Like the swallows returning to Capistrano herald the return of spring, the arrival of summer can only mean that our local cineplexs will soon be swamped with a multitude of high concept action blockbusters. While many of them will be fairly vacuous bits of cinematic fluff, some will rise above the churn through strength of strong writing, acting and directing. Unfortunately, Van Helsing is not one of these pictures.
Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a monster hunter for a secret multi-denominational secret society headquartered under the Vatican. He is sent to Transylvania to stop the vampire Count Dracula from terrorizing a local village. While there, he is joined by Anna (Kate Beckinsale, who looks like a dominatrix on her way to a Renaissance Faire), the last of a family that had been hunting for Dracula’s secret lair for 400 years. The two discover that Dracula is trying to perfect a way to bring the undead spawn of his and his three wives to life using electricity. Dracula had sponsored Victor Frankenstein’s experiments earlier, and is overjoyed when he discovers that Frankenstein’s Creature, who may provide the key Dracula needs to complete his plan, is alive. It’s up to Van Helsing and Anna, to rescue the kind-hearted creature from Dracula, his werewolf and an army of leather clad dwarves before Dracula’s “children” are brought to life.
Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) certainly knows how to mount an exciting action sequence and Van Helsing is chockablock full of them. There is also a resounding love of old monster movies through out the film. Van Helsing opens with a black and white sequence showing Dracula’s falling out with Dr. Frankenstein and cheekily recalls the classic 1931 version of Frankenstein. Van Helsing is introduced in knockdown fight with Mister Hyde (of Doctor Jekyll and… fame) in the bell tower of Notre Dame cathedral that harkens to the best of the old swashbuckler films of the 30s. But, however rousing these set pieces are, some seem to exist at the expense of plot logic. Why would anyone remain in a village that was continually used as a vampire feeding ground, even if the vampires “only” took a villager or two a month? Why would someone build a road right alongside a cliff and not put up any kind of railing? Minor quibbles perhaps, but definitely distracting. Unfortunately, the all of the action falls apart in the final sequences, where coincidence plays far too big a role in helping our heroes defeat Dracula.
Although some animae fans may complain that the hero’s look seems to be modeled after the Japanese cartoon Vampire Hunter D, Van Helsing is rather nicely imaged. The design for Frankenstein’s Monster is exceptionally innovative, evoking much of the Boris Karloff look while adding an interesting twist. Director Sommers also manage several nice visual grace notes. The reveal that everyone except one character in a room is a vampire cleverly exploits a small, sometimes unforgotten piece of vampire lore. Ultimately though, Van Helsing is nothing more than a piece of cinematic cotton candy, fluffy pretty colors without much actual substance.