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IN SHORT: As beautiful to look at as it is excitement-free. [Rated PG-13 for Non-Stop Creature Action Violence and Frightening Images, and for Sensuality. 120 minutes]
We can hear the pitch in our head: "Van Helsing is the James Bond of the 19th century! He's got all the gadgets and his own versions of M and Q and he hunts monsters instead of spies!" What could possibly go wrong? The answer is everything but the production design.
For those Trivial Pursuit players who need a refresher: Bram Stoker created Dracula, best portrayed on screen by Bela Lugosi. Mary Shelly created Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the latter played by Boris Karloff. As for the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. created that man-beast, from an original screenplay by Curt Siodmak (a staff writer for Universal who also penned many film sequels featuring Frankenstein, Dracula and the not-present in this film, Invisible Man). We don't compare to Source Material on this site, though writer/director Stephen Sommers begins with a spectacular visual homage to the original Frankenstein, shot in glorious black and white.
We begin in Transylvania, 1887 at Dr. Victor Frankenstein's (Samuel West) moment of triumph, the creation of the euphemistically named "monster" (Schuler Hensley). As the doctor screams "It's Alive!" and his hump-backed assistant Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor) looks for the fire exit, the local citizens -- not at all happy about the goings on at Castle Frankenstein -- storm the walls. All is pretty much in keeping with the classic film, except for the presence of Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), Lord of Transylvania, revealed here to have previously unknown links to Dr. Frankenstein's experiment.
In the Paris of 1888, the monster hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is, uh, hunting a monster (Robbie Coltrane) in and about the Cathedral de Notre Dame. It's not the monster you think, just one of numerous surprises in Sommers' screenplay. Nor is it the hunter the classic character you may have expected; that classic character being the aged Abraham Van Helsing, of course. This Van Helsing is named Gabriel and is smilingly called "Abraham's younger brother" in the press notes. That means the character can do a lot more running and jumping and impaling and the like.
Van Helsing is a man lost in history. He has no memory of who he is or how he came to be so. If his line about fighting the Romans at Masada is true, and not just a toss away line, we're happy to welcome him as a Member of the Tribe. Van Helsing is real good at tracking down and killing monsters -- so good that there's a huge reward sitting on his head, placed by officers of the law who have to clean up the monster mess left behind. All the men in blue would swear on a stack of bibles that the dead left behind are 100% human and, therefore, Van Helsing is a cold blooded killer.
Regardless, Van Helsing works for a super secret Order of cardinals and mullahs and other religious types who believe in stuff like the walking dead. It is they who dispatch the hunter to Transylvania, accompanied by a friar named Carl (David Wenham) who creates all sorts of wonderful weaponry. Their task? To stop Dracula's plans to take over the world. Or something.
In Transylvania, in classic superhero fashion, Van Helsing meets and battles eventual allies Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother Velkan (Will Kemp). Velkan, like Van Helsing, hunts creatures of the night. He's just not as good at it. Anna heads the battle to restore her family to their rightful place as rulers of the land. Killing Dracula will also lift a curse that has kept the previous nine generations from attaining their rightful place in Heaven. Before they can get to the Count, our heroes must first destroy the Wolf Man who's been terrorizing the countryside as well as the three Brides of Dracula: Aleera (Elena Anaya) Verona (Silvia Colloca) and Marishka (Josie Maran)
That's all we'll say about the story since everything else to say would spoil most of the surprises in Sommers' script. That also gets the good news out of the way because what comes in the next paragraph ain't pretty . . .
It isn't that Sommers hasn't come up with a reasonable idea how these three Universal horror film characters -- Count Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man -- come together. He has and it's fine. It's just that the movie you'll be asked to drop a ten spot on is overblown, overstuffed and overamped. Between the vampires and the werewolf you'd expect a wee bit o' bloodshed in these modern times, not that we planted with that expectation. We expected some hints of same and some action packed mayhem to round off the edges. What we got was a story that tries to cram in so many surprises that it begins to collapse under its own weight. What action there is, and there's plenty of it is subverted by dialog so awful that our audience was laughing out loud when they weren't supposed to. Make no mistake. There are moments in Van Helsing that are deliberately funny. There are many more that aren't supposed to be, but are.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Van Helsing, he would have paid . . .
Wait for pay-per-view. The $5 dateflick level usually means that one of a pair of daters will find something to like. We cant promise that about Van Helsing though, if you fail to find thrills and chills you'll probably laugh your butt off.
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