Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Van Helsing

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Van Helsing

6/10

USA 2004 : Stephen SOMMERS : 132 mins

According to William Blake, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But for Van Helsing writer-director Sommers (motto: ‘more is more’) that path leads straight to a more prosaic locale: Castle Dracula. Or is it Castle Frankenstein? Or perhaps both? Hmm… it’s best not to ask too many questions before, during or after seeing this proudly incomprehensible and incoherent horror romp that tips over so far into preposterousness that it rapidly becomes an old-style night-out-at-the-pictures guilty pleasure. Though (bafflingly) not made in Cinemascope, it’s ideally suited to big-screen multiplex viewing – even the most raucous of popcorn-munching, chattering audiences will be drowned out by the deafening soundtrack.

The anything-goes plot sees legendary vanquisher-of-evil Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and bumbling assistant Carl (David Wenham) dispatched to a Transylvanian village under threat from Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Teaming up with plucky gipsy-princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale), Van Helsing must also fend off the Wolf-Man – who inconveniently happens to be Anna’s brother Velkan (Will Kemp) – while puzzling out exactly why Dracula is so keen to track down Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley)…

After graduating from the B-movie territory of the underrated Deep Rising to the big-budget smash-hits The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, Sommers had pretty much free rein for his next project – a privileged position not dissimilar to that occupied pre-Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino. Sommers – who in person could pass for QT’s only marginally less geeky older brother – proceeded to run riot in the Universal Studios horror archive. But instead of reaching back to the stately 1930s classics of the genre like the original Dracula and Frankenstein, Sommers’ has ended up with something much closer to the disreputable cheapies Universal churned out a decade later such as House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Appropriately enough Van Helsing turns out to be something of a ‘Frankenmovie’ itself: an artificial construct cobbled together from countless different cinematic sources in the horror and adventure genres. This is a heady (if not actually very bloody) ‘ghoulash’ of a picture, with Sommer frantically chucking everything he can think of into the mix. It’s hard to imagine what he can have left out, or left back for any future Van Helsing Returns – a prospect made less than likely by the slightly disappointing US box-office for this $160m project.

And that’s – perhaps surprisingly – a bit of a shame. As with the Monster, enough energy flows the movie’s veins to create a convincing imitation of life: shuffling and lurching, perhaps, but capable of packing a fair old punch on occasion. If nothing else, Van Helsing has surface vitality to burn – it isn’t just the (numerous) winged characters who spend most of their time swooping through the air: everyone else seems incapable of getting from A to B without indulging in vertigo-inducing ropework to soar over some vast, bottomless chasm – even Frankenstein’s Monster gets in on the act at one especially delirious moment.

From start to finish, Van Helsing makes absolutely no claim to be taken seriously at all – it’s in effect a spoofy horror pantomime full of knowing nudges and winks to the audience: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with campy splashes of Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann’s snivelling Duke in Moulin Rouge, Roxburgh isn’t exactly the most physically commanding Dracula ever to don a cape, but he gets the voice spot on – just as he did when playing a Geordie kitchen-fitter in the otherwise-forgettable The One and Only – and seems a little more relaxed than his bewigged fellow-Aussie Jackman

That said, Jackman and Beckinsale make for an appealingly no-nonsense ass-kicking, with better-than-the-material-deserves support from both Hensley (an unusually chatty – and sympathetic – Monster) and Wenham. Though yet to fully deliver on the promise of his remarkably chilling turn in 1998’s The Boys, Wenham is excellent value as Van Helsing‘s comic relief – delivering a masterclass in comic timing when Carl has to rapidly fill Van Helsing and Anna in on an especially unwieldy chunk of exposition. Displaying the witty economy last seen in Deep Rising, Sommers has Carl deliver a breakneck lecture illustrated by paintings, woodcuts, maps and drawings through which Jackman and Beckinsale somehow manage to keep straight faces. Thankfully, we’re under no such obligation.

26th May, 2004
(seen 10th May : UGC, Boldon : public show)

by Neil Young