VOLUME NINE: VAN HEL-STINK! : ANALYSIS OF A DISAPPOINTMENT

Before we get too far into this piece, let me state up front that I wanted to like this movie. No, that’s not quite right; I wanted to LOVE this movie. From the first time I saw the initial website, over a year ago, I was hooked and crazy with anticipation for this film. That simple image with the shadowy, silhouettes of the characters, unmistakable in their outlines, clearly indicating that the most famous monsters of all time were all going to be together in the same movie!! I’m guessing many of you felt the same way when you first found out about this film, just stunned with excitement and disbelief at the prospect of such an awesome cinematic offering. Am I right? Literally, I was counting down the months, the weeks, the days and finally the hours till opening day. I was there for the first showing on the first day that it hit the screen. I never do that for any film, not even the Batman films that I also eagerly anticipated. So maybe I hyped myself too much, maybe I set standards that no movie could live up to, maybe, just maybe I set myself up for a let down. Something went wrong; the movie just wasn’t any good. It was a mess. It totally missed the mark that, according to the director, Stephen Sommers, he was going for. He talked up big time his love for the source material, the characters, the feel and look of the original Universal classics, but ended up with a loud, goofy, overly effected, badly scripted, summer clunker. Were we all duped? Was this movie merely a 2 hour promotion for the release of the Universal Monster’s Legacy Series DVD’s? Just a big commercial for new action figures? Where did such a promising premise go wrong? How did a film that could have, and should have been great become so, uh, mediocre? Here’s what I think.

For starters, I gotta’ reflect on some source material. Clearly something the director should have done more of. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t want to rag on Sommers. I believe he meant well, and I loved his two takes on The Mummy. Perhaps he should have stayed with that “one monster at a time” approach. So after seeing Van Helsing I went back and watched “House of Frankenstein”, the original monster team movie, and “Monster Squad”, possibly the best group monster film ever made. No, not possibly, it IS the best group monster film ever made. Released by Vestron Films in 1987 with no commercial support, no marketing tie-in’s, no action figures and, amazingly no back up from Universal, this film captured perfectly the essence of the monsters and the monster movie, and delivered to its audience a gothic horror comedy that was amusing and quaint without overpowering us with special effects. It’s got a near perfect mix of laughs, scares, action, and adventure. All tempered with Dekker’s charming and stylish direction. He got it right. For all the effort, Sommer’s production didn’t get anywhere near the honest reverence and clear admiration for the Universal Monster characters that Fred Dekker’s Monster Squad did. And he managed to work in FIVE monsters without screwing any of them up. If you haven’t seen this movie, go out and rent it today. Watch it and you’ll see exactly what Van Helsing is missing. Now, the Granddaddy of all of this was 1944’s House of Frankenstein, admittedly a hopelessly dated and simple film when compared with today’s style of movie making, but important in it’s way for uniting all the major Universal Monster characters of the day for the first time in a single film. Karloff is wonderful in his role as a demented doctor who escapes from prison seeking revenge against the jurors who sent him there. Somehow his plans manage to pair him up with Dracula, The Frankenstein monster and the Wolfman. The story is plausible, but clearly forced. The whole Dracula interlude is like a mini-movie within a movie. You gotta’ see it to understand what I mean. It’s weird. But, hey…. it’s a classic movie, no doubt about that. I’m guessing in 1944 if you were a kid that was into monsters, this movie made your year! And that’s what I was hoping Van Helsing would do for me this year.

I think the main problem with Van Helsing is that it doesn’t come off as a monster movie, or horror film. It’s kinda’ like an Indiana Jones movie with monsters in it. Does that make sense? In other words it’s more of an overblown action/adventure spectacle, but it doesn’t really score on this front either. Mainly because you just don’t really give a damn about any of the characters. The director, or the writer, or both haven’t constructed a scenario that draws us in. The characters aren’t sympathetic; I can’t buy into the story that has been created. Van Helsing is a, what, 18th Century “James Bond” sort of? He works for some secret branch of the Vatican that deals expressly with dispatching evil beings around the globe. Uh,………yeah. I think this premise sets up the barrage of disappointments that follow in the film. For one thing, just what damn period of time are we in? Now I’m all for timelessness in fantasy films, it helps in keeping a film fresh through changing decades. If you don’t think this matters, check out just about every film made in the 80’s. You can’t watch them and not know that they take place in the 80’s. It’s uncanny. But really, when does Van Helsing purport to take place. The opening sequence, which recreates and merges several famous scenes from the original Frankenstein movie series, is shot in black & white and seems to lead us to believe that this film takes place in the same nebulous era of the early “1900 somethings” like the original films did. I suppose this is all done as a tribute to the source films, it’s meant to assure us that the director knows his stuff and is keenly aware of what we expect from him and this movie. Unfortunately, that’s where the satisfying of our expectations ends. It is in this opening scene that we are introduced to Dracula and to the heartache we are about to endure. Sticking Dracula into the creation of the Frankenstein Monster mythos for some yet unexplained but ham handedly hinted at nefarious “master plan” is the first in a string of wrong turns this film will take. Shortly after the opening scene of the film we cut to Mr. Hyde running around in Paris. Just what the hell is Mr. Hyde doing in Paris? Forget that; let’s just get to the other point which is the interpretation these days of the Mr. Hyde character. Is it me or is it getting weirder and weirder? If you saw the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen then you know that the current cinematic visualization of Mr. Hyde is getting to be more like Shrek meets the Hulk. But in Van Helsing they go that version one better by adding a little dose of Elvis, Sgt. Fury and Mighty Joe Young to the mix. It’s truly awful. This is our introduction to the Van Helsing character; he’s in Paris; sent by the secret order to dispatch (read, “kill”) Mr. Hyde. He does and we move on, although part of us at this moment wishes we were Mr. Hyde.

Let’s talk about Dracula for a moment. The Dracula in Van Helsing has a ponytail and an earring. I got a problem with that. I don’t like the “Dracula as hip metro-sexual” bit. He’s not scary, or threatening, or menacing, or sympathetic. And what’s with that accent?!? The actor, Richard Roxburgh, sort of mixes a little Gary Oldman Drac-speak with some generic method actor Russian dialect and produces a wholly unlikable Dracula voice. And since he does quite a bit of talking and yelling in this movie, you get tired of it real quick. His whole character really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t picture Dracula as a factory boss, but that’s pretty much what they got him doing here. Let’s capsulize the story here for a moment. Basically it goes lik this; Dracula is trying to harness the secrets of life that died with Dr. Frankenstein (killed by Dracula in the beginning of this film) but live in the form of the Monster, whom Dracula believes was destroyed in the fire at the windmill (also from the beginning of the movie). He needs this secret to give life to the thousands of his spawn, birthed by his three wives over four centuries, which are residing in grotesque jelly sacs all throughout his castle. Picture any hive scene from the Alien movies and you get the idea. He needs to “give life” to his children so they can, uh, eat all the people in the village I guess. They never really make it clear why he wants all those damn kids. I got three and their drivin’ me nuts, what are you gonna do with thousands?? But I digress, back to the gripping yarn. There is a sub story about some centuries old curse on the Valerios family, which apparently are kin to Dracula in some way, and he is busying his wives with the duty of killing off the Valerios family bloodline. In the meantime, we got a werewolf that works for Dracula, we don’t really know where the werewolf came from, or who he is, or was, but it doesn’t matter because he or it gets killed right away, but not before it bites the male member of the Valerios clan and turns him into a werewolf, who again becomes a slave to Dracula. Ain’t it nice when things come full circle and work out?

Since at this point the story is kinda confusing me and making my head hurt, let’s jump out and talk about the Wolfman thing. I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me that Wolfman is going to be in a movie I want to see a Wolf-Man! Not these “super wolf things” that seem to populating every werewolf movie since An American Werewolf in London. But at least that movie called their guy a werewolf. You see a werewolf is just that; one of those vicious dog looking things that walks up on its hind legs. A “Wolf Man”, is a man with clothes that takes on some of the characteristics of a wolf. He looks more like a man and less like a quadra-ped animal. Lon Chaney was a Wolfman. The guy in Monster Squad is a Wolfman. The character in this film is a werewolf, not a Wolfman. So when they hyped all those trailers at us saying that a “Wolfman” was in Van Helsing, that was a bunch of crap.

Now, back to the story line, such as it is. Dracula spends much of his waking hours overseeing the activities in his various labs and monitoring the productivity and workloads of Igor, (yep, that’s right, I said Igor) and this army of little creatures that look suspiciously like the Tuscan Raiders from Star Wars. Their presence or reason for being is never explained in the film, nor do they have any real impact on the story or characters. They’re just there. In the meantime, behind that story, or on top of it, or in addition to it, we’ve got our hero, “Gabriel” Van Helsing. His name alone ought to give you some idea of the cliché historical foundation the writer has for his character. Well, Van Helsing has been given his latest target from the secret Vatican police, and that target is Dracula. Now this begs the question, why did they wait so long to sick Van Helsing on Dracula? They have already established that Dracula has been around for 400 years and is the king of all evil. Don’t ya think he would have been a higher priority than say, uh, Mr. Hyde?!? Don’t think about it, it’ll just make your head hurt. So, Van Helsing gets all this cool monster fighting gear from the Vatican equivalent of “Q” in the Bond movies, and enlists his aid to go fight Dracula. This character is supposed to serve as the comic relief for all the gripping horror we are about to experience, right? Yeah, right. They set off for Transylvania, meet Anna Valerious, beautiful and brave heroine, find the Frankenstien monster and learn of Dracula’s scurrilous plan to have his kids eat a whole village. So that’s pretty much the films foundation. Of course there is some gobbledy-gook thrown in there about werewolves and vampires and an age old battle between them and….. Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that the basic story of Underworld? Oh, well, nobody said this was a totally original idea, it’s a tribute, remember?

Let’s jump out here and talk about the last of the big three, the Frankenstein monster. The make up is cool, everything else kinda sucks. Some guy named Shuler Hensley plays the Monster and is totally over the top with it. He bellows out Bible passages at one point in the film, and hollers about this and that, and basically comes off as a giant crybaby. Of course he has a heart of gold, even if it is not his heart. What ever became of the Frankenstein that was, yeah, good at heart, but would’t have a problem drowning someone in a lake, or ripping a Burgermeisters arm off, or tossing a guy out of a windmill? What’s with everyone wanting to make Frankenstein a saint with stitches?

Here’s the deal; monsters are supposed to be monsters. Aren’t they? Isn’t that what we wanted to watch monster films for when we were kids? To see monsters doing monster things, and scaring us, and thrilling us, and making us love every minute of every film they were in. That’s the feeling I didn’t get here in Van Helsing. As much as I wanted to love this film, I just couldn’t. I even went back to see it a second time just to see if I was too harsh after the first viewing. I wasn’t being harsh enough as it turns out. The second viewing just made me even more disappointed. I think my son put it best when he compared it to the truly hideous “Batman & Robin”. The first time we saw it in the theater we didn’t think it was that bad. But when we saw it again, things about it started to bug us. Each time you watch that film it gets worse and worse. Things jump out at you that you didn’t notice before and make you hate Joel Schumaker for ruining the franchise and making a mockery out of all the characters in it. Unfortunately, Van Helsing will probably be a film that suffers the same fate upon repeat viewings. But, hey! Cheer up monster fans, Monster Squad will be coming out on DVD soon, and then you’ll have a chance to see all the possibilities that were lost on Van Helsing.

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