Friday, February 12, 2016

Van Helsing Review

The eponymous character of Abraham Van Helsing is a creation of Bram Stoker in his 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula. He's an aged Dutch doctor with a wide range of interests and accomplishments. He's supposed to have been simply an aged medical doctor of his time, but many adaptations of this character depict him as a vampire hunter, monster hunter, and the archenemy to Count Dracula. One of these creative reinterpretations was a movie released in 2004, Van Helsing. It is frankly not a good movie, but it's an interesting form of low-budget B-movie that I doubt anyone could have foreseen as little as a decade before its release. Silly a movie as it is, it's a guilty pleasure of mine to watch.
Famed monster slayer Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is dispatched to Transylvania with Friar Carl (David Wenham) to assist the last of the Valerious bloodline in defeating Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) reveals that Dracula has formed an unholy alliance with Dr. Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley) and is hell-bent on exacting a centuries-old curse on her family. Together Anna and Van Helsing set out to destroy their common enemy, but uncover some unsettling secrets along the way.
Ridiculous and over the top as Van Helsing is, I have to give it props for creativity. The character of Van Helsing is vastly different from his original depiction in Bram Stoker's Dracula. This is a young Van Helsing with more monster hunting gadgets and gizmos than any one person should be able to carry on themselves and still walk. This Van Helsing wields a rapid fire crossbow, spinning wrist blades, explosives, retractable silver stakes, and weaponized holy water. All of which are creatively used to his advantage in entertaining action scenes. The movie was distributed by Universal Pictures who made iconic monster movies back in the 1940's including Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and werewolves. Van Helsing brought several of these Hollywood icons together again in a way similar to the multi-monster movies that also Universal produced in the 1940's such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or House of Dracula. There's even an implication that an escaped Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is true identity of The Hunchback of Notre Dame whom Van Helsing encounters in Paris early in the film. The way that these monsters came together felt natural for this particular world setting and the varied methods of combating these creatures made for some interesting fight scenes, especially in cases when multiple monsters were ganging up on our heroes and a weapon that might hurt one creature would have no effect on the other creature.
I am convinced that this was a fairly low budget movie, or at least it was for the most part inexpensive to make. I'd estimate that roughly 85-90% of Van Helsing was filmed with the actors in front of a green screen and then a fleet of very busy CGI artists filled in the details afterwards. I realize that CGI can be very costly, but I can't imagine it being more expensive than creating elaborate, believable sets or filming on location. There have been a number of movies that basically were CGI intensive with actors in front of green screens which ended up looking just terrible, such as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. This movie looks pretty solid, though. Many of the monsters are just as CGI generated as the villages and castles they terrorize, but they look great. And I feel that it is important to say that Van Helsing features one of the best looking movie werewolves I've ever seen, even if it's transformation is unorthodox.
Van Helsing received mostly negative reviews. It was criticized for having poor acting, way too much CGI and special effects, and being a mockery of the horror genre. I can't exactly disagree with most of these criticisms. Most of the acting is very melodramatic and is so stylized that it's hard not to scoff at the movie's attempts to look cool. I can't for the life of me imagine the actors falling apart in peals of laughter at some of the poses and superfluous, artificial back flips that were required of them. Parts of the dialogue were so cheesy that I simply had to roll my eyes before pressing on in the movie. Van Helsing isn't trying to be a horror movie; the horror genre is supposed to elicit feelings of fear in its viewers. This movie doesn't even make a poor attempt to do that. Sure, there are iconic monsters from horror movies, but Van Helsing is an action movie and the action choreography is fun, if a little hard to swallow at times. Critics may have dragged the movie through the mud, but the film grossed $300 million worldwide and did well with the general public, becoming one of the biggest blockbusters released in 2004. That ought to tell you something about its quality.
Objectively, Van Helsing isn't a terrifically good movie, but it is a whole lot of fun. The action is great, the visuals are above average, and the ridiculous story is entertaining enough to enjoy. It starts out looking like a special effects overkill, but by the end it succeeds in assembling all the monsters and plot threads into a high-voltage climax. Van Helsing is silly, but spectacularly fun. If it doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy, you probably won't. I did, however, and I recommend seeing Van Helsing for the fun of it. With so many classic monsters present, it makes for a good movie to watch during Halloween. I have a copy of Van Helsing sitting on my movie shelf next to other titles I like to enjoy every now and again.

What is your favorite monster hunter movie? What do you like about it? Comment below and tell me all about it!

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