In the late 19th century, Bram Stoker’s fabled monster hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) - with his assistant-cum-armourer, Friar Carl (David Wenham) - is ordered by a secret society to distant and dangerous Eastern Europe on a quest to vanquish evil: the enigmatic and powerful Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). He arrives just as Dr Frankenstein puts the finishing touches to his DYI human (Shuler Hensley). Van Helsing joins forces with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) whose brother has been infected and at full moon turns into the hideous Wolf Man (Will Kemp). The forces of evil, Dracula and his three vile brides (Elena Anaya, Syvlia Colloca, Josie Maran), are not about to let this stranger spoil their plans for a vampire super-race.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
When Stephen Sommers resurrected The Mummy movie, he realised that Hollywood would put up the big money if it was NOT going to be an arty, earnest and thought provoking historical and scientific lesson. He made a Saturday matinee out of it. This reasoning has also motivated Sommers when making Van Helsing, a story loosely based on a character in Bram Stoker’s world of Count Dracula. Loosely indeed (and re-named Gabriel), and the plot is perfunctory, a basic good v evil sketch; but it’s not so much about what but about how.
Exulting in grand gothic, Sommers rips into this film. He seems to be of the mind that if you take morphing vampires, wolf men and Frankenstein’s creature upmarket into profundity, you’ll be digging your own gravitas. Doing nothing by half measures, the film takes the Gabriel Van Helsing character and plunders taciturn, action-driven heroics from well worn predecessors, ranging from Indiana Jones to James Bond. Ah, but it sets the symbolically named Gabriel down in the Transylvania of Sommers and production designer Allan Cameron’s gothically engorged imagination.
The film begins with the Universal logo catching fire and morphing into a flaming torch in the hands of a grimy Transylvanian peasant in a mob about to ram open the castle gates. We know exactly what sort of film we’re about to see. Escapism is the genre, blue-grey is the palette, bleak is the atmos, dark are the shadows and black is the colour of blood. In this monochromistic opening sequence, Sommers manages to pay tribute to the classics and at the same time stamp his own unmistakable style on the genre. The visual and aural settings are at the high end throughout the film, blending the trimmings of the period – 19th century Eastern Europe stuck in a Medieval timewarp - with the trappings of inventive faux-modern artifacts and armour. Like the bow and arrow equivalent of a machine gun, invented by the worldly Friar Carl, played with good natured eccentricity by our own beloved David Wenham. He may have modelled his Carl on C-3PO (the English-trained robot in Star Wars).
With Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing the goodie and Richard Roxburgh as Count Dracula the baddie, Australians will feel quite at home, albeit not for long. The mise en scene is so fantastic and the special effects so insistent that any reference to home will be obliterated, accents included. Jackman is a handsome and credible action hero, but we knew that. He is not expected to stretch his emotional muscles, but there is just a hint of the sensitive soul beneath his leather garb. His dialogue isn’t any more challenging than a matinee crowd would ask for.
Roxburgh delivers a wonderfully authentic East European accent for his Dracula, and revels in playing a character whose evil doesn’t overwhelm his charisma. The close ups he gets are memorable.
Kate Beckinsale lives up to her action heroine ambitions, unleashed in Underworld (shot down the road from Prague in Budapest not long before this outing), and her black beauty looks add glam to an otherwise sodden, sleety and flinty world.
Some of the morphing effects are exceptional, combining wire work with prosthetics and CGI for a bravura result that helps carry the movie on wings of dread. Indeed, larger than death though it is, Van Helsing is a fantasy in horror delivering its payload for today’s thrill-seeking audiences who want cinematic blood. It’s a comic come to movie life, with a touch of pathos in the tragic character of Frankenstein’s creature, but ultimately relying more on motion than emotion.
Review by Louise Keller:
An extravagant serve of fantasy, action and horror, Van Helsing dishes up a tasty feast of escapism with spectacular visual effects and the charismatic magnetism of Hugh Jackman. What works beautifully is the tone, and director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy/The Mummy Returns) has got it just right, with a juicy and intriguing concept that brings together the iconic Universal classic horror characters of the 30s and 40s.
There’s the enigmatic monster-hunter, blood-thirsty Count Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster misfit and the beleaguered Wolf Man who prowls by the light of the full moon. Stir them together – gently, please – and enter the gothic archways of 19th century Transylvania, for a thrilling epic adventure that also delivers a hint of romance and a few chuckles besides.
And just like the presentation of any meal is crucial, visually the film looks a treat, with its stylised production design and moody locations. All our senses get a work out, and Alan Silvestri’s visceral score adds tremendous pace. Indeed, the characters have bite (excuse the pun), and the effects comprise a non-stop menu of innovation. Especially effective are Dracula’s three blood-thirsty vampire brides, who morph from glamour-puss to terrifying bat-like skeletal creatures who fly like the wind and scoop up anything (or anyone) in their path.
But it’s Jackman’s heroic central character that grounds the film and keeps us emotionally on-track. Van Helsing is a super-cool, winning hero of comic-book proportions; he is Wolverine with a dash of Indiana Jones. First we see the hat, the scarf-covered face and the eyes. Then, the black leather coat, vest and boots. A heroic figure indeed.
Jackman is not the only Aussie to shine. There’s plenty of pathos in Richard Roxburgh’s splendidly tormented Dracula and his delivery is superb. How can we not feel his pain as he laments to his brides of his insoluble longing. In fact, there’s a layer of complexity around all the characters, who are never portrayed as black or white, offering a compelling pull-me/push-me aspect. David Wenham provides chuckles as the comic side-kick (‘Why does it smell like wet dog in here?’), and looks as though he is having as much fun as he did on screen Gettin’ Square. Kate Beckinsale (an appealing match for Jackman’s Gabriel) injects strength and glamour to her feisty gypsy princess, making her far more credible than her role in Underworld.
Visual highlights include the black and gold ballroom scene with over a thousand oil-burning candles, lavish costumes, circus acts and dazzling choreography, while there is heart-stopping thrills as Frankenstein’s Monster is transported precariously in a carriage drawn by six jet black horses. Of course, the moment we have all been waiting for, is when Dracula and Van Helsing finally come face to face – and we are not disappointed.
Van Helsing is the epitome of an escapist movie – the kind that used to be shown on Saturday afternoon. But now, thanks to massive budgets and big-name stars, Saturday comes seven days a week.
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VAN HELSING (M)
CAST: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Syvlia Colloca, Josie Maran
PRODUCER: Stephen Sommers, Bob Ducsay
DIRECTOR: Stephen Sommers
SCRIPT: Stephen Sommers
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Allen Daviau
EDITOR: Bob Ducsay
MUSIC: Alan Silvestri
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Allan Cameron
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 5, 2004