MAD: Van Helsing

(2004 Universal/Watched on DVD)

There is such a thing in technical reviews as “Reference Quality”‘meaning that a disc is exemplary for colour balance or picture resolution, film grain or audio mix. Van Helsing is Reference Quality for millennial rubber. For the uninitiated this term, coined by me, was when digital artists at the turn of the century spectacularly failed, over and over again to craft onscreen characters (usually for stunt work) that convinced the audience they were real in any way. Skin was always pallid and sparsely detailed, eyes were dead, unfocused orbs, bodies flopped about like weightless rag dolls, there wasn’t an atom of mass between them all, and backgrounds, light sources and subject never meshed, leaving every effect painfully obvious. It was garbage, things have moved on, though not without some of the most venerated series’ being touched by this condition. Spider-Man, Harry Potter and holy balls was Star Wars a hopeless case.

I was hoping, when I fired this up, that having seen *Dark Universe: The Mummy*, that I would feel much more charitable to this *Blade for Kids* or *Hellboy for Chumps* which is entirely what it is, but I’d forgotten what a carnival of truly shocking CG it is. It’s as though Steven Sommers, in every production he helms, looks at the first pass of each creature and says “Brilliant! Print the film!” “Sir, are you sure? We have many more rendering and detail stages to get through.” “No point, it looks brilliant now.” “Sir this is a notch above Reptile in Mortal Kombat” “Wow, that’s my benchmark for quality and you already beat it. No, don’t do any more work, these are beautiful, now what’s for dinner?”

What’s for dinner is Richard Roxborough’s acting, which is the warmest ham you will ever sink your fangs into, as a Dracula who flings himself around his gothic castle in a whirlwind of loud, ostentatious self pity, flanked by a small army of jawas and three sex crazed vampiresses. Honestly I think he and Gary Oldman were drinking mead in a tavern in Suffolk one night and Oldman was waxing on about how eccentric and loopy he’d played Vlad the Impaler for Frances Ford Coppola, and his next words were clearly “I don’t think anyone could ever top that overblown performance”. To which Roxborough replied, “Hold my beer”.

It is saved in part by Hugh Jackman, who is almost CRIMINALLY handsome in this. He’s a monster hunter affiliated unofficially with the James Bond branch of the Catholic church in the late 18th century, but approaches everything with a blunt “Get er done” attitude, perfect for the young teen boys this is aimed at. He was fresh off playing Wolverine in X-Men 2 and had really settled into the leading man stardom by this point, owning each scene, despite being surrounding by wacky batshit. He also has a mane of long, silky chocolate hair you could just tousle and braid all night. He’s like some kind of undead-slaying Fabio.

We find out everything about the man with a multi-part explanation dump (one of six hundred and twelve within the film) that takes place after the first lame-ass action sequence where he takes down a nasty Shrek in the bell tower of Notre Dame cathedral. It’s Mr Hyde of course, but this is after Doctor Frankenstein has had his windmill laboratory burned down whilst arguing with Dracula over his monster, but *before* the werewolf turns up. And in this manner Universal spunked all of their monsters at once, leaving nothing for a potential sequel. I think the only reason they didn’t cram a Mummy in there was that they were still rolling with the Brendan Fraser series at the time.

Nearly everyone aside from Van Helsing SCREAMS most of their lines in outrageous Transylvanian accents that make the Count from Sesame Street seem Shakespearean in comparison. It’s hard to perform with a tongue you haven’t prepared for, so they must instead simply SHOUT.

And yet in comparison with truly tedious clag like Dracula Untold, I, Frankenstein and Dark Universe: The Mummy, it’s still really quite entertaining, prompting Sharon and I to laugh out loud repeatedly, less at the intentional comedy quips, more at the mishandled drama. Dracula thundering “Allow myself to introduce… myself.” Or similar wording, but still coming off like Austin Powers.

Six horses jumping over a destroyed bridge at an angle that tweaks the already tender nipples of physics like it’s Victorian Speed. A shot that prompted Sharon to exclaim “That werewolf has no balls! He just has a flat furry area!” Kate Beckinsale’s magic hair that remains, glossy, lustrous, curly and perfect every minute of her sumptuous screentime. A DVD that switches layers at the exact moment a beloved support character dies, inadvertantly draining any remaining air out of the drama. David Wenham laying his dignity on the line time and again, peaking at the jester outfit, worn for absolutely no reason! It may be for a costume party, but everybody else looks fabulous, straight out of Masquerade (Phantom, not Vampir: The). Kevin J O’Connor taking wordiness to new depths as Igor. Just having Dracula’s overall plan explained to me in the final sequence by Sharon, because absolutely nothing about it makes any logical sense. It’s bunkum! Ludicrous, groan-inducing, hilarious bunkum!

And it ends, after a completely unnecessary fridging, with the line “Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, in memory of my Dad.” Which is so sweet I can’t possibly bear this silly film any ill will.  I can only imagine Sommers Snr. liked a monster movie or two.. he’d have loved this, it’s six!

Author: Alex Shaw

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