Van Helsing Review
Judged solely on his filmography, Stephen Sommers doesn’t appear to have had an original idea in his entire life. A brief glance at his list of credits reveals that only twice in his career has he made a film not based on existing material and even one of those, Deep Rising is not so much a film as a collection of greatest hits from other, superior monster pics. Instead he prefers to take old favourites from literature (The Adventures of Huck Finn) or film (The Mummy) or, in The Jungle Book’s case, both, and reinvent them for the modern cinematic age. Unfortunately nowadays he seems to think that the best way to do this is to throw out all the things that made those properties so good – the intelligence, the metaphors, the subtleties – and replace them with as much brainless action and CGI as he can get away with. As a result, rather like a butcher cutting out all the meat from a chicken and presenting us with just the skin all dressed up, his work can be rather unsatisfying. Given his work on The Mummy films, Van Helsing was not a surprising next step - why reinvent just one monster when you can four? - but for fans of the classics he was about to pillage, it was also something of a concern. Surely he couldn’t mess up something so fundamental to our cultural consciousness as the legend of Dracula?
Reinvention can, in the right hands, be a very interesting tool, a chance to re-evaluate and look anew at things we have grown complacent or blasé about. Although most remakes are uninspired retreads with nothing new to say about the work (for some reason monkeys and Mark Wahlberg come to mind), every so often a filmmaker will come along and do it properly, grabbing hold of a moribund property and shaking some new life into it. (The example that comes to mind currently, if it’s not being too pre-emptory to say, is Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins.) Unfortunately, Sommers does not fall into this latter category. In his hands the character of Van Helsing (played by a phoning-it-in Hugh Jackman) becomes a nineteenth century cross between James Bond and the afore-mentioned Batman, an agent of a multi-faith organisation sent out across the globe to deal with supernatural evils “most people don’t even know exist”. Tooled up with the latest gizmos from Q’s – sorry, Carl’s - lab, he fights the forces of darkness with a cocky swagger and nice-looking hat.
It doesn’t start out too badly either. The opening sequence, a black and white amalgamation of scenes from Dracula and Frankenstein (villagers with burning torches, windmills, "I want to live" - you know the score) isn’t awful – the MTV-style editing feels slightly at odds with the old school story we’re presented with but it’s not unacceptable. If we balk at the idea that Dracula has been working with Dr Frankenstein, it can be excused because, after all, the combination of those icons, together with werewolves and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was what we knew going in the whole film was going to be about. The windmill burning down looks reasonably faithful, Frankenstein’s lab is pretty similar to the original (aside from a few updates) and the black and white photography makes one feel pleasantly nostalgic. Annoyingly, this proves to be the highlight of the entire film, things falling apart rapidly under a barrage of noise, flash and some really horrible choices Sommers makes regarding the direction he takes the characters.
Nearly every character in the film is miscast. While Hugh Jackman just about gets away with his bland performance, lost for a lot of the time in a forest of CGI, his chief adversary certainly does not. If the Dracula in this film is to be considered the same as the character who has been featured in literature and film for 100 years –and, given the evidence, there’s no reason to think he isn’t – then it is quite possible that Richard Roxburgh gives the worst performance of the Count ever committed to celluloid. Roxburgh, who is beginning to make a habit of being miscast in iconic roles (see his equally misguided role as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Hound of the Baskervilles a couple of Christmases back), is almost the exact opposite of what we have come to expect from the vampire. Instead of being mysteriously seductive, he is barking mad, going round raving at everyone and making sure attention is at all times focused on him. Reinvention is one thing, but this is ridiculous and it’s a shame because when Roxburgh has a chance in an outlandish role, he can be very good – see Moulin Rouge for an example. Of course, Dracula might be in such a bad temper because of the Brides he’s unlucky enough to be saddled with – three rather plain girls who couldn’t seduce a virginal teenager if they stripped naked in front of him and told him to bring it on. (One, Josie Maran, is a model – not being familiar with her work, I can only assume that this film does not do her justice). No better is Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious, the woman whose family Dracula is trying to eliminate. Beckinsale, who was bloody awful in Underworld, is bloody awful here as well, giving a haughty, unattractive performance with no real conviction. (Hollywood has had a particularly damaging effect on her – the days of sparky performances in the likes of Shooting Fish and The Last Days of Disco seem to be long gone.) In fact, of the main leads, only David Wenham, as sidekick Carl, and Shuler Hensley, as Frankenstein’s monster, come off with any credibility. Wenham has the easy job of Comedy Sidekick, a staple in Sommers films, but he carries it off well enough, if unmemorably. Hensley, meanwhile, does his best with a rotten role – Sommers’ Frankenstein is more comic relief than anything else, and it is to Hensley’s credit that the character comes across with any charm at all.
But actors are not what Sommers is interested in – he much prefers throwing set piece after set piece at the screen, drenched in CGI and making as big a din as possible. On the extras on this disk he takes a pride in the fact that he thinks “A Stephen Sommers movie” means bigger than anything else, but unfortunately his love for excess is counterproductive. His remake of The Mummy replaced the original’s subtle eeriness for blunt set pieces and he does the same thing here, producing the bizarre result of a film about Dracula that is not for one moment even slightly scary. The main sets – the Transylvanian village, the secret base under the Vatican, Dracula’s castle itself – are big but utterly plastic, resembling nothing so much as a part of a ride you would expect to find in Disneyland, complete with bright colours, flashing lights and lots of noise. This artificiality is extended to the CGI itself, which never, for one moment, looks like anything other than CGI, giving the film an off-puttingly cartoonish look and completely preventing any sort of active involvement on behalf of the viewer – the climax, in particular, which largely stars a computerised version of the two adversaries, being the worst example. As a special effects reel, it could past muster, but, given some of the work we’ve seen over the past couple of years, it’s nowhere near good enough.
The “thrills” are nearly relentless. Early on I made a note that the sequence of the Brides attacking the village was “going on too long”, not realising that that was going to be the pace for the rest of the film. The never-ending action becomes wearing, and that, together with the CGI, spoils any sense of adventure or excitement. The viewer is bombarded with images that whizz by so fast that the screen almost becomes hypnotic – rather like watching a strobe light can eventually lull you off to sleep, this has the same effect, which I doubt is what the intention was. (Amusing, the MPAA explain their PG-13 rating for “non-stop creature action violence”). Even if it wasn’t all so persistent, there’s only one moment in the film anyway that had potential for a good set piece, the carriage on the edge of the cliff. I’m a sucker for things like that but here there’s nothing to get the pulse racing, so numbed are your senses from the rate of knots the film goes at and the cartoonish quality of the effects.
This is a misguided movie that doesn’t flatter anyone involved in it. I don’t want it to sound like a polemic against the director – despite the fact he makes generally awful films these days, he seems a pleasant individual who clearly loves what he does (always a good thing). It’s just a shame that what he does is rubbish. Van Helsing is a big wasted opportunity – the fanboy in me thinks that there probably is a good (and clever) film to be out there featuring both Dracula and Frankenstein, one that re-examines the legends while at the same time crucially remembering why they are as important as they are. The fact that the director set out to make a big, flashy movie that thrilled shows just how little he really gets about what these characters mean. (The only consolation is that his next announced project, Flash Gordon should be more suited to his style of film making.) As for Van Helsing, at the end of the day, it’s rather like its villain – a loud, flashy, extravagant thing on the surface which is completely dead underneath.
The film comes on one or two disk sets (this review covering the latter). The film is presented in a 1.85:1 ratio with a 5.1 sound track. The first disk’s menu takes a while to get to, featuring an opening swoop through Dracula’s castle. The second desk opens with a menu option to have the menus displayed in whichever language you wish from the subtitles selection. The design of this menu comes from the map that plays a pivotal role in the film and is a bit of a nuisance – none of the options are visible on it until you highlight them while a missable symbol leads to two other menus entirely, which are illustrated with images from the film. Aside from the two Explore… games everything (including the director’s commentaries and trailers) is subtitled, although oddly only Disk 2 has non-English subtitles. Both disks if left to their own devices on the main menus will begin to play after a period of time.
Because the film never stands still for a second, it’s at times difficult to assess the picture quality as everything is a bit of a blur. It certainly seems a first rate transfer, with no obvious digital artefacting (ironically enough) or flaws. The black and white opening sequence is sharp as is the rest.
Not bad, but for a film as sound-driven as this, it does all seem to blur together at times, with individual elements lost. Not a big problem, though, and other than that it does a good job.
The first commentary is by Sommers and his long-time collaborator, editor and producer Bob Ducsay. The two focus largely on the technical aspect of the film, talking about the effects and continuity mistakes in between the sort of harmless if inane banter any two people with a long history exchange.
The second is by the three “monsters”, Roxburgh, Hensley and Will Kemp, who plays the werewolf brother of Anna. It’s not the greatest commentary in the world as there are periods when it’s clear that none of them know what to say, but there are some stories about the filming. Not essential by any means.
Explore Dracula’s Castle, Explore Frankenstein’s Laboratory
Two Myst-like games, one on each disk, in which you navigate through the respective sets, finding secrets and listening as either Dracula or Frankenstein tell you interesting facts about the area you’re looking at. Dull.
Unless they come from a Pixar movie, I find blooper reels deeply unfunny and this is a typically tedious example. If you find innumerable scenes of actors fluffing their lines or falling over hilarious these five minutes will be heaven but for the rest of us the only mildly interesting clip is the one showing Shuler Hensley as the human stand-in for the CGI Mr Hyde.
Bringing the Monsters To Life
A ten minute featurette that speeds through some of the effects techniques used to bring the CGI creatures to life. Too brief to be useful, but there’s one guy you can’t help but feel sorry for, so convinced is he that the CGI here is the greatest ever seen – about Mr Hyde he says, “I think it will be the highest achievement ever seen in terms of a photo real, completely synthetic character.” Should you tell him or will I?
You Are In The Movie!
“What you are about to see is a unique perspective on a film set,” the narrator solemnly intones at the beginning. What it actually turns out to be is a version of multi-angle scenes. We see four scenes from the movie being shot from several different angles such as behind the camera and on the floor before being given the option to watch them like that branched in the movie itself. A nice idea but could have been executed a bit better – some of the angles don’t show all that much.
Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend
There are five short documentaries, each around ten minutes in length, which focus on one of the iconic characters in the film, namely Van Helsing himself, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and Anna and the Brides of Dracula. They all start off promisingly, with footage from the classic films of the 1930s and commentary from academics about their origins and what they mean. Annoyingly, they all then swiftly descend into extended promos for the film, showing clips featuring the characters and commentary from Sommers and the actors involved. Annoying as these documentaries could have been the highlight of the disk.
Dracula’s Lair is Transformed
Three minute piece featuring time-lapse photography of the set being dressed and then changed over the course of a month. Quite good in that it gives an idea of how the same space is used for different things in a movie.
There are seven trailers included altogether. The first two are for this film – the theatrical version and the one shown during the famous Super Bowl ad break – which are, as far as I could see, nearly identical. Other films trailed are Shrek 2, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Chronicles of Riddick. There is also one for the Classic Monsters DVD set which makes it look very tempting, and, bizarrely, one for Billy Eliot: The Musical, which consists of footage of boys auditioning for the role while they sing what I can only assume is one of the numbers from the show.
The Burning Windmill
Six and a half minute featurette looking at the shooting of the opening sequence. Again, it’s lightweight as it’s so short, and doesn’t go into the decisions that were made about it, just saying “This is what we did,” instead.
Seven minute featurette about - you’ll never guess – the design of Dracula’s castles. Looks at how the models and CGI combine to produce the final effect. It’s okay.
Yet another short (six and a half minute) featurette about an element of design production, this time looking at the good doctor’s lair. The one interesting element about this one is that one designer (very) briefly points out that since the set was being filmed in both black & white and colour he had to design with that in mind, which was a good point. Wish he’d then gone on to explain exactly what he did to allow for this.
Not focusing so much on the design of the village so much as the technical approach to filming in the set, this is one of the better of the featurettes. Although its length is similarly shot – eight minutes this time – it looks at the trapeze acts the cameras had to do, and the choreography of the set piece in which the Brides attack. Still not stellar, though.
The Vatican Armoury
This featurette displays the level of details put into the set which, as the main designer says rather ruefully, will only “be in the movie for seven or eight minutes.”
The Music of Van Helsing
“Steve was very keen that the movie wasn’t going to be a horror movie on any level.” Composer Alan Silvestri says it all in this pretty good nine minute featurette. I’ve been a fan if Silvestri’s ever since his Back to the Future scores and his work here, while not the most memorable film music ever, is still one of the better things about the movie. He goes over the broad decisions he made about the various major character themes which are interesting and we see the orchestra recording the music.
When I signed up to review this film a couple of my fellow reviewers warned me what I was in for. Despite their warnings I went into it quite looking forward to seeing what it was like. Suffice to say: they were right. This is poor stuff, and the extras, while numerous, are not stellar either, a case of quantity over quality. The commentaries aren’t that bad, but the repetitive nature of the others – two similar games, two sets of documentaries that follow the exact same formula over and over (the histories of the characters and special effects featurettes) and a half-hearted branching option – are not endearing. One or two examples of each would have sufficed, or, with the histories lot, maybe combining them, would have worked far better. One not to be bothered with.