(PG-13) 1 1/2 stars The opening of the film is promising: a flashback in black and white of a bloodthirsty mob in old Transylvania, waving torches and brandishing pitchforks or scythes, charging through the darkness towards the castle of Dr. Frankenstein. The visuals are rich, expansive and dramatic, a tribute to the gorgeous work done by director James Whale back in the ’30s in Frankenstein and the even-better Bride of Frankenstein. The luminous Kate Beckinsale in ‘Van Helsing’ If you’ve never seen the two films, rent them as soon as possible. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’re not interested because the movies are old and/or in black and white, then you should be ashamed of yourself.
But I digress.
Sadly, the handsome prologue is followed by the actual movie. The location remains the same — the tiny Eastern European country of Transylvania, where evil lurks in the long shadows and nobody has cable. The color palette is predominately black and blue, as is often the case in recent genre movies.
Enter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), who works for a top-secret multifaith task force. He also has amnesia, which only slows him down a little. Decked out in a long black leather coat and a silly-looking wide-brimmed hat, he goes to Transylvania to take on 400-year-old Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, looking like a fifth generation clone of Al Pacino). Reluctantly, Van Helsing gets hooked up with Anna Valerious (a luminous Kate Beckinsale), whose royal family has been decimated by vampires. As if that wasn’t enough for Anna, a werewolf took a bite out of her brother Velkan (Will Kemp) and, come the next full moon, he will turn into the Wolf Man.
But wait, there’s more! Dracula and his three vampire brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca and Josie Maran) have a plan — they will harness the power of Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) to bring their hoards of vampire babies to life. Y’see, since vampires are the Undead, their young ’uns are born dead, but the Monster is filled with life-giving electricity.
But, you ask, if vampire babies are born dead, then how did they come to term in the first place? And to that I say, pish posh! Yes, pish posh, good readers, because this story most certainly had to be dreamed up by a 9-year-old. Remember when you were little and you’d build nonsensical epic stories around your playthings? You know, stuff like, “Superman and G.I. Joe, who is really Superman’s brother, is hypnotized by Ken, who is really Lex Luthor wearing a wig and a handsome mask, and forced to kidnap Barbie and her kicky friend Midge and take them to the space monster in the bushes, who will perform experiments on them unless …”
Oh, what fun we had with our stories.
Of course, we didn’t make movies out of them.
But what do you expect from Stephen Sommers, the guy who directed the recent big money/little brain monstrosities The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Neither film had much to do with the old-time Mummy movies, or with anything resembling narrative coherence. Plot? Stephen Sommers don’t need no stinking plot! Why bother, when he can have the camera race and zoom all over the place while stuff races and zooms towards the viewers. Add a pounding soundtrack and voila, it’s a movie. Hell, it worked with his last two films; why should he alter the formula here?
So Sommers gives us another overlong, overstuffed, noisy, incoherent mess. This time he added lots of flying, so even the skies can look cramped.
The big question is why Hugh Jackman signed on. Jackman became a star with his powerful, evocative portrayal of Wolverine in the X-Men movies. Alas, here he has nothing to work with here, so he dashes about looking fierce or determined or amused at the appropriate times. What a waste of talent.
To no surprise, the rest of the cast suffers a similar fate, with one exception. As Frankenstein’s Monster, Shuler Hensley looks like a hybrid of the classic Monster and the version Peter Boyle played in the Mel Brooks comedy classic Young Frankenstein. Accordingly, Hensley shades his performance a bit between the two, even adding occasional bits of humor.
Aside from that, Van Helsing is just another CGI-packed cinematic mess. If you liked the contemporary takes on The Mummy, then you will probably get a kick out of it. All others should stay far, far away.