Van Helsing

  • Title: Van Helsing
  • Director:  Stephen Sommers
  • Date:  2004
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Genre: Horror, Action, Adventure
  • Cast:  Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh
  • Format:  B/W prologue only, then Color/Widescreen (old)
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“You’ve never been out of the Abbey, how do you know about vampires?” – Van Helsing
“I read.” – Carl

“My life, my job, is to vanquish evil. I… I can sense evil. This thing, man, whatever it is, evil may have created it, may have left its mark on it, but evil doesn’t rule it. So I cannot kill it.” – Van Helsing (re: the Creature)

Van Helsing is much more about style than substance, though as the CGI-heavy film moves along, it does improve – and it has some great moments.

The film opens with a black and white prologue – Dr. Frankenstein is doing his famous experiment to create the Creature, but after it becomes alive, he is confronted by Count Dracula. Dracula kills Dr. Frankenstein, but the Creature escapes with Frankenstein’s body to the famous windmill. There, a crowd of local people confront the Creature with torches, quickly burning down the windmill, presumably killing both Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.

One year later the film opens into full color, and shows Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) chasing Hyde of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fame. Unfortunately, when Hyde falls off a roof he turns back into Jekyll – and dies. Van Helsing is blamed for the murder. However, he really doesn’t have much to worry about because he goes to a supernatural MI6, where the cardinal, like M, is the voice of exposition. M explains that Van Helsing must go to Transylvania to rescue the last members of the Valerious family by destroying Dracula. Due to some sort of curse, that Van Helsing’s Secret Order was also involved in, if Dracula isn’t destroyed before the last members of the Valerious family die – the entire family (including the dead members) will be cursed for eternity. Yeah, OK – it doesn’t make much sense, but plot is more of an excuse in this film, than something that’s well thought out. Have plenty of popcorn and enjoy the show. Anyway, while at his secret headquarters, the Cardinal, like M in a James Bond gives Van Helsing basic info, some clues, and a torn piece of a scroll bearing a mysterious signet – which is identical to the signet on Van Helsing’s ring. Conveniently, Van Helsing has also lost his memory. After getting information from M, I mean the Cardinal, Van Helsing goes to see Carl, a friar with more than a passing resemblance to Q in the James Bond films. Carl (David Wenham) kits out Van Helsing with special gear. However, Van Helsing surprises Carl by requesting he come along to Transylvania. As he is a bookish, scientist-type, Carl isn’t that happy about it.

Van Helsing and Carl travel to Transylvania where they meet Anna, the last member of the Valerious family (her brother had been recently transformed into a werewolf). Anna, Van Helsing, and Carl need to find and defeat Dracula.

There is a lot of CGI in the film, and the entire thing is digitally graded to make it look darker. The action scenes are good to excellent but lack depth because the characters are not that well drawn. This is probably why I haven’t watched the film since it originally came out and I originally purchased the DVD. Anna is strong, capable, and an excellent fighter – but still manages to get captured by Dracula and has to be rescued by Van Helsing. Carl is an excellent character, and his ability to put together information from libraries and stained glass windows is a valuable addition to Van Helsing’s quest. I also liked his character. Van Helsing is cool – especially his costume, and his weapons, but because he has no memory, and the audience for the most part only sees him when he’s fighting – he’s an enigma, so as a character he’s hard to like – despite a good performance by Hugh Jackman.

About halfway through the film, as Anna and Van Helsing are escaping through some water-logged tunnels, they encounter the Creature. However, the Creature speaks, and feels bad for himself because everyone hates him. He also knows Dracula’s secrets. Despite orders to the contrary – Van Helsing not only works with the Creature but in the end lets him go. The Creature shows surprising humanity, and is one of the better things in this film.

Overall, Van Helsing felt like a graphic novel adapted for the screen, though the credits list it as an original film (that is, written for the screen). The visuals were very typical CGI, but at times were impressive. They made have been more impressive in 2004. The entire cast, especially some of the smaller roles, also did a very good job – the acting can’t really be critiqued negatively. The director also at times did some great things. A scene with a mirror in what turns out to be Dracula’s Summer Palace is particularly memorable. Likewise, there’s a hidden door scene that’s far from the norm done seriously in so many films and parodied brilliantly in Young Frankenstein. However, the film also reminded me of The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen.

Special Note:  I have the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which not only includes the film Van Helsing but the original monster films Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man from the 1930s – all of which are worth watching at least once. And the original Frankenstein can easily become a Halloween tradition to re-watch.

Recommendation: Some good elements, but a bit average
Rating: 3 out of 5
Next Film: Wayne’s World

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Frankenstein

  • Title:  Frankenstein
  • Director:  James Whale
  • Date:  1931
  • Studio: Universal
  • Genre:  Horror
  • Cast:  Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • Format: R1, NTSC

“It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive” — Henry Frankenstein 

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? You never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars?”  — Henry Frankenstein

I liked this “monster movie” better than Dracula because the story flowed better. However, that are several parts in the film where it is considerably difficult to keep a straight face, simply because I have seen Mel Brooks’ wonderful Young Frankenstein many, many, many times.

However, getting to the movie, it is of course based on the novel of the same title by Mary W. Shelley, though for the film she is credited as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” (isn’t that ridiculous? I could see Mary Shelley or Mrs. Mary Shelley. But Mrs. Percy Shelley? Why not take all her individuality away.) But anyway.

Henry Frankenstein is an experimental scientist who’s engaged to be married to the local Baron’s daughter in a Bavarian village. But for the last three weeks he’s been shut-up in an abandoned watch tower working on experiments. His fiancee, a friend, and his instructor from university find him there on the quintessential “dark and stormy night” — it’s rainy buckets with thunder and lighting to match.  However, that’s perfect for Henry’s experiments. He and his assistant, Fritz, use the electricity of the storm to bring the Creature to life. But unknown to Henry – rather than the normal brain he requested that he pick up at the local medical college, Fritz was startled, dropped the normal one, and brought an abnormal, criminal brain instead.

The creature cannot speak and has a horrible fear of fire. Fritz uses this fear to torture the creature, who escapes Frankenstein’s care. The Creature explores the world, including throwing a little girl into a lake, while the Baron presses for his daughter’s wedding to Henry. The villager brings his drowned daughter to town; and at the same time, the Creature attacks Henry’s fiancee. It the end, the mayor, the Baron, and Henry form a mob of villagers, and track the creature down. Henry’s captured by the Creature and both end up in a windmill. Henry then escapes, but the mob burns the windmill. 

Frankenstein is a frustrating film – at times the visuals are stunning, especially for the early 30s. For example, Henry’s experimental lab is amazing; and the scene of the burning windmill at the end of the film is also stunning. But at other times the film looks amazingly cheap (when the villagers are running around in the “forest” the sky looks like a painted backdrop). The film is only 69 minutes long, which is quite short. Henry’s fiancee is strong enough to insist she go with her friend and his teacher to talk sense into him about abandoning his experiments, yet on her wedding day she allows Henry to lock her in the parlour, making her a perfect target for the Creature.

Colin Clive, an actor I’ve frankly never even heard of, gives an excellent performance as Henry Frankenstein. And Boris Karloff steals the show as the Creature.

Recommendation:  See it, at least once.
Rating:  3
Next Film:  The Full Monty

Dracula

  • Title:  Dracula
  • Director:  Tod Browning
  • Date:  1931
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Genre:  Horror, Drama, Classic
  • Cast:  Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Listen to them, children of the night, what music they make.” — Dracula, regarding a wolf howl 

“The strength of the vampire is… that people will not believe in him.” — Van Helsing

This movie, along with Frankenstein and “The Wolf Man” (to be reviewed later) are extras on the Van Helsing collector’s box set. It’s nice to see the originals. Dracula itself is a short movie (only 74 minutes) and it really doesn’t make much sense, to be honest. Renfield goes to Transylvania with some papers for Dracula to sign — Dracula is very strange. They take a boat to London, during the crossing there’s a nasty storm, and all the crew are killed. Renfield survives the trip but he’s nuts, eating bugs and spiders for their blood. In London, Dracula meets Lucy, Mina, and John Harker — all famous characters from the novel. There’s also Dr. Van Helsing, who eventually figures out Dracula is a vampire — especially when he doesn’t show up in mirrors, as well as eventually saving Mina by killing Dracula.

There is some very nice direction, especially Dracula’s reaction when Renfield gets a papercut, and subsequently when the rosary one of the village ladies has given Renfield falls into Dracula’s line of sight. Throughout the movie, there’s also a light on Dracula’s eyes, so them seem to glow, weirdly, and that’s quite effective. Dracula also has strong powers of hypnotism, especially towards the young women. Only Van Helsing is able to counter it. Dracula also telepathically speaks to and controls both Mina and Renfield – an interesting idea, not seen in many more recent versions of Dracula or vampire fiction.

Oh — and Mina’s silver gown is gorgeous! The fabric is flowing and the silver color practically glows – I loved it!

Overall, the movie is slow, though fortunately short. I haven’t ever read the book, though I get the impression this may be a more fateful adaptation. Bela Lugosi is actually good as Dracula, but it’s unfortunate that I’m so used to parodies of his accent that it’s hard to keep a straight face at times.

Recommendation:  Overall, such a classic it deserves to be seen.
Rating:  3 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Easter Parade