by Lucius Shepard
May 15, 2004
B-movie poster copy and tag lines have always held great appeal for me. Tacky cinematic haiku such as "See the Valley of Tree-tall Spiders! See the Fire Monster of the Lava Lake!" (The Lost Continent) and "Die with a little dignity!" from the Thomas Ian Griffith cop flick Excessive Force seem to promise a dram of panache in what otherwise is likely to be a fairly pedestrian viewing experience, and even when that dram is not forthcoming (nary a single tree-tall spider, for instance, was to be found in The Lost Continent), the imagery and atmospherics invoked by the copy act to compensate somewhat for the film�s failures. Conversely, an uninspired tag line attached to a film, a tag line such as, let�s say, "Adventure Has a New Name," tends to lower one�s expectations. I mean, how many times over the past twenty-five years has Hollywood decided that adventure had a new name? Must be at least a dozen, maybe more. And in almost every instance, a more appropriate tag line would have been something on the order of, "Merchandising has a new name," or "Adventure has a new hangnail."
Which brings us to Van Helsing, that being the newest new name for Adventure.
We�re in an age, cinematically speaking, in which special effects have evolved into a form of pornography, when the design of a good many movies is merely a series of money shots linked by scenes that (for the most part) crudely seek to build the audience�s anticipation. On occasion this structure succeeds in supporting a serviceable entertainment, but more often than not it results in abominations like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, films whose plots are minimally stated justifications for the chaos of explosions, gothic transformations, unfunny one-liners, and ineptly managed CGI that follows. Given the intellectually impoverished condition of our film industry and the current state of the human consciousness American-style, it�s not so astonishing that the studios would seek to make B-movies with nine-figure budgets, but it does strain credulity a bit for them to create Ed Wood movies costing upward of 150 million dollars. That, however, appears to be the trend, and this makes the task of critical assessment increasingly difficult, becauseGod knowsquite a few critics are already grading on the curve, and a more generous curve would, in my view, eliminate all systems based on stars or numbers (as in, "I give Van Helsing one star for not impairing my ability to procreate"), and bring into play a scale whose upper end would be signaled by a satisfied belch and whose lower end would be marked by an even less socially acceptable form of gaseous release.
Stephen Sommers, Van Helsing�s chief architect, previously directed The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, two movies that, albeit not very good, haveby contrast to VHthe visionary purity and dramatic scope of Lawrence of Arabia. The movies that his latest opus most resembles are that series of venerable Abbott and Costello comedies (Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolfman, for one) featuring clusters of the classic Hollywood monsters. True, the Abbott and Costello scripts were more clever and more entertaining, and were often funny, something VH never is, be it unintentionally or otherwise; but the acting of Bud, Lou, and their cohorts is on a par with the posturings of Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing), Kate Beckinsale, and company, and the two films have essentially the same irreverent attitude toward horror. Three salient differences deserve mention: first of all, it�s doubtful that the Abbott and Costello movies cost one hundredth of Van Helsing�s budget in real dollars, and, secondly, they are all but devoid of special effects. The third distinction I would draw is that the Abbott and Costello movies had little in the way of pretensionthey knew exactly what they were, fodder for Saturday matinees and audiences of screaming kids throwing popcorn at each other, whereas Van Helsing is pretension swelled to mutant proportions, the idea of a simple entertainment belted by gamma rays and presented with a kind of bombastic sanctimony as if it were a pronouncement by Goombaba, God of Fun. I half-expected Sommers to put in an on-screen appearance and announce that he himself was Oz.
I�m not quite clear what Sommers intended with VH. I suspect that he is so incompetent at his craft, he believes he has fashioned a coherent, subtle mix of drama and humor, a film wholly unlike the one he delivered. It may be he was dropping Quaaludes throughout the entire shoot and lost his perspective. Another possibilitySommers has been designing an amusement park attraction based on his Mummy films, and he confused the dramatic demands of the two mediums and thus imbued VH with sufficient substance to sustain our interest for a span of a few minutes. Then again, it is perhaps no coincidence that some movies these days are hyped as "rollercoaster rides" and "thrill rides." This may have become the ruling aesthetic in the industry. The problem is that most pictures so advertised are not in the least thrilling and cause you to question whether their director has ever taken such a ride. They lack suspense, their pacing is clumsy, and their stunts are repetitive. In VH, Van and Anna wander about, engaging in joyless, juiceless banter and casting arch looks at one another to imply a romantic attraction that is never fully stated, let alone explored, and every so often, without preamble, as happens to characters in video games, they fall through a floor or are attacked by something or else must escape the sudden onset of peril by means of a Tarzan/Robin Hood swing from a parapet or balcony: Sommers seems to believe that the such swings are a neglected trope and he can�t squeeze enough of them in.
Sommers� Van Helsing is not the mysterious elderly fellow of the Stoker novelhe�s far too old to be called elderly, having fought against the Romans at Masada and thereafter killed the man who became Dracula back in the 15th century. Dressed in a slouch hat and a black leather duster, he seems a hybrid of Clint Eastwood�s stoic Man With No Name and James Bond (as though to bolster this impression, Sommers provides him with a Q-like sidekick, a Vatican science nerd, Friar Carl [David Wenham, LotR�s Faramir], who whips up groovy weapons like super explosives and a Gatling-gun crossbow). Van�s last coherent memories prior to a bout of amnesia are those of Masada and all he knows of the missing centuries is that during them he kept on killing God�s enemies. According to the covert Vatican order that has since brought him into their fold and uses him as a black ops killer, he is "the left hand of God." There are intimations that he may be an angel and/or the Wandering Jew, but Sommers leaves this enticing tidbit unexploited and unresolved. After killing Mr. Hyde, a cartoonish animation with the voice of Robbie Coltrane, (an event that in its gory risibility turns one�s thoughts to VH�s spiritual precursor, the aforementioned League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), heaving him from the belfry of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Van Helsing is ordered by his Vatican operator to travel to Transylvania (that�s Tron-seel-VAIN-ya, according to the cast) so as to protect Anna Valerius (Beckinsale), the last remaining member of a family who for generations have fought against Dracula. Should she die before Dracula is killed, the entire family will be forced to spend eternity in Purgatory, a fate thatby the time this plot point was revealedseemed less cruel than the one to which I, in my theater seat, felt consigned. Not only must Van save Anna from the brides of Dracula, three buxom, screeching vampirettes who taunt Anna ("too bad, so sad . . .") as if it were Hell Week in their sorority and alternately appear to have been costumed by a Carpathian outlet for Frederick�s of Hollywood and then, upon sprouting batwings and fangs, are magically clothed in pallid body stockings, he must also deal with Dracula�s master plan. For no reason I could fathom, Drac (a deliriously campy Richard Roxburgh, who may be inclined to slit his wrists once he sees this performance) believes that by channeling a lightning bolt through the body of the Frankenstein Monster (hiding in the basement of the windmill burned out long ago from beneath him by enraged villagers), he will be able to bring to life his myriad childrenthey hang in gooey egg sacs throughout his lair and, when born, resemble wriggly, rubbery, pale green baby bat-boys, objects like those you might find dangling from a rearview mirror and that have the capacity to glow in the dark. (This Frankenstein Monster, by the way, is a flabby, whiny version of the creature; he looks to have been hewn from a Humvee-sized chunk of toe jam and has a green glass top to his skull, the better to watch the electricities playing about his brain, and another glass section in his chest, suggesting that during the sewing-together process, Dr. Frankenstein ran out of body parts and was forced to manufacture replacements from an old Tiffany lampshade.) There is also some hoo-ha about Dracula always keeping an antidote to lycanthropy close to hand, because the only thing that can kill the Count is, natch, a werewolf. Keep this in mind, kids, Sommers seems to be saying. It might just be important.
So off go Anna and Van into the wonderful world of CGI, where they spend much of the next two hours standing in front of blue screens and delivering their inert dialogue to balls suspended on strings. Actually, seeing the screens and balls might have been preferable to the FX, though not all of it is horrible. The opening sequence recreating the genesis of the Frankenstein Monster, filmed in black and white, is cheesy fun; the Carpathian village where Van finds Anna is rendered creepily quaint and picturesque; but there are serious low points. When Velkan, Anna�s brother, experiences one of his several transformations into a werewolf, he goes through a prolonged bout of impassioned writhing that calls to mind a woefully bad Alvin Ailey routine and then rips away his own skin to release an enormous rabid poodle with a bad perm and foot-long fangs. In spite of the technical limitations of his era, Lon Chaney�s transformation into the original Wolfman was far more persuasive, principally because it was more realistic, but also because Chaney was working with an actual script and, though he was no Sean Penn or Jack Nicholson, had considerably more acting ability than does the pretty boy who plays Velkan and will likely soon be appearing in The Days of Our Lives as someone named Storm or Ridge or Thorn. But acting and script and even story are incidental concerns to Sommers. When Van says, "You think I enjoy being the most hated man in Europe?", we are forced to ponder the questionno answer is supplied by the script and no evidence is given to support the premise as stated. For all we know, Van is just being paranoid. We are further induced to ask why, if the Vanster so hates his life, he doesn�t tell the Vatican to bugger off and return to his solitary slaughter? Other questions abound. Why does a wooden coach explode into a fireball when it crashes? Why does one of Dracula�s brides dissolve into green goo when she is staked, whereas her sisters turn to dust while suffering the same fate? Why are the Tron-seel-VAIN-yan accents so unvaryingly awful? Couldn�t the budget fit in a dialogue coach or wasn�t it important? And, most bewilderingly, why at film�s end does Anna�s ghost appear in the sky, a tear rolling down her cheek? Can Sommers believe that we�ve been emotionally affected by this uncooked stew of incompatible elements? So it would seem. For my part, I choose to think that it is not Anna who manifests in the heavens, but Kate Beckinsale stepping out character and, giving expression to our consensus wish, silently imploring, Please, Stephen. For the love of God, no sequel!