialogue has to be among the worst I've ever heard. At one point, while searching Dracula's castle for clues, Anna goes off into a five-second reverie about how her father used to travel to the sea. "I've never been to the sea," she says, misting over, "It must be beautiful." And she suddenly snaps back to the job at hand. It's laughable.

We could blame it on the dialogue, but Van Helsing also has some of the worst ensemble acting I've ever seen, discounting films by Ray Dennis Steckler or Hershell Gordon Lewis. Actors flail about and sneer their line readings like children acting out Power Rangers scenarios. Richard Roxburgh in particular wins the distinction of being the worst Dracula on record; even Lon Chaney Jr., Carlos Villar and Frank Langella were better than this. Only Jackman and Beckinsale have the skill to not look ashamed.

Van Helsing might have been saved if Sommers had included a little sex. As it is, Beckinsale's costume is pretty tight, and Dracula has three vampire wives who fly around showing their cleavage. But no, the studio had to deliver a PG-13 film because no one over 13 would be interested anyway.

In addition, Sommers loads up the film with some of the laziest CG effects yet produced, and he does so in a way that steals from the human action. When the Wolf Man and Dracula battle during the film's climax, it's like two computer blips wrestling. Sure, the actors are terrible, but flesh and blood is always preferable to a video game blur.

I shouldn't even begin to go into the other ludicrous items the film conjures up, like the fact that nearly every character survives some kind of thousand-foot fall or the fact that when the Wolf Man lands on the top of a stagecoach, he sets it on fire! Why? So that the coach can go over a cliff and explode!

Where is the Mummy in all this, you might ask? Sommers has already beaten that franchise to a dead pulp with his forgettable The Mummy (1999) and his horrible The Mummy Returns (2001). But this is the worst of all. Monster fans should arm themselves with torches, band together in an angry mob and storm Sommers' house for what he's done to these characters.

DVD Details: Don't say I didn't warn you. For those curious ones, this DVD (from Universal) comes with "Explore Dracula's Castle" (4 mins.), bloopers (5 mins.), "Bringing the Monsters to Life" (10 mins.), "You Are in the Movie" (5 mins. -- made with tiny cameras mounted on the main cameras), "The Legend of Van Helsing" (10 mins. -- with clips from classic Dracula films), two commentary tracks: one by Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay, and one by actors Roxburgh, Hensley and Kemp, a trailer, the Super Bowl TV spot, an ad for the Van Helsing video game, a preview for Shrek 2 and DVD-Rom features (accessible only to PC users). On startup, the disc contains trailers for Shaun of the Dead, Seed of Chucky and a new Mummy box set.

On a side note, Universal has also released a 33-minute animated version, entitled Van Helsing: The LondonAssignment, on a new DVD. I haven't seen it, but it just hasto be better than the film. The DVD also comes with a "making-of"featurette, the making of the video game and storyboards.

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