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'Van Helsing' is a major disappointment

May 13, 2004
By Franklin Harris

To appreciate some movies, you have to leave your brain at home. To appreciate "Van Helsing," I would have had to send my brain on a walking tour of Outer Mongolia.

Writer/director Stephen Sommers' earlier films, "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns," are silly spectacles, but they're never so dumb that you can't sit back and enjoy the ride. I can't say the same for "Van Helsing."

First, forget everything you know about Abraham Van Helsing, the character from Bram Stoker's "Dracula." The only thing the new Van Helsing has in common with him is that both hunt vampires.

As written by Sommers and played by Hugh Jackman, Van Helsing is more like another of Jackman's roles, Wolverine in "X-Men." Both Van Helsing and Wolverine are older than they appear. (Van Helsing recalls taking part in a battle that occurred centuries before the film's Victorian setting.) Both suffer from amnesia. Both have an archenemy who knows all of the answers. And both work (or worked) for a secret paramilitary organization.

By design, everything in "Van Helsing" reminds you of something else. Van Helsing's appearance — his heavy coast, wide-brimmed hat and long hair — comes from the popular anime "Vampire Hunter D." His arsenal of monster-killing weapons is war surplus from the "Blade" films.

"Van Helsing" opens with an homage to the Universal Studios horror films: Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West) witnessing the birth of his monster (Shuler Hensley) and screaming, "It's alive! It's alive!" Sommers shoots the sequence in black-and-white and wastes no time sending an army of village idiots to the gates of Castle Frankenstein. Then the story takes a new twist.

It turns out that Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) has been funding Dr. Frankenstein's experiments, and now he intends to take possession of the creature. For reasons never made clear, the creature is the key to Dracula's plan to create an army of vampires hatched from eggs laid by his three vampire wives.

That's right: vampire eggs.

Enter Van Helsing, a trained killer working secretly for the Catholic Church to rid the world of ghouls and goblins. The Church sends him to Transylvania to kill Dracula before the Valerious family, sworn to Dracula's destruction, ends up spending eternity in Purgatory. It seems that hundreds of years ago, the leader of the Valerious clan made an oath that he and his descendants wouldn't enter Heaven until Dracula was vanquished. Now there is only one Valerious left, Anna (Kate Beckinsale), and she can't kill Dracula on her own.

Unfortunately, this Dracula is hard to kill. Every other Dracula has been vulnerable to crosses, garlic, a stake through the heart, sunlight, running water or some combination thereof. This one, however, has only one weakness, which, when revealed, makes no sense but does result in a grandiose fight between two computer-animated monsters.

It shouldn't take a story this convoluted just to get Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man together. The plot holes are almost too numerous to list. Why does Dracula bother with creating a werewolf antidote when stockpiling silver bullets would be so much simpler? Why is Van Helsing nonchalant about killing monsters in one scene and conflicted about it in the next? How can there be more than one full moon over a span of a few days?

Jackman's lifeless portrayal of Van Helsing is a disappointment; we all know he can do better. At the other end of the spectrum, Roxburgh's over-the-top Dracula looks and acts like he just left open-microphone poetry night at a goth club.

At least Beckinsale turns in a good performance, which isn't surprising. She plays the most interesting character. Given her costume and sword, she looks like a female Capt. Kronos. But that is probably just another homage to a more worthy film.

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