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Photograph by Frank Masi

Have Stakes, Will Travel: Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing goes monster hunting in Transylvania.

Revamp

'Van Helsing' plays a high-stakes game with the Universal monster-movie classics

By Richard von Busack

BEFORE THE TITLES of Van Helsing, the Universal globe logo is set alight, and the blazing Earth fades into a villager's torch, just one of many torches lighting a mob's way to Castle Frankenstein. Stephen Sommers' new Universal monster movie isn't evidence of a new generation picking up the torch. Rather, it's immolation--a burning up of the traditions of the much-loved series of movies.

Here, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), Dracula's nemesis, is an amnesiac working for the Order, an evil-fighting group located in the cellars of the Vatican. Other religions have joined its ranks--Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims. The multiculturalism is welcome after the anti-Arab jokes in Sommers' crummy Mummy movies. Yet it's clear that all religions are subordinate to the Roman Catholics, and it's a priest who sends Van Helsing on his mission.

After an encounter with Mr. Hyde (who was better in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Van Helsing is assigned to Transylvania. With him is his colorless sidekick, a Q-like friar (David Wenham, a dirty-joke version of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter pictures). In Romania, Van Helsing learns about Dracula from the last of a line of Gypsy princesses, played by Kate Beckinsale, who is buckled into what looks like an orthopedic corset. In Transylvania, they encounter Frankenstein (Shuler Hensley) and a wolf man. The creatures serve as cat's-paws for Dracula (B-grade villain Richard Roxburgh, using what he hoped was a luscious Romanian accent). Backed up by a trio of vampire brides--you've seen better damned-soul howling in a community theater production of Marat/Sade--the count is trying to bring life to a brood of rubbery CGI hobgoblins, which rest in gross sacks of tripelike latex hanging from the ceiling.

The complete lack of personality in Van Helsing isn't noteworthy, and neither is the film. The dialogue is as flat as a Saturday-morning cartoon. Van Helsing, looking at a weapon: "This will come in handy, how?" This movie was made, why? It's just one more milestone on the path that's changing cinema into a PlayStation game. When Van Helsing sprays the flying vampire harpies with a machine gun that fires stakes, you expect numbers to appear onscreen every time he hits one of them. There have been other movies that seemed more open about this strategy, but the use of these beloved characters seems particularly depressing. Gone are the sorrow and gravity of Frankenstein's monster, the pathos of Lon Chaney Jr. and the eternity in Bela Lugosi's voice. There are small mercies: the black-and-white pre-title sequence was fun, and Frankenstein's monster is portrayed as well-spoken and sympathetic. Hensley's voice seems similar to Peter Boyle's monster after he got the gift of speech. Sommers probably had the patience to sit through Young Frankenstein, at least. But when Frankenstein's monster is sent, swinging on a cable Tarzan-style, over a CGI chasm, we get more cheese than there is in Wisconsin. Universal has released the old classics on DVD as a tie-in. A nice gesture, but I fear that the sympathy, delicacy and sadness of those old movies will be lost on children who expect stuff to jump out at them.


Van Helsing (PG-13; 132 min.), directed and written by Stephen Sommers, photographed by Allen Daviau and starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, plays valleywide.


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From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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