Van Helsing (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Van Helsing is full of monsters -- monster lore, monster jokes, and monster trivia.

Van Helsing

Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor, Shuler Hensley
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-05-07
Monster? Who is the monster here?
-- Frankenstein (Shuler Hensely), Van Helsing

"What if I put 'em all in the same movie?" Stephen Sommers' question, born of his affection for classic horror movie monsters, is answered in Van Helsing. More an enthusiastic pile-on of creatures and effects than a developing narrative, Sommers' follow-up to the Mummys is large, loud, and longer than it needs to be.

It's also full of monsters -- monster lore, monster jokes, and monster trivia, beginning with the first sequence. Shot in allusive, plainly deferential black and white, it opens on a throng of villagers, circa 1887, en route to Dr. Frankenstein's castle, torches aloft and rabble roused. Inside the laboratory, as thunder crashes, the ambitious doctor (Samuel West) thrills to his creation's electric jumpstart: "It's alive!!" While it can't be easy to mimic Colin Clive's most famous line, this Victor is aided by one Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), whose intervention here is effectively campy. When Victor asserts that he'll kill himself before he allows his dastardly accomplice to "take control" of the invention, Dracula's just fine with that idea: "Feel free," he snarks. "I don't actually need you anymore."

With that, the villagers wreak the same destruction they did in James Whale's 1931 film (the windmill goes up in flames, the monster and his "father" are apparently annihilated, a Maria Ouspenskya-type faints away), and the film jumps ahead one year, when it introduces infamous monster hunter Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), in mid-throwdown with an oversized-and-CGI-ed Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane). Though he's unmistakably skilled, Van Helsing is less than thrilled with his vocation; its emotional cost is revealed when, upon vanquishing, the monster Hyde transforms back into the wan and vulnerable Dr. Jekyll (Stephen H. Fisher), collapsed on the cobblestone street.

When Van Helsing heads back to Rome to confess his sins, it becomes clear that he often undergoes this sort of emotional tailspin: he agonizes over his lot ("My life, my job, my curse is to vanquish evil"), but no one else is so gifted, so well trained or, frankly, so well equipped in taking out evil. It's soon revealed that he works under the auspices of The Order, an ancient secret society associated with the Vatican and supported by a basement armory full of monks committed to research and gadget-making; his own Q-like offsider, Friar Carl (David Wenham) accompanies him to Transylvania for his next mission, namely, to exterminate pesky Dracula.

On his arrival in country, Van Helsing encounters the exceptionally spirited Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), last survivor of a family engaged in a centuries-long battle with the Count. She's currently trying to save her brother Velkan (Will Kemp) from eternal wolfmanhood. Bitten while saving Anna from another werewolf's attack (werewolves being under the ritual thrall of Dracula, they're repeatedly sent to ravage Valerious family members), pretty Velkan returns during a full moon, whereupon he begins his "change" -- in this version of the lore (as it is different in every film), he literally rips his human skin off to reveal his wolfish essence, all fierce and toothsome. As Anna watches this horrific transformation, she turns rather horror-movie-girly: mouth agape, eyes teary, ability to flee suddenly and utterly diminished.

Aside from this reaction to her brother's awfulness, however, Anna is rarely incapacitated. She's a monster fighter from the ground up, with many years of experience and little inclination to accept help from this interloper called Van Helsing. This despite the fact that her first onscreen clash with Dracula's trio of bloodlusty Brides -- Verona (Silvia Colloca), Marishka (Josie Maran), Aleera (Elena Anaya) -- suggests that she's in need of his help, or at least his gizmos. Bat-winged and ghastly pale, the Brides come swooping into Anna's village, a mode of assault recalling the Wicked Witch's "Surrender Dorothy" tactic in Oz (in fact, the batty little "progeny" produced by Dracula's offscreen mating with the Brides resemble the Flying Monkeys, as they hordishly flit past windows and descend on hapless villagers.)

Van Helsing's eyes light up when he first spots the Brides, as now he can try out his new weapon, an auto-arrow-shooter that dispenses silver shafts like bullets from a gatling gun. Screeching and cackling, he Brides offer a dramatic contrast with Anna, who stands tall as she screams to her people, "Get inside!" (unfortunately, at this point she sounds rather like Austin Powers' Frau Farbissina ["Send in the clones!"] as her Transylvanian accent slips into caricature). This few minutes' worth of fighting the Brides produces enough wireworky adrenalin to initiate Van Helsing and Anna's inevitable romance (testy, of course, and embellished by their exuberant hair, wildly tousled and gloriously photographed).

The film's focus on destroying all monsters is intermittently complicated by Van Helsing and Anna's reconsiderations of just who is monstrous, and who's not. While she has an obvious investment in her brother's definition, Van Helsing faces his own identity issues when, during one skirmish, Velkan bites him: not only does he have to find an antidote, but he also must face down his own dark past (like Wolverine, Van Helsing lacks memory of his own origin story, and yes, it involves a difficult familial lineage, because, well, don't they all?).

The other wrench tossed into the monster definitions mix is Frankenstein, into whose hideout Van Helsing and Anna accidentally and literally tumble. Frightened by the attack, he fights back, and when Anna describes him as a monster, he shoots back: "Monster? Who is the monster here?" It's a good question, pointing out the ways that perspectives can differ and, in some cases, limit empathy.

Given that both principal actors have recently made movies where their own apparently monstrous characters are endowed with human vulnerabilities and identity "issues" (Jackman as Wolverine and Beckinsale as Selene in Underworld), it also seems a question worth considering, even in a movie so focused on obliterating monsters, with as much spectacular CGI and stunts as possible (reportedly, the film includes some 500 digital effects shots). It's precisely this excess of action that makes Van Helsing feel overwrought.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.