Dir. Stephen Sommers
Film #20 of The ‘Worst’ of Cinema
It seems logical to start reviewing blockbusters like this as well as the art films and cultish (or forgotten) movies I have covered so far. I have reviewed the Nicolas Cage film Drive Angry (2011) but that was an attempt at a grubby exploitation film from the past than the phenomenon known as the blockbuster, B- (and even C-) movie material that, whether a good film or not, has the budget of an A-movie, and an illustrious choice of actors and people in the technical and production areas of filmmaking to draw from. It is ironic to say this since a lot of what these movies consist of – the explosions and action sequences, the quick pace jumps in the plot to new dangers and situations, the gratuitous special effects – are not that dissimilar to everything from old classic Hollywood serials from the Poverty Row studios to straight-to-DVD pulp. Dare I say that a lot of these films, especially with Van Helsing, are not that different from Sharktopus (2010) or even the rip-offs like Transmorphers (2007) aside from their streaks of seriousness and the fact that, with their budgets and production staff, they cannot be made cheap because of the craftsmanship behind them. That’s a pretty controversial statement to make, but if a blockbuster is great, then I will celebrate its existence. This is more of an acceptance that for all their cost to be made and their stars they are just expensive, or over expensive, B-, C- or even Z-level ideas made into movies. Some are good, some are masterpieces, but like the other grades of movies, a lot of them are poor. These ones should not have the privilege of countless DVD releases, or be the premier releases for new formats, considering today’s review was viewed on a late HD DVD player, and never to be discussed about in ways to suggest they were unforgettable signposts in cinematic history when even the ordinary public, not stuck-up snobs like myself, though they were bad on their release.
This is significant with Van Helsing because it was an attempt to celebrate the classic horror films of Universal Pictures – B-movies that have yet grown to become important within the canon of global cinema and pop culture, and with James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) quite justifiably so. At the right age demographic for the film when it came out, I remember how much promotional and tie-in material was released for Van Helsing, signalling how it was one of Universal’s most important films for that spring – a videogame, an animated side story released for domestic viewing, and more interestingly, a grand scale re-release of the studio’s classic horror films on double bill DVDs. I never saw the film at the cinema, missed the tie-ins, and sadly never investigated the re-releases of the classic films until a long while afterwards. Viewing this long after its release again - a film I read about in the magazine Total Film when I still read that magazine - is like viewing something through the glass of a museum exhibit which I grew up side-by-side with.
Without memories of his past aside from a nobility to fight for good, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is the top man for a religious organisation that rids the world of evil beasts, warlocks or scientific follies. Sent to Transylvania he must protect the gypsy princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), one of the last of a family that have offered their souls’ ability to go to Heaven to destroy the accursed Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), while the Count himself plans to bring to life his undead offspring with the creation of Dr. Frankenstein. If one doesn’t view the film as a continuation of the classic Universal horror films, but its own reinterpretation of mythological and literary beings, then this could have worked. As with a lot of blockbusters of the fantasy and horror genre, as was the case with Son of the Mask (2005), one can see the production team – costuming, set designs, location scouts – do their hardest to make something memorable. Like many genre films thankfully, there are grains of great ideas and images within the film. One that stands out is that the organisation Van Helsing works for is not just a Christian one, but in scenes of the technological and weaponry workshop, has Muslim and Buddhist members working together, depriving the viewer with a tantalising concept both of these religious groups, in a beautiful way, unifying together as equals against evil, and that a Christian based character like Van Helsing could have gone against Asian mythological demons and ghouls with their own set of rules and weaknesses. The look of the film feels too stuck between the classic Universal horror look and a glitzy blockbuster shine at points but in just the scope and surface look of the film, it shows what it could have been.
Sadly the film is bad, and I am blaming most of it on the script for the core flaws. I feel guilty saying this as director-screenwriter Stephen Sommers dedicated this film to his father, but his script for Van Helsing is everything wrong I have encountered in blockbusters put together. It’s far from the worst film I’ve seen generally, let alone in this season of reviews, but still another example of incredibly generic and tedious plotting, compromised further by having to match the beats and pace of a blockbuster of that period of the early 2000s. Its biggest problem is that for a film with a two hour and six minutes long length, it is empty and lacking in even basis genre tropes and pops. A key aspect of Jackman’s character, of having nightmares of a long distance past, is spoken of but never conveyed or shown at all for the viewer, making it far more egregious than even the infamous porpoise line from the Adam West, feature length version of Batman (1966) which played that moment for intentionally surreal hijinks. It may have been something looked into in the animated spin-off from the film, but considering how obscure that has become now, that would have been a terrible business decision on Universal’s behalf in leaving your audience in the dark. There are so many coincidences, logic holes and inconsistencies in the film that it’s impossible to enjoy the second or third time someone manages to crash into a room by accident to save an ally from being attacked by a monster. It’s not enjoyably ridiculous as Turkish Star Wars (1982) or Batman & Robin (1998) for myself as, justifiably, such films are closer to the intentional surreal structures of films like Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974); their random tangents just by their appearance in the narratives have an effect on the viewer even if they were unintentional and do not have the deep messages and quality of a Bunuel film. Van Helsing is just a mess without any of the fun of other ‘bad’ films which have an unexpected and imaginative, exquisite corpse nature to their haphazardness.
The extensive use of computer animation is a severe issue as well. I am willing to give a lot more leniency now for CGI, especially if one views blockbusters as the B-movies they truly are. The problem is that, not only has it ostracised trades such as stuntmen and practical effect artists from most areas of cinema, but like other technical tools, laziness in the use of it undermines a film badly. If one has to fight against a low budget or the limits of the technology of the time, or purposely plays with the artificiality of computer effects, it is more acceptable for me. Van Helsing has great ideas, such as how men literally rip their own skin off when they transform into werewolves, but it feels at lot of times that the CGI was being used as a white undercoat on the film’s canvas than the vast array of colours and textures that need a creative person to use them effectively. Like the plot too, there are too many inconsistencies to the logic of the film, how creatures die or move, and how everything is put together. Small, picky thoughts they may be, when I should just turn my brain off and ‘just enjoy the movie’, but even the simple mindedness of pulp entertainment must have logic to it or be so dreamlike in its mood to be able to work for me. The most memorable of fiction for me, not just cinema, must have an inherent logic to it, from the truly abstract plotting of fairytales such as The Snow Queen to the flawed yet visually arresting anime adaptation X (1996). The concepts and subtexts to them all are vastly different to each other, but they must have their clear personalities to work. Van Helsing on the other hand feels compromised.
It is like a lot of Hollywood films that have the potential, and still have traces of a great movie within them, but feel planed down to the point that they feel brittle and collapse to pieces the moment you feel bored with them. Personal taste does dictate your opinions subjectively on films like this, but Van Helsing should have been a blockbuster that fully embraced the Gothicism of the films it was reinterpreting, even if it’s of a very different genre and tone, through mood and their supernatural mysteries. What we ended up with was a tedious film over reliant on not very good CGI craftwork.