THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"VAN HELSING"

The Universal monsters remain important and influential characters in film, and Van Helsing opens with a nifty tribute to them. Shot in black-and-white, the intro recreates the famous ending of Frankenstein while additionally throwing in elements from Dracula. Itís a really exciting way to kick off the film because we immediately anticipate a thrilling adventure featuring some classic creatures. I grew up on the Universal monsters and still enjoy popping in my DVDs to marvel over Bela Lugosiís performance as the eerie vampire count, or James Whaleís poignant retelling of Mary Shelleyís masterpiece. Kids today have Jason and Chucky and Freddy Ė monsters who canít hold a candle to those of yesteryear.

Van Helsing was, of course, the fearless vampire hunter who took down Dracula in Bram Stokerís novel and dozens of film adaptations. In this movie, he is re-imagined as a kind of monster bounty hunter working for the Catholic Church. Played by Hugh Jackman, he is sent to Transylvania, where Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) has been creating other monsters to help do his bidding. Among the creatures are his three vampire brides, numerous werewolves, and a monster he forcibly took from Dr. Frankenstein. The latter monster is the most important, as he holds the key for incubating the thousands of vampire cocoons produced by Draculaís brides. Once the cocoons are hatched, endless bat-babies will be born and theyíll be free to nourish on the bodies of innocent Transylvanians.

Van Helsing has vague memories of having encountered Dracula before, but he canít quite remember it fully. Once in Transylvania, he hooks up with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale). One of her ancestors vowed before God that no member of their family would enter into Heaven until Dracula was killed. Anna and her brother are now the only two living descendents; if they die before Dracula does, their whole family will be banished to purgatory or worse. She and Van Helsing also rely on a friar named Carl (David Wenham) for help. Heís kind of like James Bondís Q, as he provides Van Helsing with cool gadgetry, such as a special gun that shoots projectiles that resemble little circular saw blades. Van Helsing ultimately encounters a lot of werewolves that must be fought on the way to Castle Dracula. When he meets up with Frankensteinís monster, he realizes the creature means no harm, so he enlists old Bolthead to help in the final showdown with the Count.

Although Van Helsing uses the most cutting edge special effects available, the look of the movie is rooted in the classics. You can see that director Stephen Sommers tried to stay true to the visual style of classic monster movies while still taking advantage of modern CGI. I think thatís a wise move. These monsters are so entrenched in the minds of the audience that tinkering with them too much usually proves fatal. (Recall Kenneth Brannaghís 1994 Frankenstein remake for proof.) The vintage films have had incredible staying power because of their unique moods and atmospheres. Sommers retains what is special about them while still finding fresh, interesting perspectives for the monsters themselves. The essence of the each monster remains the same: Dracula is evil, Frankenstein is benign, and werewolves are decent people who canít stop themselves from doing hideous things when they transform. At the same time, blending them together gives each one something new to do. Itís inspired having Dracula control the other monsters. How they react to him Ė and how they carry out or fail to carry out his orders Ė creates some interesting dynamics between classic characters.

The problems with the movie are pretty common to many big budget action extravaganzas; specifically, thereís more emphasis on action than on story or (in this case, human) character. I never really knew what to make of Anna, but perhaps that was because Kate Beckinsale seems to be channeling the voice of Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers movies. I also wish Hugh Jackman had been given more opportunity to turn Van Helsing into something memorable. Jackman is quite capable of creating a vivid character in the midst of non-stop action, as he proved so beautifully playing Wolverine in the X-Men films. Here, he gets lost in the special effects and mayhem. It could be anyone playing Van Helsing, really, and you wouldnít necessarily know the difference. Thatís a shame considering how good Jackman can be. The plot itself also runs out of gas eventually, although there are definitely some intriguing ideas introduced along the way. Some of them pay off satisfactorily, while others still had some room for exploration.

I can live with those flaws, however, for one simple reason: Van Helsing is unapologetically nothing more than a monster movie, and itís a good one at that. The human characters get short shrift, but the monsters definitely do not. Sommers has a field day coming up with spectacular action scenes for the beloved creatures. One of the best involves an attack by the three vampire brides on the Transylvania town square. The bat-brides swoop down and scoop up innocent people, carrying them away as food. The attacks by the werewolves are pretty cool too. Theyíve been given a slight makeover by the special effects team to make them look more wolf than human. Possessing huge mouths full of sharp teeth, theyíre actually scary to look at. An earlier scene, in which Van Helsing takes on Mr. Hyde combines furious action with wit to produce a truly enjoyable sequence. A lot of movies use big action because itís required; you can almost feel it going on autopilot. Stephen Sommers, on the other hand, appears to be enjoying the chance to play with these monsters. He tosses off one inventive action scene after another. I appreciated the originality and ingenuity of them.

Thereís also a lot of fun in seeing Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man share screen time. Thatís what Van Helsing is all about: fun. This is a summer movie through and through. Itís about giving the audience a shot of adrenaline. Itís about taking these classic characters and putting them into a big, non-stop opera of action. The bottom line is that it works. Van Helsing is a great way to kick off 2004ís summer movie season. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy a wild ride.

( out of four)


Van Helsing is rated PG-13 for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.

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