Imagine having the cool charisma of James Bond and the dark anti-hero credentials of Batman topped off with Indiana Jones‘ fedora. Well, one man has them all and his name is Van Helsing.
Our story begins in 1887 in Transylvania, with the demented doctor, Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) creating his monster in Count Dracula’s (Robert Roxburgh) castle. Dracula and Frankenstein oppose each other about the rules of creating and re-creating life, climaxing in Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) being let loose and chased around the local town by hostile peasants.
One year later and Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) – a sort of Catholic mercenary – is summoned to the Vatican in Rome where he is given a new assignment. A vampire has not been killed in over 100 years, so Van Helsing is sent Eastern Europe where he is to kill Count Dracula, known by his enemies as “the son of the devil”. Van Helsing’s mission is to eradicate all possessed souls, and it is in Transylvania where Van Helsing meets Frankenstein’s monster and Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), whose father and brother were killed by Dracula.
Very few characters in cinema have had as many makeovers as Count Dracula and in his latest incarnation he is perhaps at his least effective. There are no distinguishing features – which could be attributed to his familiarity – but Roxburgh’s character is almost devoid of any menacing or frightening traits. Recall the evil in the eyes of Christopher Lee in his portrayal of Dracula – here, he is plain and unconvincing.
It is interesting to see a complete change of Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s book. Stoker portrayed Dr Abraham Van Helsing as a 60 year old Dutch professor, a sort of afficionado of the occult. In this version though, he is Gabriel Van Helsing who has an English accent with an Australian twang. He seems to know little of the occult, instead seeking the advice of his John Dee-meets-Q-from-James Bond-style sidekick to feed him knowledge of the dark arts. The change of his name is curious, and could refer to Gabriel, the archangel with the power of God. However, it would be futile to view the film out of its Hollywood popcorn movie context.
Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious offers blood for Dracula’s three brides and a love interest for Van Helsing but little else. Another problem is Frankenstein’s monster – although he elicits the sympathy given to him in Mary Shelley’s novel, he slows the focus of the film and proves to be a rather pointless character. Dracula’s quest for creating life is explained in detail and Frankenstein’s monster merely offers an excuse for blood-soaked violence.
Filmed on gigantic sets in Prague, Stephen Sommers has created another mega-monster hit which could surpass the success of The Mummy and its sequel. Potential sequels for Van Helsing are already being proposed, a theme park ride and a computer game have been made and the inevitable barrage of film-related merchandise has hit the shelves. A television series set in the same universe is due out next May.
Van Helsing is Gothic eye candy which would probably be much more fun and slightly surreal after a booze-up on a Saturday night. Surprisingly, with a running time of more than two hours, Van Helsing is too fast paced, which leaves little time to enjoy the immense scenery. The cameras moves like an express train amongst the enormous set pieces. The editing too, as in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, is too quick, making it difficult to acknowledge a sense of location.
Van Helsing could best be described as CGI-infested mucus because it is the action and special effects which are memorable, whilst it is the characters – if you could forgive the pun – who lack bite.