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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

Movie review: Van Helsing *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For a decade or so, from around the time Hitler came to power in Germany until just after he was defeated, Universal Pictures had a run with horror movies that elevated junk material to practically art deco eye-popping. It set the genre standard. The finest practitioners were savvy subversives like James Whale (The Bride of Frankenstein) and Tod Browning (Dracula). And if the middle class were not actively searching out avant garde aesthetics in the time of Hope and Crosby, they were getting it anyway, and appreciating it, too.

Tendrils of electricity danced across monochrome skies, and pitchforks jutted into the fog, and the villagers (who now all look strangely like the Croatian relatives Woody Harrelson never knew he had) were always good for starting an angry mob - and bringing their own torches. These films did more for crawling shadows than any bedroom closet creaking open at 3 a.m.

Universal's point guard was Dracula; his go-to teammates were Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. And that bench was deep: Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. And hunting them down, or at least Dracula, was a 60-something fuddy duddy, Van Helsing, created by author Bram Stoker, and never at a loss for a long-winded speech about the pains of living a long, lonely, undead existence.

Van Helsing, the new $148 million, three-monster pileup from The Mummy director Stephen Sommers, has no time for speeches. Or for stuff like story or characters or charm, never mind art. It's a frantic concoction that's only afraid of one thing: that you'll be bored if anyone stopped to make sense of anything, or, gasp, establish some creepiness. It works basically like this: vampire brides swoop down, bare fangs, everyone runs, vampire brides fly away, someone delivers a minimum amount of explanation, the heroes exit the scene by swinging across a gorge. And the ironic thing is you're bored anyway, by an action film that never understands even a jet traveling 500 miles per hour gets monotonous after a while.

Sprinkling in the monsters like a barrage of video game baddies to be knocked away, and giving scant attention to their transformations, the rules that govern them, or even their stalking - for the life of me, I can't remember Dracula biting anyone's neck - Van Helsing improbably focuses on a dull vampire slayer, but gives him a little mythology: He works for the Vatican, which heads up a clandestine demon-hunting society with representatives from every religion. Call him Heaven Boy.

He's a stake-slinger with a Stetson hat, long leather trench coat, rotary saws at the ready, a vaguely sinister background, and a movie star physique. Now he's Hugh Jackman, and his Errol Flynn delivery (and a promising black-and-white opening homage to Bride of Frankenstein) is the only thing that links Van Helsing to those atmospheric horrors from the 1930s and 1940s.

If this Van Helsing were to take on, say, Lon Chaney, Jr.'s slow, frothing Wolf Man, Van Helsing would be over in a 15-second digital volley of machine-gunned silver bullets. So he gets episodes. Besides, "Van Helsing" fits neater on most theater marquees. Though I suspect, if you cracked through the wafer-thin cranium concealing that title, if you peeled off its werewolf fur, unraveled its bloody bandages, and fought off its armies of demon harpies stretching as far as computer-generated effects can see, I suspect you would find the real title, and that is something a lot closer to:

Van Helsing Meets James Bond Meets Count Dracula Meets Count Chocula Meets Dr. Frankenstein Meets Dr. Frankenstein's Monster Meets the Wolf Man Meets Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) Meets the Birds Meets Alien Meets the Cast of Fiddler on the Roof Meets Indiana Jones Meets Wesley Snipes Meets the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Meets the X-Men Meets Tarzan Meets the Gabor Sisters Meets Most of the Digital Effect Experts Residing in Silicon Valley Meets the Entire Marketing Division of Universal Pictures Meets Young Frankenstein Meets Acute Hearing Loss.

I can't even hear myself typing this review. But my gripe here, though, isn't a matter of egregious crimes committed against classic horror movies that probably have Bela Lugosi spinning in his grave. My problem is Van Helsing, a big, noisy, and dreary stab at speeding-up and action-izing those lurching old monsters, wants to become something for everyone and ends up nothing for anyone. It's not really a horror movie or an action film; it's not a story so much as a series of scenes strung together that can be disassembled and later reassembled into any combination of sequels, video games, TV series, DVDs, and toy lines. It's not a film. It's what multinational corporations now call "content." And there's good reason you sympathize the most not with Van Helsing but Frankenstein's Monster (played by stage actror Shuler Hensley, who was Jud in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma! Go figure).

Dracula (Richard Roxburgh of Moulin Rouge) is a one-snit blood sucker. The Wolf Man (Will Kemp of Gap ads) looks great tearing off his skin (the first time, less so the 43rd time). But Frankenstein's Monster is a poignant creation with dancing green bolts of electricity where a heart should be. Basically, Dracula is Michael Corleone, the Wolf Man is James Caan. And Frankenstein's Monster is Fredo. He's misused, misunderstood, stitched together from lots of dead things, and his noggin is always popping apart at its seams, much the way Van Helsing feels like an elaborate act of improvisation and brainlessness.

Why does Dracula want Frankenstein's Monster? Because, um, he needs him to jump start his thousands of vampire babies. Where does the Wolf Man fit in? He's, ah, Dracula's henchman. Why is Frankenstein's Monster in a block of ice? Good question. Why does Igor prod the Wolf Man with a lightning rod? "It's what I do?" Igor replies - it's as true a moment in this as any.

"What do you get out of it?" someone asks Van Helsing (and it's another good question). "I don't know," he responds. "Maybe some self-realization." Oh, please. He's sent to Transylvania to help the last member (Kate Beckinsale) of a cursed family that has been trying to kill Dracula for nine generations - nine generations! But he's really there for the actual residents: the computer-generated special effects, which become like wallpaper, and which, the more nuanced they get, somehow grow ever more machinelike and uninvolving.

There's a vampire ball that has some style. Maybe one or two striking images. But that's the paradox of modern blockbuster filmmaker: It can be beautiful and deadly routine. Sommers, who had a little more fun with The Mummy popcorn pictures, eventually reveals himself to be a man who loved monsters in principle only. He just loves climaxes. You can't imagine he's ever been able to sit through any movie until the end, and his decision that you can't either is insulting, lowest-common-demoninator filmmaking of the worst (and most expensive) sort. Van Helsing is the kind of picture where people start gathering their coats to exit at the first hint of closing credits, the kind of summer gizmo that audiences exit without talking or looking happy. You'd never know they just saw a movie. And this one's undead in big ways, and if it only had a heartbeat, you could ram a stake through it and turn it over. This pleasure sucker is done.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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