Van Helsing
directed by Stephen Sommers
(Universal Pictures, 2004)

Monster movies have been done straight. They've been done campy. Sometimes, they've been done very, very badly. But rarely have they been done with such a sense of self-aware fun as with Van Helsing.

Van Helsing features three or four of Hollywood's top movie monsters and, of course, the eponymous vampire hunter created by Bram Stoker and, for the purposes of this film, reinvented as a general adventurer with a mysterious past and a slayer of things unholy. Those who demand strict continuity and logic in their movies will consider it a failure. I went to the theater hoping to enjoy myself, and I did. (My fiancee, who gave me "looks" the entire way through the film, grudgingly admitted later that, yes, she enjoyed herself, too. She denies it now, of course.)

The movie begins with a fairly exact, black-and-white recreation of a key scene from the classic Frankenstein. But then Dracula walks into the scene and things start to go ... off. Cut to Paris, where Van Helsing (a dashing Hugh Jackman only slightly removed from his X-Wolverine persona) is chasing down Mr. Hyde (closely mirrored on his recent appearance in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, although with a vastly different outcome) before taking a few lumps from the Vatican (who gives him his orders). Once Van Helsing and the inventive friar Carl (David Wenham) share a James Bond/Q moment in the catacombs below, the odd couple is off to Transylvania to nail the dread vampire.

There, the last two members of the heroic Valerious family are woefully unprepared to handle a werewolf attack despite generations of practice. Meanwhile, the local villagers, who cower at the shadow of Dracula's three scantily clad brides, prove quick with a pitchfork when a stranger comes to town. Still, Van Helsing is there to slay a monster, and he won't let mere village folk stand in his way. Anna (Kate Beckinsale), now the last scion of Valerious, reluctantly serves as his sidekick. And so, they're off to the castle to face Dracula, Dracula's brides, Frankenstein's monster, Igor, the Wolfman and scores of vicious little vampire bat-babies, who sometimes explode into greenish goo.

Van Helsing is a nonstop assault of visual effects, improbable developments and over-the-top scoring by Alan Silvestri. Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King) gleefully and unapologetically rams action and CGI grotesqueries down the audience's throat from start to finish, borrowing heavily from the classic films that inspired him at every turn. And critics the world over tripped over each other in their hurry to write gleefully and unapologetically negative reviews.

But no. Van Helsing is fun, and funny; the humor is quirky and fairly restrained, unlike the action sequences, soundtrack and rampant sex appeal (Beckinsale, Josie Maran, Elena Anaya and Sylvia Colloca for the guys, Jackman, Richard Roxburgh and Will Kemp for the ladies). Add lush landscapes and settings (some real, some manufactured) and exquisite costuming for additional spice.

More action-farce than horror-drama, Van Helsing is entertaining for people who go to movies to be entertained. If plot analysis is your passion or Oscar-worthy acting is your pride, look elsewhere. If you want a fistful of popcorn and a big grin on your face, give this a try. It's an enthusiastic tip of the broad and floppy hat to monsters and monster slayers who deserve a fresh look now and again.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 5 June 2004

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