Van Helsing (2004)


   

Our rating: 3 out of 5

Rated: PG13

 
reviewed by Charity Bishop
 
        

Every year there's a movie ten times more fun than the rest of them. This position has been held in the past by such blockbuster hits as Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean. This time it's Van Helsing, the biggest, most insanely enjoyable romp since Jack Sparrow set out after Barbossa and his crew of miscreants. In the midst of a violent rainstorm, villagers storm the castle of Dr. Frankenstein (Sam West). The scientist has been robbing local graves in order to build a creature. His project has been overseen by Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who secretly has plans to use the monster to his own evil end. When the spark of life is ignited, a furious quarrel between Frankenstein and Dracula accumulates in ultimate bloodshed.

 

One year later Paris is tormented by the demented Dr. Jeckyll, a psychopathic murderer. A paid assassin named Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) has followed him from London. He intends to take the man alive if possible, but fails. This incites the people of Paris into screaming murder. The general public are not aware that such monsters exist. They do not believe in such folklore as vampires, werewolves, and wild beasts. The Roman Catholic Church intends to keep it that way. Many years before, Van Helsing was found on the church steps and raised in the name of God to rid the world of evil. He has no memory of the past, only a signet ring bearing a flying serpent. The world calls him a murderer since his victims return to their original state when slain. His alliance with the church is kept a secret. Rome intends to send him forth into the far corners of Romania to hunt a legendary evil.

 

Dracula haunts the Transylvania countryside. His brides terrorize the locals. When Dracula was first conceived of a murdered man, there was a pact made with God for his destruction. The Valerious family was sworn to end his life before the last of their kin breathed a final breath, lest they spend eternity in Purgatory. All have failed and only two survive. Van Helsing and Carl, a good-natured priest (David Wenham) journey to the northern country to offer aid to Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale). Her brother was lost battling a werewolf, and only she stands between Dracula and his ultimate triumph. If he can succeed in slaying her, none will be able to withstand his influence. They have tried crosses, stakes, and holy water. Nothing impairs the legendary fiend, nothing but the most shocking of revelations... as Van Helsing is due to discover.

 

From the first instant until the last mesmerizing shot, Van Helsing keeps up nonstop action and running gags. The humor was pretty much lost on the audience I was with, but I found it extremely funny. It helps keep the tone light for what could have been a very dark, morbid movie. It deals with vampires, werewolves, monsters, and other things that "go bump in the night." Many scenes are played out to be frightening. Even though I didn't like some of the scenes that well, I was always having fun, and that's what's important for a summer blockbuster. The script isn't as brilliant as it could have been but holds up well beneath smart acting. The action scenes are well put together, flashing back and forth between various characters in peril. What's also nice is that it avoids clichs and doesn't get raunchy. Vampires by legend have certain sexual connotations and while the movie mildly explores this, it never becomes overt. I was also pleased at the lack of innuendo and fooling around between main characters. The entire cast is brilliant, but David Wenham makes the movie. He totters around in his floor-length habit cracking jokes, making the most amusing of expressions, and generally showing the audience how much fun he's having.

 

While the film does have a few content issues, they are lighter than anticipated. There is some mild brief language and abuse of deity. Christian audiences will be offended that most of it comes from "Brother" Carl. When Van Helsing chastises him for "cursing," the monk says he's not yet a true priest, only a friar, and can curse all he likes. He uses the same excuse for spending the night with a pretty Transylvanian girl. The implication is obvious but there's no actual content. Anna tangles with Van Helsing and briefly winds up straddling him on the ground. Dracula's brides all show large amounts of cleavage. So does Anna at the infamous masquerade (which consequently is one of the best scenes in the film). There are a couple of mild innuendos. When in flight vampire females appear nude from

a distance. It's the same as in X-Men -- no graphic details but the illusion of nudity. Dracula has three brides and conversation revolves around their offspring, nasty little gargoyle-like creatures. When attempting to seduce Anna into becoming one of his wives, Dracula runs his hand up her cleavage and onto her neck. His brides kiss and caress him in one scene. One of them licks Anna's face as she prepares to bite into her neck.

 

The movie is very violent with lots of hand to hand combat, people being thrown through walls, out windows, slammed over the head, attacked by flying creatures and carried off, mauled by werewolves, and bitten by vampires. One of Dracula's brides is shown drinking blood from a goblet and marveling over "the vintage" taste of a dead villager. A man loses one arm, then is impaled through the chest and falls to his death. Two monsters attack one another, the stronger finally biting the weaker in the neck, thus killing him. All three "brides" come to untimely, gruesome ends. One is shot with arrows dipped in "holy water," which melt her wings; she returns to human form, then to ash as her skeleton rapidly decomposes. Another is graphically impaled by flying stakes after an explosion; a third is gutted (implied). Whenever they desire blood, their face contorts to reveal saliva-dripping fangs. Dracula becomes a winged monster. Werewolves shed human skin in disgusting transfigurations as they morph into beasts. Gargoyles burst into green goo when impaled; Dracula's inhuman servants are set ablaze.

 

There's also some controversial Christianity, including whether or not one man's actions can redeem lost souls from hell, talk of pacts with Satan (Dracula was given eternal life by Lucifer), and various emphasis on spiritual imagery. A cross burns and melts when held by Dracula. Holy water manages to vanquish one vampire. Salvation is based on works rather than Christ, at least in this version of the tale. If the same grotesque imagery of the director's past films (The Mummy) does not bother you, and you can handle a story with a hearty emphasis on vampires, Van Helsing is a ton of fun. It's not going to win any original screenplay awards, but it's fast, funny, and just the kind of popcorn movie that you walk out of smiling. Not only that, but Dracula is one of the coolest cinematic villains to come along in ages. One might even say thousands of years.

 


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