Sunday, October 5, 2008


Writer & director Stephen Sommers reinvents the nemesis of "Dracula" in "Van Helsing" starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. Sommers brings the same larger-than-life swashbuckling bravado to "Van Helsing" that he brought to his macabre but campy reboot of "The Mummy" (1932) in the blockbuster Brendan Fraser flicks "The Mummy" (1999) and "The Mummy Returns" (2001). Even more outrageously preposterous but thoroughly entertaining than Sommers' adrenalin-driven "Mummy" remakes, "Van Helsing" (**** out of ****) alters more than Dracula's archenemy. Sommers performs makeovers on the Frankenstein monster and Dracula's brides, too. Now, the Frankenstein monster fights for the good guys, while the airborne vampire brides swoop down like harpies on their victims and haul them away in their talons. Even Dracula himself undergoes changes. Stakes through the heart, garlic, crucifixes, holy water and sunlight have no effect. However, nothing is as radical as the transformation of Van Helsing. In the original 1931 "Dracula," Professor Abraham Van Helsing was a much older man with close-cropped hair and thick glasses who practiced medicine. In other words, 60-year old vampire slayer Edward Van Sloan looked nothing like buffed up "X-Men" star Hugh Jackman. Neither does Jackman resemble the venerable Peter Cushing, who portrayed Van Helsing as an older but more energetic professor type during the 1950s-60s in five Hammer "Dracula" movies. An unkempt Anthony Hopkins hammed up the role in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992). The closest anybody has come to Hugh Jackson's Gabriel Van Helsing is Christopher Plummer in "Dracula 2000." Nonetheless, even Plummer played Van Helsing as an older man armed with a deadly cross-bow. Not only does Jackman arm himself with a gas-operated, semi-automatic cross-bow, but also he totes two six-guns and a hand-held, kung-fu flying guillotine. For martial arts illiterates, a hand-held, kung-fu flying guillotine looks like a Frisbee with jagged metal edges. Young, virile, and fast on the draw, Jackman's Van Helsing dresses like an Italian western gunslinger with a black, floor-length coat and a broad-brimmed hat. His uncanny resemblance to Clint Eastwood enhances that impression.

"Van Helsing" hits you with back-to-back prologues that identify the chief characters. An enraged Transylvanian mob storms Dracula's castle in the late 1880s. Evidently, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen") has given Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West of "Notting Hill") refuge in his castle, so the scientist can complete his experiments with reanimating dead tissue. Of course, Dracula isn't generous for nothing. He has a stake in giving life to the dead offspring of him and his brides. Thousands of icky-looking embryos that dangle lifelessly from the ceiling like wasp nests clutter up Dracula's castle. Meanwhile, the Vatican dispatches Van Helsing as their troubleshooter to destroy monsters. In his opening prologue, Van Helsing appears in Paris with the Eiffel Tower under construction and battles the only non-Universal Studios monster, the Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane's voice), half of Dr. Jekyll. Afterward, our stalwart hero rides back on horse to the Vatican for new orders. Director John Carpenter first linked the Vatican with destroying vampires in his own movie "Vampires" (1998) with James Woods as a cross-bow wielding vampire killer. Although he wears old west duds, Van Helsing acts more like James Bond. At the Vatican, the equivalent of 007's Q in the guise of Friar Carl (scene-stealing David Wenham, Faramir in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) devises a variety of gadgets for Van Helsing. Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong of "Patriot Games") dispatches Van Helsing to save the last two members of a vampire slaying clan. They are gypsy princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale of "Pearl Harbor") and her brother Veklan (Will Kemp of "Mindhunters")who gets bitten by a werewolf early on in the action. Unfortunately, Veklan falls under Dracula's power and becomes his werewolf slave. Initially, neither Van Helsing nor Anna likes each other, but they join forces reluctantly to put Dracula on ice. In the middle of all this mayhem, we find the Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley of "Someone Like You") serving as the key to Dracula's efforts to give his dead offspring life.

Sommers pulls out all stops in this slam-bang, high-octane, over-the-top, roller-coaster of an adventure that has vampires and werewolves battling each other. Twists follow turns in the contrived but imaginative plot, and surprises alternate with shocks. Although he has revamped those classic horror characters, Sommers' "Van Helsing" consists more of atmospheric, computer-generated locales and harrowing jolts that occur when monsters appear suddenly behind characters for maximum shock effect. No, anybody over age 12 shouldn't suffer nightmares from this formulaic action epic, because "Van Helsing" is basically a horror comedy. Imagine a monster mash cross-between of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck" (1967), and you'll know what to expect of "Van Helsing." Nothing about "Van Helsing" is remotely credible, but the breathlessly paced story throws so many curves that you cannot predict what is going to happen from one set-piece to the next. When Hugh Jackman isn't performing testosterone-fueled stunts, Kate Beckinsale indulges in her own estrogen-based acrobatics that make her werewolf slayer in "Underworld" seem tame by comparison. Neither character has enough time to romance the other, because they find themselves constantly jumping through metaphorical flaming hoops in an unceasing battle with evil. If "Van Helsing" has a flaw, it is casting Richard Roxburgh as Dracula. He looks like Dudley Moore and he lacks menace. You have to wonder why Universal couldn't have attracted a bigger star to off-set the combined star power of Beckinsale and Jackman. Ultimately, while "Van Helsing" is never boring, the changes in these legendary horror characters probably won't bother younger audiences as much as older ones weaned on inflexible rules governing the behavior of vampires and werewolves. You'll get your money's worth out of "Van Helsing."

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