We were glad to have seen this creature feature for matinee prices Sunday afternoon, which made it seem fair value for the money. “Van Helsing” is visually stunning to the extent that it exalts style over sense over and over again. In fact, “over again” might be the theme of the movie, as it repeats itself internally many times, as well as of course being an attempt at resurrecting the ‘Universal Monsters” franchise. The movie opens with a scene that echos the ending of the orginal “Frankenstein” movie complete with the monster trapped in the burning windmill. We then see Van Helsing in Paris, hunting down the monsterous Mr. Hyde in a sequence that also borrows heavily from “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I’m just not sure if the huge and apish Hyde portrayed here is intended as an homage, or is just a blatant ripoff of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” but the similarity is obvious. In the first of many stylistic riffs, Van Helsing masks his face with a bandanna that bears the Illuminati eye in the pyramid sigil. Task accomplished, he returns to Rome for scenes out of James Bond—debriefing and new mission assignment from the acerbic superior, plus the visit to Q Branch to be outfitted for vampire hunting. (A major one of the nonsensical stylistic touches occurs here. His major weapon is a crossbow, which incorporates a pneumatic machine gun that actually propels the bolts. In that case, why bother with the bow and string, which he never uses? The answer is, “it looks cool”.) The forces of good are under siege in Transylvania--. Van Helsing and henchman take ship across the Adriatic, presumably to avoid crossing the Alps, but end up crossing snow-covered passes anyway—eh? Oh, it’s winter in Transylvania—even though, as we find out later, he set out well before All Hallows’ Eve, which date occurs later in the film. Since the movie also includes werewolves, full moons occur with unnatural frequency, apparently about a week apart. The plot manages to tie together Dracula, Frankenstein, and werewolves with reasonable coherency for horror/adventure movie standards but one could wish it existed as more than just an excuse for stringing together over-the-top fight scenes and special effects. As it turns out, Van Helsing is immortal, and can take a licking and keep on ticking, OK. But Anna Valerious, although she comes from tough stock, is merely human, and therefore withstands a ridiculous number of spine-shattering impacts. And I don’t care, if you aren’t Spider-man, if you’ve already fallen twenty stories, you CAN’T catch yourself on a conveniently dangling cable and swing to a soft landing, something which Van Helsing, Anna, and even the Frankenstein Monster (!) all do at least once. The sheer amount of “action” is actually wearing after a while.
Oh, well. Take your critical brain out of gear and enjoy the thrill ride. The vampires look great, and the lightning-fast transformations between forms are very smoothly done. Drac and his brides have been reading Anne Rice, since they are able to do a lot of her vampires’ tricks like moving too fast to be seen and levitating without changing to a “bat”. The brides’ harpy-like flying forms are one of the best design elements in the film, along with Dracula’s demonic form, which seems to refer to the “Demon of the Mountain” from “Fantasia.” In fact, catching the other film references is one of the fun things about this movie. Other than the ones already mentioned, you can see references to “The Lord of the Rings,” (every castle in Transylvania seems to have been designed by Sauron), “Vampire Hunter D,” in Van Helsing’s outfit, “Blade,” in some of his weapons, “Alien,” “The Terminator,” “Young Frankenstein,” and of course all of the original classic monster movies.
One other quibble: Why does Dracula, who, according to this movie, became a vampire in 1470-something, seem to have his fashion sense stuck in 1780?
It’s hard to distinguish acting in this film from direction and characterization as written. Van Helsing is a very stiff-upper-lip character with “issues”, so we don’t see a lot of emoting from Hugh Jackman, rather disappointing from the actor who made “Logan” the most likeable character in the “X-Men” movies. Kate Beckinsale as Anna (who is the Princess/Queen of Transylvania/the Gypsies/the May?—another muddle.) plays a good, no-nonsense tough-minded character and manages to maintain her accent evenly throughout. David Wenham as Carl, the friar from Q-branch, adds a good bit of “Monty Python/Blackadder” comic relief. Richard Roxburgh makes his Dracula another one of the long line of mad villains intent on taking over the world—respectable, but not how I think of Dracula.