The 2004 summer movie season officially kicks off with the hotly anticipated Van Helsing, the latest from writer/director Stephen Sommers (1999's The Mummy and 2001's The Mummy Returns). Word to the wise—if you know the name Van Helsing, avoid this film. Even if you don't know the name, for that matter, avoid this film.

Van Helsing is the old professor from Bram Stoker's classic 1897 novel, Dracula, specializing in exotic diseases and folklore. Memorably played by the likes of Peter Cushing and Anthony Hopkins in previous adaptations of the story, he's part Sherlock Holmes, part sci-fi B-movie scientist. The movie Van Helsing is something of a prequel that intriguingly explores the famed vampire expert's back-story. What was his first encounter with the undead? What was he like in his prime?

Hugh Jackman in thetitle role

Hugh Jackman in thetitle role

In his film, Sommers envisions Van Helsing (X-Men's Hugh Jackman) as a notorious and misunderstood monster hunter ("part priest, part murderer"), employed by a secret society based in the Vatican—spearheaded by the Catholic Church, naturally, yet embracing all religions. Van Helsing returns to headquarters after a botched attempt to bring back the infamous Mr. Hyde (aka Dr. Jekyll) alive from Paris. After gearing up in a blatant plagiarizing of James Bond, he is sent to Trannsylvania with a young friar named Carl (David Wenham) to uncover the plans of a certain Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, League of Extraordinary Gentleman), and to protect the surviving members of a royal gypsy family, Velkan (Will Kemp) and Anna (Kate Beckinsale of Underworld, a better movie about vampires and werewolves).

Van Helsing's past is shrouded in mystery since he has no memory of it. His earliest recollection is of fighting the Romans at Masada, which would make him at least 1,800 years old. For those who insist on seeing the film, I'll conceal the puzzle of Van Helsing's past and his tie to Count Dracula, though it's a highly unsatisfactory revelation, and the results conflict with the very tale that spawned this mess. Dracula's plans are just as disappointing, but no secret. Unable to produce living offspring with his vampire babes, he wants to use the science behind Frankenstein's monster to bring his brood of little bat-kids to life. Hey Drac, I'm no authority, but it seems like you're doing all right spawning the undead by traditional vampire means.

Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious

Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious

That's the first of Van Helsing's many transgressions. The movie would have you believe that it's paying loving tribute to the great monster movies of the '30s and '40s. Instead, it completely throws the rules of the mythology out the window. Dracula and his three brides are depicted as winged harpies, able to fly around in the daylight, as long as it's overcast outside. Who knew clouds were so powerful against the supernatural? Anna points out that vampires "don't attack in the daylight … they must have wanted to catch us off guard." Yeah, vampires are sneaky that way. Dracula is also inexplicably invincible to all the conventional means learned from past films.

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Equally ridiculous are the rules surrounding werewolves. Transylvania apparently operates under a 3-day lunar cycle, conveniently allowing for a full moon whenever the plot needs one. What's more, if clouds block the light of the full moon, the werewolf reverts back to his human self temporarily. Which begs the question, does this mean we're safe on nights with a full moon if it's raining? If a werewolf needs direct moonlight to change, why does he change indoors?

Van Helsing also doesn't play fair when it comes to the overall action. It's like a small child whose imagination allows him to drive his G.I. Joe tank straight up a cliff wall to shoot a jet flying overhead. Gravity? Laws of physics? Who needs them? One scene has a runaway stagecoach with six stallions leaping at least 50 feet over a chasm like the bus from Speed without any ramp, magical aid, or prompting from their driver—it's quite possibly the stupidest looking stunt I've ever seen. Earlier on, a man changing into a werewolf literally climbs a wall backwards like Spiderman with the palms of his hands. From a castle tower, Van Helsing fires a Batman-styled harpoon gun into a tree miles away.

Boris Karloff meets Robocop, we presume

Boris Karloff meets Robocop, we presume

The movie exceeds one's capabilities to suspend disbelief. I'm all for the big dumb summer action movie if it's still fun—Sommers' two Mummy films worked well on that level. Van Helsing, however, is willing to exploit any plot contrivance to get its way. There are no ropes or chains that can't swing our heroes wherever they need to be. No falling object that can't be caught while swinging. No aim that isn't perfect. No loss of balance that can't somehow be turned into a graceful feat of acrobatics. No human that can't withstand being hurtled into a stone wall at full force without so much as a welt or bruise. It's a comic book film without the thrills—nothing is impossible, no one can get hurt, and anyone is capable of doing anything at any time.

For a reported $148 million and 980 effects shots, Van Helsing surprisingly offers some of the least convincing special effects in recent cinema. Sommers is unable to restrain himself from putting something in every scene—the vampires are constantly walking up walls and hanging upside down, apparently because they can. If we've learned nothing else from comparing the new Stars Wars films to Lord of the Rings, it's that quality of effects matter more than quantity. Whereas Gollum looked like a living creature, this movie's Mr. Hyde looks like Shrek if he were made of silly putty, which is as good an explanation for the action in this film as any. People used to balk at the use of obvious stunt doubles in movies. I wonder how audiences will react to painfully obvious switches between actors for dialogue and CGI characters for action.

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Except for the charisma of its two leads, which is little consolation here, Van Helsing is a complete failure in every way. It's everything that's wrong with bad summer blockbusters, ranking with Wild, Wild West and Batman & Robin. Lost amid the movie's endless shrieks and crashes, the dialogue especially falters with weak attempts at character development and deeper issues. When Van Helsing explains to Anna that he needs to kill the werewolf before it kills again, she responds by telling him, "It's not his fault … Don't you understand the concept of forgiveness?" When Sommers does try to be funny, mostly in the form of comic relief by Carl, it falls painfully flat. And talk about redefining horror. While Van Helsing is largely bloodless, it's also not frightening in the least, pathetically relying on loud startles to scare the audience. Ironically, one of Dracula's brides asks, "Did I scare you? Maybe I need to try a little harder." There's an understatement.

This movie really does bite

This movie really does bite

Really, how hard can it be for Van Helsing to triumph over evil in a movie this toothless, brainless, soulless, and ultimately joyless? Regardless of the warnings, millions will see Van Helsing in the months to come, because it is a summer movie event, designed to inspire toys, video games, and awful Saturday morning cartoons. Meanwhile, the classic originals from which it borrows gather dust on the video store shelves. A pity, since all those corny old movies have one thing that this film does not—entertainment value. Like the three monsters at the center of the film, Van Helsing is a howling dog, it needs a brain, and indeed, it bites.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Is Anna right? Should the heroes simply "forgive" the monsters for being what they are? Where does forgiveness end and justice begin?

  2. Like many movies in this genre, Van Helsing suggests redemption through works. Discuss how this differs from Christian beliefs.

  3. For laughs, see who can come up with the most instances in which this movie gets religion wrong. Loser buys the winner coffee or dinner. Tie-breaker: how many times does it get the old monster movies wrong?

  4. Share your favorite monster movie, since it will undoubtedly not be this one.

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Though Van Helsing is mostly bloodless and often looks like a cartoon, its (literally) relentless loudness and creature violence will be too intense for kids under the age of ten. Though you don't see it onscreen, Friar Carl willingly asks for and receives sexual reward for saving a young maiden's life. The film also takes a very flippant and universal attitude towards religion. Despite numerous references to God, Satan, heaven, and hell, it has a flawed Christian worldview, casually suggesting that all religions are equal and that we can believe in anything and everything. This poor mix of mythology and flawed theology could confuse younger viewers.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/13/04

Hugh Jackman, who charged into the ranks of Hollywood's leading men with his charismatic and vigorous performance as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, now has the starring role in Van Helsing. According to the reviews, this is not a move that Jackman should be proud of.

Director Steven Sommers, who stole, burgled, robbed, and pillaged the Indiana Jones films to assemble the plots for The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, now borrows everything available to him from classic monster films, horror films, and adventure films. Van Helsing battles Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's square-headed monster. If classic filmmakers see what he's done with their ideas, they may ask him never to pay them tribute again.

Mainstream critics say Van Helsing ranks (or "is rank") alongside such summertime losers as Wild, Wild West and Batman and Robin. Religious press critics agree: the movie is monstrous.

Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says, "Even more than the typical summer box office fare, the film relies so heavily on cliché and convention that it quickly collapses under their weight. But what really bleeds Van Helsing dry is a constant gush of violence that skirts the edges of an R rating, plus lusty pseudo-lesbian vampires and a dumbed-down theological mishmash. Embarrassing, especially for a movie obviously aimed at 13-year-old boys."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Sommers tries to adopt the same campy humor that was sprinkled atop his two Mummy pictures. The problem is that he goes too far and pushes the entire tone of the film off kilter." He also criticizes "the overplaying of Richard Roxburgh as the central villain."

"Avoid this film," writes Russ Breimeier (CT Movies). "The movie exceeds one's capabilities to suspend disbelief. It's a comic book film without the thrills—nothing is impossible, no one can get hurt, and anyone is capable of doing anything at any time. Except for the charisma of its two leads, which is little consolation here, Van Helsing is a complete failure in every way."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Full of headache-inducing action sequences, the clumsily structured film is more lumbering than Frankenstein's monster, mostly due to a script that lacks any bite and that has enough stale dialogue to make an audience howl with laughter—full moon or not. Toward the end of the movie, Frankenstein's monster bemoans the fact that he is 'accustomed to pain,' but by that point so is the audience."

"Taking scenes and inspiration wholesale from film classics and putting them in a blender does not make a classic film," says Keith Howland (Christian Spotlight).

Not everyone is so upset by Sommers' work. Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) raves, "All in all I really enjoyed this movie. It was a fun ride and one that I will take again. You will have the opportunity to escape reality for a few hours and have a lot of thrills, laughs and reflective moments in the process. It is one that has given me a new respect for Sommers. On a scale of 1-10 … a thrilling and enjoyable 8."

Andrew Coffin (World) was impressed too—but only if he considers Van Helsing as a commercial rather than a movie. He says it "features some remarkable special effects, but to say that the script has shortcomings is more than a modest understatement. Watching the film, I kept imagining scenes as different levels in the video game, and—even though I don't play video games—it looked fun. So credit the movie this much: As a two hour advertisement for another product, Van Helsing is quite effective."

Van Helsing
Our Rating
1 Star - Weak
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for non-stop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality)
Directed By
Stephen Sommers
Run Time
2 hours 11 minutes
Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh
Theatre Release
May 07, 2004 by Universal Films
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