Submitted by: slave2moonlight

Van Helsing

Hello again, loyal readers! Slave2moonlight here! Yes, amidst my numerous duties as storyboard/sketch artist for the independent werewolf film “Lycan Rising,” I finally managed to squeeze in some time to do a new review for The Werewolf Cafe. The subject for this moon’s review is no less than the recent big budget mega-movie, “Van Helsing!” And what a movie it is! One thing this movie cannot be accused of is a lack of ambition! Of course, it IS a Stephen Sommers flick. Stephen is fast becoming one of my favorite modern directors in fact, alongside that Star Wars guy, the Indiana Jones guy, and the Sleepy Hollow guy, among others. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” and the Mummy flicks are also huge faves of mine by Sommers, and “The Jungle Book” is good fun too. But, let us now get directly to the point: Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing.”

The movie opens with the modern Universal logo, which then switches to black and white for the fast-paced flashback that kicks off this fast-paced film. The year is 1887, and the villagers are storming Frankenstein castle with torches and pitchforks in a scene that lets you know exactly what sort of movie you’re watching. “Van Helsing” is a popcorn movie, pure and simple, inspired particularly by the classic horror films of Universal Studios, with a Hammer Studios style (especially “Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter”), and a little James Bond and “Vampire Hunter D” thrown in. The villagers in question are Transylvanians, their anger ignited by the evil experiment taking place in the castle at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein himself, and under the watchful eye of his evil benefactor, Count Vladislaus Dracula. For reasons yet unknown to the viewer, Count Dracula has been sponsoring Dr. Frankenstein’s efforts to harness the life-giving power of electricity in the form of a monster constructed from the bodies of 7 dead men. However, once the experiment is a success, the two-faced count lets his true nature show. Frankenstein’s reluctance to allow his creation to be used for evil forces Dracula to put the bite on him (ouch, sorry). This disturbs the now living creature, who knocks Dracula into the fireplace with a piece of laboratory equipment and storms out of the castle with his father in his arms.

Van Helsing Rule Number One: Fire doesn’t work on Dracula.

The villagers pursue the Frankenstein monster to an old windmill (classic), and, as he looms over them from the top screaming a very operatic “Whyyyyyy!!!,” the windmill is set ablaze. Just then, the crowd is frightened away by four horrific figures emerging from the clouds. They proceed to land before the burning mill and weep at the loss of their dream. They are Dracula and his three brides. Very cool opening, though campy at times and thoroughly hammy. Richard Roxburgh’s Dracula takes some getting used to, but with repeat viewings he can really grow on you. Two of Dracula’s three brides, Josie Maran and Elena Anaya, can suck me dry anytime. Silvia Colloca is a bit too mature, and downright scary, for my tastes.

Fast forward one year, to a world that is still dark, but now in color, where we witness a wanted man named Abraham Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) trailing another man known by two names: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The setting is Paris, nighttime, and the trail leads to the belfry of the Notre Dame cathedral. Here, we learn the nature of Van Helsing’s work. He is a monster hunter, and he brings ‘em back dead or a live, which often results in him being mistaken for a murderer. In the big fight scene that follows between Van Helsing and the hulking Mr. Hyde, we learn that Abraham is an easy-going character, much more likeable than the usual tough guy hero personas. He’s also a religious man, though he has issues (including a loss of memory reminiscent of another famous Hugh Jackman hero), and most importantly, he’s the best at what he does. Clad in a dark leather coat and wide-brimmed hat, armed with spinning tojo blades and a sharp wit, Van Helsing makes short work of Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll, and the cathedral’s famous Rose Window.

Avoiding capture by the French police, Van Helsing makes his way to his home-base of sorts, the Vatican City, Rome. Through a secret door in a confessional booth, after some chastising and grumbling back and forth with Cardinal Jinette (guilt and remorse take their toll on Abraham), Van Helsing takes us into the secret lair of a holy order made up of all the religions of the world on a mission to eradicate the monsters that plague our planet. At this point, Cardinal Jinette explains Van Helsing’s newest mission to him, simultaneously divulging the details of the plot to us, the audience. It seems that the last two members of a line of Transylvanian nobles, Gypsy Princess Anna Valerious and her brother, Velkan, are in dire need of help to destroy Count Vladislaus Dracula. The fate of the souls of their entire bloodline rests on accomplishing this task, and now they are down to two. Then, in a sequence right out of a 007 film, a quirky young friar named Carl (David Wenham) introduces Van Helsing to his new “ahead of their time” array of gadgets and weaponry. Before the scene is over, Van Helsing has wrangled Carl into the mission as well.

Cut to Transylvania, where the aforementioned gypsy prince and princess are about to spring an elaborate trap to catch a werewolf. A CGI werewolf, but possibly the second coolest looking werewolf ever depicted on film(the first being in this movie also)! Naturally, despite some very cool action and werewolf footage, things don’t go as planned. The werewolf does get nailed with a silver bullet, but not before taking Velkan over a cliff with him and down to the icy waters below. Her heart sinking, the lovely (but not quite as lovely as on the slide back at H.Q.) Princess Anna looks on and prays for help. Luckily, Van Helsing is on his way, sidekick Carl in tow. Their arrival is not a welcome one, however. The Transylvanian villagers, the same ones we saw storming a castle one year earlier, are wary of strangers. They prepare to kill Abraham and Carl on the spot, with Princess Anna giving the orders, but are interrupted by the vampire brides on a mission to kill the final Valerious. In the process, we finally get a good look at how hot the brides are. Unfortunately, the price is the loss of Josie Maran far too soon in the movie (and with one of the worst CGI effects I’ve seen in a while). Killing Josie, or Marishka, as she is called in the film, earns V.H. some respect, though he is still not accepted with open arms. It is expected now, that the vampires will be more violent than ever.

The two remaining brides return home to Dracula’s secret castle, where we are reintroduced to the count, in color this time. He mourns the loss of his bride for about two seconds, walks around on the ceiling, does some ranting, gently reprimands the hideous Igor(played by the always fun and creepy Kevin J. O’Connor) who is torturing a werewolf behind a curtain, and then we’re back to a scene with Anna and Van Helsing. In Anna’s castle, Van Helsing and the princess toss their tactics at each other while flaunting sexual tension. Unfortunately, they don’t come to an agreement, resulting in Van Helsing spraying Anna with some wicked cool knockout Binaca in the hopes that she’ll have no choice but to use his plan of waiting till morning to hunt. I guess it wares off too soon though, because Anna wakes up and gets to work. Van Helsing catches up with her just in time to chase off her brother, the new werewolf, before he could do any harm during a failed attempt at warning her of Dracula’s plans. Van Helsing goes after the beast, but instead has a run in with Top Hat, the creepiest guy in town, who ends up meeting his end at the hands of the werewolf. While Abraham attempts to kill Velkan the werewolf, Anna catches up with him, and the two have it out about people shooting at her brother... After some bonding, the monster hunters soon find themselves heading in the direction of Frankenstein castle to help Velkan and put an end to the Count. While snooping around within the castle walls, they uncover Dracula’s secret plan. He has been trying to use Frankenstein’s machine to bring his children to life; hundreds of hideous, gargoyle-like babies, born dead and hanging from the ceiling of the castle in slimy pods! Using mortal humans as conductors has been fruitless, so Dracula begins to experiment on Anna’s werewolf brother, Velkan. The creatures are suddenly brought to life, and Dracula sends them out to feed, with his brides teaching them. As Van Helsing goes after Dracula and Anna goes after her brother, the little Dracula babies swoop down and attack the village below. Van Helsing attempts to stake Dracula, but instead of celebrating, the two heroes find themselves fleeing Frankenstein castle, outnumbered by vampires, werewolf Velkan, and the creepy Dwergi, Dracula’s goblin-like henchmen.

Van Helsing Rule Number Two: Silver stakes don’t work on Dracula.

Van Helsing Rule Number Three: Crosses don’t work on Dracula, but they do burn.

Well, after that fun little adventure, Van Helsing and Anna stop for some wooing over a bottle of absinthe, both having learned something from their recent experience. Van Helsing has learned a bit more about his mysterious past (and apparently, this guy has been fighting evil for a long time, well over a thousand years in fact), Anna has learned that the best thing for her brother is a quick death, and all the vampire babies exploded from an insufficient electricity supply, so no major characters are worse off for the visit. In fact, Carl even gets a little action from a villager girl whose life he saved! Typical friar... Anyway, while reflecting on the events of the previous night, Carl makes a significant discovery in the Valerious home. The young friar accidentally finds a hidden clue: a magical painting depicting two knights in battle, one transforming into a werewolf, the other into a bat-creature. Simultaneously, Anna and Van Helsing make a discovery of their own. While discussing the mystery of how to kill dracula and swigging back green liquor in the ruins of the old, burned down windmill, Anna and Van fell through a weak spot and landed in the middle of the Frankenstein monster’s secret hangout! Yes, that guy is still alive! Now that morning has come and the two have regained consciousness, they find themselves face to face with the man-made man. He is in no mood for polite conversation, so Van Helsing knocks him out with a blow dart. V.H. seems to love knocking people out. Before the creature passes out, however, he manages to reveal to them the secret of his existence. He is the key to life for Dracula’s children, and there are thousands more waiting to be given life in Dracula’s own, hidden castle.

When we next see Frankenstein’s monster, he is being loaded into a buggy led by an impressive team of Transylvanian horses, Carl accompanying him. The plan is to take him to Rome, where he can be kept safe by the Knights of the Holy Order. They don’t get far before they are attacked by Dracula’s brides and his pet werewolf. Good thing the buggy Van Helsing is driving is only a decoy. Anna is driving the real one. After his team of horses makes a supernatural jump across a crevasse with Van Helsing hanging on, his buggy goes over the edge and explodes, unleashing an arsenal of flying stakes, one of them nailing a bride right through the heart. That’s two down, one to go. Thankfully, the beautiful Aleera survives for a while longer! Back up top, Van Helsing has reconnected with Anna, and together they fight off Velkan the werewolf. The beast gets killed, but not before he has spread his curse to Van Helsing himself! And, just when things seem darkest, Anna is carried away by Aleera, forcing Van Helsing, Carl, and Frankie to go on a rescue mission to save her.

In Budapest, Van Helsing and his companions encounter Aleera again, with whom a trade is arranged: The monster for Anna. To keep the monster from objecting, Van Helsing knocks him out, of course. They hide him away in a tomb at a nearby cemetery, then head to the Halloween Ball where the trade is set to take place. There’s treachery afoot, however, as it turns out that everyone at the ball is a vampire. The rescue of Anna is a success regardless, thanks to one of Carl’s greatest inventions, a light source with an intensity equal to that of the sun. Unfortunately, Dracula and a few of his cronies survive and manage to get their hands on the monster after all. As they sail away for Dracula’s castle, Van Helsing, Carl, and Anna look on from out of reach. Things continue to grow more intense, as the curse of the werewolf begins to make changes in Van Helsing’s mannerisms and abilities. When the heroes are back at the Valerious castle, they make a mad rush to figure out the location of Dracula’s secret lair. Van Helsing takes a closer look at one painting in particular, which Anna’s father had considered the secret to Dracula’s home. Van Helsing notices a missing piece and fills it in perfectly with a scroll given to him by Cardinal Jinette. Now, the inscription can be read, opening the portal to Dracula’s hidden castle. Through the mirror that appears on the wall, Van Helsing and his friends discover a snow covered mountain top with an ominous castle at its heart: Castle Dracula. Anna, Carl, and Van Helsing carryon, with the intention of bringing their mission to an end, one way or another.

With no apparent way to enter the great fortress, Van Helsing takes hold of his friends and makes a series of supernatural leaps up and over, causing both his partners to worry about the progress of his condition. They come across the wretched Igor first, then the Frankenstein monster imprisoned in a block of ice. The monster informs the heroes of a werewolf cure that Dracula keeps in his castle. Why does Dracula have a werewolf cure? Because, as Carl quickly realizes by remembering the painting he saw come alive in the Valerious castle, the only thing that can kill Dracula is a werewolf! Van Helsing forces Igor to take Anna and Carl to the cure while he attempts to free the monster and go after the count (after a passionate kiss, of course), but things just keep getting in their way. Before Van Helsing can free the monster, enough lightning is conducted through him to bring Dracula’s thousands of remaining children to life, making the death of Dracula the only way to kill them. More bad news: Igor traps Anna and Carl in the room holding the werewolf cure, and Aleera soon arrives to finish them off. When the jar of acid holding the cure is shattered on Aleera, some remaining fluid is used to melt the bars of the room, allowing Carl to escape with the syringe. Anna doesn’t manage to get around the quick-healing Aleera, but soon, with Carl’s help, the Frankenstein monster arrives to lend a hand (accidentally killing Igor on the way). Meanwhile, back in the laboratory, the clock has struck midnight, and Van Helsing’s transformation has begun! Just as Dracula is about to put an end to Abraham’s meddling, he realizes what is about to happen. Van Helsing transforms into the coolest onscreen werewolf you’ve ever seen, despite the whole CGI thing, and a panicked Dracula transforms into a hideous bat-creature in defense. The two start wailing on each other, and it’s quite a sight to watch! The clouds are untrustworthy though, and at one point, the moon becomes hidden again. This works out for the best, as it gives Van Helsing a chance to catch Dracula off guard. He transforms into his human self too, so he can try some of his usual Dracula psychology on Van, but soon the moon is out again, and before Drac can think twice, his throat is ripped out by the super-badass Van Helsing werewolf. Dracula is destroyed, his children explode in mid-flight, and Anna, having just finished off Aleera permanently, arrives with the cure, but werewolves are just to quick. Carl enters the laboratory room just in time to see the huge Van Helsing werewolf hovering over Anna. As Carl prepares to drive a silver stake into the creature, Van Helsing turns to face him, stops his arm, and roars ferociously. Carl sees the empty syringe in his chest and the lifeless body of Anna, and backs away. A look of concern comes over the beast’s face as he looks back to the subject of Carl’s anguish. Taking the girl’s body up into his arms, Van Helsing lets out a mournful howl and transforms back into the man he once was.

A funeral pyre burns on a cliff above the ocean that Anna longed to see. As the Frankenstein monster sails away on a raft, his two friends, Abraham and Carl, mourn over their lost comrade. A mist from the fire awakens Van Helsing’s senses, and his gaze is directed to the clouds. There, he sees the spirit of Anna reunited with the family she knew she would see again someday. The two heroes look towards each other, their missions completed, and so it ends. A darn good movie.

As I said in the beginning, Van Helsing is a “popcorn flick.” Much like “The Mummy Returns,” “Van Helsing” is a thrill-ride of a movie. It’s a special effects laden action-adventure based on the icons of Universal Studios horror. The point of a film like Van Helsing is to have a good time while watching it, and on those grounds, it’s a huge success. Now, I’m not one to praise computer animated characters in live-action films. I confess, a great many of my favorite recent films rely heavily on computer generated characters, but I would almost always prefer audio-animatronics and other real-life effects over CGI, especially with werewolves and other horror related subjects. Why? Well, because I very rarely encounter CGI effects that aren’t obvious, and how can you get a chill from something you KNOW isn’t there? CGI effects are best when used in conjunction with real elements, and it’s always better when the real outweighs the CGI. “Van Helsing” is different though. Yes, there are computer effects in this film that bother me, the death of Marishka, the mouths of the vampires (I prefer the old-fashioned kind), etc...., but these were a few points in a movie heavily laden with CGI. In a film with so many computer effects (think along the lines of the Star Wars prequels), it almost becomes more like watching a painting, making the CGI characters seem much less out of place than they appear in a film like “An American Werewolf In Paris.” With Van Helsing, so much of the backgrounds and effects are CGI that the pure CGI characters seem to blend in so much better than something that is merely pasted over a world completely real in every other aspect. Thanks to Stephen Sommers’ obsession with “Sommersizing” every aspect of his films, the CGI creatures are far less distracting and far more believable. And, one has to admit, you just can’t get great werewolf moves like that with costumes or animatronics. These things are fast and fierce, and the coolest looking werewolves I’ve ever seen. Their transformations usually involved ripping the human flesh off their bodies, which was actually cooler than I ever thought it would be (probably because it wasn’t done in a gory way). And, though I don’t love this new breed of werewolves that climb walls and columns like a panther or something, at least that was kept to a minimum here.

Effects issues aside (since you either can take CGI characters or you can’t), this film is top notch for what it aims to be. The cast is perfect. Who doesn’t love Hugh Jackman? I’ve already raved about my two favorite vampire ladies, and Shuler Hensley was such a noble monster (I’d love to see his performance as Jud in Oklahoma sometime). Everyone in the cast was a perfect compliment to Hugh Jackman. I’ve never been big on Kate Beckinsale, but this is one of those films where you can’t help but be charmed. And, oh, the music! Alan Silvestri is just awesome! Definitely, a movie for the collection. Not high art, but a perfect choice for a carefree evening of fun and adventure! I sincerely hope a sequel has not been ruled out! The one thing that irks me is that I had several of my own stories conjured up for possible comic book format, some of which actually involving werewolves that hunted vampires and the whole idea of a werewolf bite being deadly to a vamp... Oh well, beaten to it again. Now I’ve discovered Constantine, another idea I had previously conjured up and am rather disturbed to find already exists... I gotta start copyrighting stuff!

Anyway, Van Helsing is available on a great DVD (fullscreen or widescreen, be careful) with two commentaries (no, neither feature Hugh or Kate), a tour of Dracula’s castle, outtakes, other behind the scenes treats, and a nice little look into the character of Van Helsing, the rival of Dracula since the two personalities were first cooked up by Bram Stoker in the 19th century. You can also buy Van Helsing on VHS, or get an Ultimate Edition DVD that includes the original Universal classics “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Wolf Man,” along with a couple extra bonus features. There’s even an animated DVD prequel to Van Helsing entitled: “Van Helsing - The London Assignment.” I believe this deals with the story of Van Helsing going after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I definitely need to pick up that one someday. Van Helsing is also available in video game format and in the action figure realm. I have a few of the figs, and they’re not great, but they could be worse. Sadly, the werewolf I liked the least of the three in the film, Velkan, is the only one they’ve made toys of so far... Those other two werewolves, those guys rocked! Van Helsing: If you like fun werewolf movies and can tolerate CGI, I highly recommend checking it out!