Stephen Sommers' VAN HELSING (***) opens up with a marvelous black-and-white sequence that pays tribute to the classic Universal monster movies. The local villagers have carried pitchforks to Castle Frankenstein, where the good doctor has given life to the monster, only to have his work interrupted by the appearance of Dracula, who needs Frankenstein's creation for his own nefarious purposes.
We cut to Paris, where Vatican-approved monster hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is pursuing Mr. Hyde through the city streets. (This, if you're counting at home, marks Hyde's second appearance in a major motion picture within the last year, following the inferior "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"). Van Helsing has Bond-like gadgets at his disposal, a faithful servant in Friar Carl (David Wenham), and, after subduing Robert Louis Stevenson's famous villain, quickly sets out on a new mission: to rid Transylvania of Dracula (Richard Roxburgh).
Even with the help of a gypsy princess (Kate Beckinsale), Van Helsing finds that Dracula and his brides aren't as easy to take down as you might have anticipated. Complicating matters is the appearance of the Wolf Man, who -- along with former Frankenstein servant Igor -- is held under Dracula's spell. Vlad needs their help, in addition to the monster (who has since gone missing), in order to fulfill his nasty plan of spreading vampirism all over the world.
Having grown up on the Universal monster mashes of the '30s and '40s (thanks in no small part to "Creature Double Feature" on Saturday afternoon TV), I was gratified to see the homage Sommers pays to James Whale's original film in the movie's prologue. Following that, the big-budget "Van Helsing" becomes a generally enjoyable, matinee- style adventure that owes as much to Indy Jones and Sommers's own "Mummy" films (thankfully more the original than its sequel) as it does to the Universal classics of yesteryear. That likely won't be a major drawback for most audiences, provided they're willing to go along for the ride.
It goes without saying that most movies of this type -- even the old Universal classics --- aren't exactly grounded in reality. Rules for killing vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night were loosely established, then forgotten and/or rewritten on a virtual film-by-film basis. Here, vampires fly during the day (as long as the sun isn't out), werewolves seem to have some kind of power over their undead friends, and Dracula has some wacky looking henchmen who I don't seem to remember from any other film involving Bram Stoker's anti-hero.
Ultimately, though, it boils down to this: if you find soaring bat-women ridiculous, then you'll likely find "Van Helsing" to be an outlandish comic book unworthy of your time. On the other hand, if you can get into the proper frame of mind that this kind of fantasy requires, you'll find Sommers's film to be an enjoyable piece of hokum.
Though Sommers's scripts tend to be light on wit and could always use more developed characters, Jackman still manages to convey a compelling hero at the center of the film's visual delights. Beckinsale makes a worthy heroine, while Shuler Hensley (as the monster) fares as least as well as Robert DeNiro did in Kenneth Branagh's misguided 1994 version. Though Roxburgh isn't quite as ineffective as I anticipated him being, the Dracula casting does prove to be one of the film's weaker aspects, since one can envision a host of other actors more effectively filling the shoes of the great count. Roxburgh simply doesn't have enough presence on-screen to hold his own against Jackman, Beckinsale, and the movie's visual effects.
Allen Daviau's cinematography beautifully captures the dark fairy-tale quality of the action and is matched by Allan Cameron's sets, which manage to convey atmosphere both appropriate to the old classics and a modern day effects extravaganza. Speaking of F/X, the animation by ILM and a host of other houses is generally superb, and backing up the whole film is Alan Silvestri's sensational score. Just as intense as his work on "The Mummy Returns" but a good deal more effective, this is easily one of Silvestri's finest efforts in years, being rambunctious, rousing and melodic in equal measure.
Many have commented that Sommers, as a filmmaker, doesn't know when to quit -- that his movies basically play like two-hour trailers. Granted, Sommers may not be Steven Spielberg, but history shows us that, throughout the years, there are always escapist entertainments released that manage to satisfy audiences, even if they're not groundbreaking or ready for induction into the AFI Hall of Fame. (Most of the films effects master Ray Harryhausen was involved in come immediately to mind).
"Van Helsing" may not be "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but that doesn't mean there isn't room for this kind of silly, but stylishly made, comic-book adventure movie. The kind of film that has "kids stuff" written all over it, has no other ambition than providing a good ride for two-plus hours, and works if you've got a soft spot for the type of old-time horror that the golden age of the Universal Monsters once provided on the big screen. (PG-13, 139 mins)
In this day and age of elongated soundtrack albums which wear out their welcome around the 70-minute mark, it's gratifying to hear a 40-minute album which manages to encompass a score's major thematic material.
Such is the case with Decca's soundtrack CD of VAN HELSING (12 tracks, 42:56), which presents a satisfying packaging of Alan Silvestri's nearly non-stop score from the new movie.
I liked Silvestri's "Mummy Returns" score, but as I mentioned above, his work on "Van Helsing" is a cut above. The thunderous action music that you've come to expect from a movie of this sort is here, but Silvestri manages to make it stand out thanks to that energetic, propulsive tone he's brought to his better genre works (especially in tracks like "Journey To Transylvania" and "Transylvanian Horses," which are some of the best singular cues he's written in some time). More impressively, the score manages to be melodic and wide-ranging, thanks to moments that offer a respite from the action (particularly "All Hallow's Eve Ball," with its ethereal female vocal).
Decca's album, recorded in L.A. with full chorus, sounds tremendous. Even better is that, unlike "The Mummy Returns," Silvestri was able to include all the principal cues on disc, including its climactic tracks ("Final Battle," "Reunited").
The result is an album that gives you a solid, if not comprehensive, overview of Silvestri's score, making for a perfect 40+ minute listen that doesn't overstay its welcome. These days, that's virtually as good as it gets.