Sunday, 15 January 2017

Van Helsing (5 Stars)

In my reviews I repeatedly state proudly that I judge films on the feeling they give me rather than their objective artistic merit. I staunchly defend films that serious critics consider to be trash, and I mercilessly attack films that the same critics praise. When it comes to "Van Helsing" I have a funny feeling in my stomach. I love it, I absolutely love it, but I can't avoid the feeling that it's a bad film I ought to hate. I've only watched it once before, in November 2012, and I've been reluctant to watch it again until now, despite giving it a five star rating. The last few days I've noticed that my original review has been getting a lot of hits, almost enough to put it into my top 10 most popular posts list. I don't know why. My readers are fickle. Sometimes a post can be ignored for years, and then it's suddenly noticed and everyone wants to read it. Whatever the reason for my post's popularity, it's an excuse for me to pull it off the shelf and watch it again.

So today I watched it again, trying not to like it. I was deliberately looking for faults. But guess what? I loved it yet again. After finishing the film I had to admit that I still loved it. I find everything perfect, from Hugh Jackman's 19th Century James Bond imitation to Kate Beckinsale's Transylvanian pirate queen outfit. It's a film that shouldn't work, but it does. Boo to the critics responsible for the 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

However, I've found support in an unusual place. Roger Ebert loved the film almost as much as I do. Instead of writing my own plot summary I'll quote his review. Everything below the following photo of Kate Beckinsale is his words. I do this with the greatest respect, in accordance with the terms of use listed on his web site. He's the man who first inspired me to become a film critic, and I feel that my meagre posts can never reach the high standards of his film reviews. By quoting his review I am honouring his memory.

Strange that a movie so eager to entertain would forget to play "Monster Mash" over the end credits. There have been countless movies uniting two monsters ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," "King Kong vs. Godzilla," etc), but "Van Helsing" convenes Frankenstein, his Monster, Count Dracula, the Wolf Man, Igor, Van Helsing the vampire hunter, assorted other werewolves, werebats and vampires, and even Mr. Hyde, who as a bonus seems to think he is the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The movie is like a Greatest Hits compilation; it's assembled like Frankenstein's Monster, from spare parts stitched together and brought to life with electricity, plus lots of computer-generated images. The plot depends on Dracula's desperate need to discover the secret of Frankenstein's Monster, because he can use it to bring his countless offspring to life. Because Dracula and his vampire brides are all dead, they cannot give birth, of course, to live children.

That they give birth at all is somewhat remarkable, although perhaps the process is unorthodox, since his dead offspring hang from a subterranean ceiling wrapped in cocoons that made me think, for some reason, of bagworms, which I spent many a summer hand-picking off the evergreens under the enthusiastic direction of my father.

Van Helsing is sometimes portrayed as young, sometimes old in the Dracula movies. Here he's a professional monster-killer with a Phantom of the Opera hat, who picks up a dedicated friar named Carl as his sidekick. His first assignment is to track down Mr. Hyde, who now lives in the Notre Dame cathedral and ventures out for murder. That job does not end as planned, so Van Helsing then moves on to the Vatican City to get instructions and and be supplied with high-tech weapons by the ecclesiastical equivalent of James Bond's Q.

Next stop: Transylvania, where the movie opened with a virtuoso b&w sequence showing a local mob waving pitchforks and torches and hounding Frankenstein's Monster into a windmill, which is set ablaze. We know, having seen the old movies, that the Monster will survive, but the mob has worked itself into such a frenzy that when Van Helsing and Carl arrive in the village, they are almost forked and burnt just on general principles. What saves them is an attack by three flying vampiresses, who like to scoop up their victims and fly off to savor their blood; Van Helsing fights them using a device that fires arrows like a machinegun.

And that leads to his meeting the beautiful Anna Valerious, who with her brother Velkan represents the last of nine generations of a family who will never find eternal rest until it vanquishes Dracula. (Conveniently, if you kill Dracula, all the vampires he created will also die). Anna is at first suspicious of Van Helsing, but soon they are partners in vengeance, and the rest of the plot (there is a whole lot of it) I will leave you to discover for yourselves.

The director, Stephen Sommers, began his career sedately, directing a very nice "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1993) and the entertaining "Jungle Book" (1994). Then Victor Frankenstein must have strapped him to the gurney and turned on the juice, because he made a U-turn into thrillers, with "Deep Rising" (1998), where a giant squid attacks a cruise ship, "The Mummy" (1999) and "The Mummy Returns" (2001). Now comes "Van Helsing," which employs the ultimate resources of CGI to create a world that is violent and hectic, bizarre and entertaining, and sometimes very beautiful.

CGI can get a little boring when it allows characters to fall hundreds of feet and somehow survive, or when they swoop at the ends of ropes as well as Spider-Man, but without Spidey's superpowers. But they can also be used to create a visual feast, and here the cinematography by Allen Daviau ("E.T.") and the production design by Allen Cameron join with Sommers' imagination for spectacular sights. The best is a masked ball in Budapest, which is part real (the musicians balancing on balls, the waiters circling on unicycles) and part fabricated in the computer. It's a remarkable scene, and will reward study on the DVD. So will the extraordinary coach chase.

I also liked the movie's recreation of Victor Frankenstein's laboratory, which has been a favourite of production designers, art directors and set decorators since time immemorial. (Mel Books' "Young Frankenstein" recycled the actual sets built for James Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein"). Here Frankenstein lives in a towering gothic castle, just down the road from Dracula, and the mechanism lifts the Monster to unimaginable heights to expose him to lightning bolts. There are also plentiful crypts, stygian passages, etc, and a library in which a painting revolves, perhaps in tribute to Brooks' revolving bookcase.

The screenplay by Sommers has humour but restrains itself; the best touches are the quiet ones, as when the friar objects to accompanying Van Helsing ("But I'm not a field man," he insists) and when the Monster somewhat unexpectedly recites the 23rd Psalm.

At the outset, we may fear Sommers is simply going for f/x overkill, but by the end, he has somehow succeeded in assembling all his monsters and plot threads into a high-voltage climax.

"Van Helsing" is silly and spectacular, and fun.

Order from
Order from
Order from

1 comment:

  1. I really struggle with this film. Hugh Jackman normally makes me care for his protagonists but even he has his work cut out. I found sitting through this in one go the first time nearly impossible, but obviously this was made harder in having it on the small screen with other distractions. I really struggle to remember anything from this, and the SFX just totally run rampant.


Tick the box "Notify me" to receive notification of replies.