Van Helsing

dir: Stephen Sommers
[img_assist|nid=979|title=Even for a flick with Kate Beckinsale in it, this is pretty dumb|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=315|height=395]
Not that anyone asked, or that anyone wants to know, but I can honestly say that I’ve never paid to have sex with a prostitute, a working girl, a ‘lady of the night’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a comment on the ladies, I know they do a hard job and they earn their money bringing to fruition the old business success mantra about the customer always coming first. I joke about hookers and cocaine all the time, but it’s just that: a joke. Who can afford that kind of crap when a bottle of decent single malt whisky costs between $60 and $80?

The reason I hold this particular credo, which has nothing to do with morality or personal ethics or anything of the sort, is that I can imagine after money changed hands and business was taken care of, the deed being done, I’d be filled with a profound emptiness inside. It would come from the fact that I had to pay money to get someone to have sex with me, a person who couldn’t possibly even remotely have any tender feelings towards me. Sure, live long enough and you end up having sex with a bunch of people that can’t stand you and whom you can’t stand, for a multitude of different reasons. But at the very least you shouldn’t have to pay cash for it.

Thusly, were I ever in a position of such desperation that such a sexual / financial transaction appealed to me, the fear of that terrifying emptiness inside would be enough to dissuade me in the end. That and my reluctance to potentially pass my syphilis on to other people, of course.

Watching Van Helsing has reinforced this fear of emptiness, except the difference here is that I’m the one that paid AND I’m the one that got screwed.

Stephen Sommers is perhaps a decent director of reasonably entertaining mindless action sequences. He is a terrible writer who could not write a decent plot or even passable dialogue even if the US military threatened to torture him in an Iraqi prison. Of course he’s a hack, we know it, he knows it and the studios know it. They don’t pay him to make art, they pay him to make a certain product and he delivers. He can’t really be faulted for that.

Well, I tell a lie. Of course I can fault him entirely for it. Even in a self-cannibalising industry like moviemaking, surely he could have tried using at least some of his brain’s complementary functions that come free with the packaging and at least tried to put something interesting in there. Instead, he predictably stuck as closely to his original mission statement as inhumanly possible: make a James Bond movie set in the 1800s, use all the monsters from early horror films, leave no more than a few minutes of ‘quiet time’ every half an hour or so, but not too long or too often lest people start to think, and make it so hyperactive that no-one notices the hollowness inside. It’s the same type of crap mission statement he made the Mummy films with: remake Indiana Jones, except devolve the characters completely and make it hyperactive and really boring at the same time.

The secondary objective must have been to take decent actors like Hugh Jackman, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham and (to a lesser degree) Kate Beckinsale and force them to give performances utterly devoid of anything approximating decent acting. It’s quite an achievement. Sommers must be so proud.

I am probably projecting this entirely, but I almost believed I could see it in the eyes of the participants: sometimes all you can do is think of the money. You just lie back or bend over and think about the money. Jackman will probably be able to send his kids to the best university money can buy after this film. Scratch that, he’ll be able to buy a university after this. And if it becomes a franchise, well, there’ll be no stopping him.

Look, don’t get me wrong, I am no money-hating Marxist who might believe that the actors should get paid in potatoes or toilet paper or dead puppies. I very much respect and admire the large piles of money the actors got paid for to grace this extravaganza with their presence. Very touching and wholesome. What I lament is the fact that Sommers got paid anything for this. They at least earned their money having to endure being in such a stupid film. He earned it by ‘making’ this stupid film, which makes him the equivalent of a whorehouse madam, I guess, profiting from the misery of others.

You may be thinking that I went into this knowing full well what to expect, and you would be right, gentle reader. You may have assumed that considering my gargantuan, testicle-rupturingly massive knowledge of contemporary shithouse cinema that I would know exactly how bad a Stephen Sommers movie is going to be just from smelling the advertising. Again you’d be right.

So I confess to seeing this flick for other reasons. And no, it wasn’t just so I could write a scathing review. I saw this solely because a dear friend told me that as stupid as the premise was, and as lacklustre as the acting turned out to be, many of the visuals were amazing, and that if I was to see it at all, it should be on the silver screen surrounded by like-minded moviegoers guzzling down popcorn and carbonated drinks.

Well the cinema I saw it in was devoid of any other patrons, seeing as this film has obviously struck such a resonant chord with audiences, and this was a week after it started screening. Or maybe it was me stinking up the place. Why did it take so long to review? Well, there are only so many curse words one can harvest at a time. If we deplete our natural swear word resources completely, then there will be none left for future generations. You need to give them time to grow back, and thrive. Give that they may grow.

And so weeks after the fact I’ve summoned up the courage to relate its meagre virtues and some of its dumber flaws. Something which I’m sure you’re all wetting yourselves in gratitude for.

I am after all a person that sometimes enjoys the purely visual aspects of film making and viewing. I don’t care if it’s matte paintings or CGI, if it’s well done then I can enjoy it. On purely a superficial level I could wax rhapsodically about the visuals in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plenty of which came not solely from the New Zealand landscape, but from the imaginations of Tolkein, Jackson, Walsh, Boyens the talented nerds at WETA Digital and the countless other people involved. And I would have loved it purely on a superficial level if that’s all it had to it. The fact that, hey, there happened to be a ripsnorter of a story to justify the postcard shots and the action, well, that certainly helped.

Van Helsing isn’t trying to compete on that level, but the kind of shots I’m talking about that justify, what it is now, about $14.50 for an adult ticket and an $100 million plus budget are few and far between in this pic. I could not care less that the action is computer generated. I am from the generation that grew up with computer gaming from a young age and as a form of entertainment and procrastination it is one that persists in my life to this very day. I envisage being a 65 year old cantankerous bastard still playing Deus Ex 47 and Sim City 14000 in the thankfully too distant future. So I have a high tolerance for the artificial and the digitally enhanced.

Still, much of the CGI in this is just out and out crap. Any time the Brides of Dracula assumed bird-like form to attack Our Heroes it just looked terrible, in my opinion. Every action scene contains varying amounts of CGI for that matter, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. CGI is used so much these days that bitching about its use is like complaining about nudity in a porno. It makes the difficult, the dangerous and the expensive to orchestrate, in many cases, safer, cheaper and less time and resource-consuming to do. Still, when done incompetently it breaks our willing suspension of disbelief and takes us out of the story. And looks crap.

For me the decent scenes involved shots of forbidding castles stretching implausibly high into the firmament; the entirely CG Vatican and Notre Dame cathedral and the sequence with Mr Hyde and the obvious nod to Victor Hugo’s more poignant hero, a blizzard-filled sky as our heroes Tarzan around it on mile-long cables that can do virtually anything when they forget about physics and gravity; the sumptuous (and unmatched) masquerade ball, and the most excellent beginning. If I’d only seen the first five black and white minutes of the film, and been told that it was a homage to the Universal creature features of the early years of cinema, I would have believed them. It did look great, substantially better than the rest of the film, unfortunately. If Sommers sought to honour those maestros of early horror (instead of robbing their graves), perhaps everyone would have come out of it a bit better. Instead he’s done little more than take an extended 140 minute dump on their tombstones.

Perhaps I exaggerate a bit. I do remember hearing someone say, one of the female vampires I believe ‘Too bad, so sad’ at one point, and that reminds me that perhaps I’m not exaggerating. There is no decent dialogue in the film. The characters are devoid of reasonable motivation. Little happens that makes sense. What plot there is seems to have been written by the kind of cretin who posts poorly spelled and grammatically laughable fan fiction and movie reviews (hah!) on the net. Actually, it seems to have been written by a bunch of them, all blending their plagiarism and poorly thought out ideas until it becomes a pungent puree with that special diarrhoea-like consistency.

The character of Van Helsing is not an interesting or entertaining character, per se, or really a character for that matter. Again, Jackman, as with Wolverine in the X Men films has to play a laconic aggressive do-gooder without any memory of his past, who fights evil because, um, because he fights evil. Employed by the Vatican in some ultra-secret evil-fighting organisation, he has super gadgets which let him do whatever’s necessary when the script requires it. It’s Bond crossed with Batman without the deep psychological motivation (I’m being facetious) or the women in bikinis that the hero gets to bang.

As the equivalent of that Kate Beckinsale plays an extremely beautiful, exceptionally well-dressed (leather corsets rock) and excruciatingly accented cipher called Anna Valerious. She does that awful Transylvanian accent we have all come to know and loathe over the centuries. She becomes the last of the Valerious clan through circumstances too boring to relate. The Church decides that Van Helsing needs to go and help her out, for, say, two hours or so. For some reason.

See, Dracula, played comically by Roxburgh, hates the Valeriouses. For some reason stretching back centuries. She needs to be killed. For some reason. Then the full horrific extent of Dracula’s diabolical plan is revealed: he wants to be a daddy. For some reason.

Presumably not enough people call him daddy, so whenever he asks the inevitable question as to ‘Who’s your daddy’?, he doesn’t get the level and enthusiasm of response that he requires. So he needs thousands and thousands of vampire gargoyle alien babies to live, LIVE so he and his vampire bitches can be happy.

So, in no order of precedence, we have bits cribbed from Aliens, Bond movies, Sommer’s own crapulous Mummy films which were a poor retread of the Indiana Jones franchise anyway, Coppola’s extravagantly dire Dracula, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (talk about desperation), hell, even the Matrix films. In fact, an afternoon of channel surfing probably garnered Sommers all the ideas he needed for action sequences and dialogue alone. He probably then spent the rest of the afternoon eating pudding and getting one of his daughters to type up the screenplay.

And then, as if to confound me further, as if to anticipate and deliberately counter my arguments in advance, they somehow managed to make one character interesting and sympathetic. Frankenstein’s creation played by Shuler Hensley, bizarrely, inexplicably actually becomes the one sympathetic and likeable character in the entire movie. I actually cared what happened to him and was heartened by his eventual fate! Perhaps I was so desperate for some spark of human connection between myself and something, anything happening on the screen that when he came along I latched onto him almost involuntarily, whatever the reason I thought he was well realised and some of his scenes has a touching poignancy to them. If he had not come along I probably would have formed a connection with Van Helsing’s hat. It was a lovely hat after all. So big and ungainly, the vampire hunter’s sombrero I believe. There is a market there that needs to be exploited.

An additional reason is that the character actually has something to do both with his cinematic origins and Shelley’s Frankenstein, whereas nothing else here bears any connection to its origins on anything apart from the superficial cosmetic level. Sommers clearly had nothing to do with it, perhaps some producer took pity on us.

In the spirit of the complete lack of inspiration or creativity that Sommers is host to, he creates a scenario whereby even in a mythic anachronistic setting he still has to have a jeopardy scenario with a countdown to the equivalent of a bomb going off. Full of danger and excitement, yes?

I don’t exaggerate when I call something dumb. There are so many examples of The Dumbening Syndrome surrounding us in day to day life that we are starting to become desensitised to it. Which is wrong. It’s the thin end of the wedge. One day we’re enjoying crap like this without thinking about it, the next we’re watching television screens overflowing with reality programming and believing that it actually has anything to do with a reality that exists outside the range of a camera and a tv production crew. Send in the fucking clowns, indeed. Oh wait…

They’re. Already. Here…

Dracula is immune to all forms of violence and death dealing that Our Heroes mete out to him. The only creatures that can harm him are werewolves. Instead of a) getting rid of the werewolves, b) not using werewolves as pets, for companionship and to keep his feet warm during the long winter nights, or c) having them spayed, he has a convenient antidote to lycanthropy in a syringe. Which he keeps in a jar full of acid. In another tower of his immense castle. On the off chance that a werewolf attacks him, he has this antidote. To change them back into humans, presumably. Or into pumpernickels, I’m not sure. I might have been dozing and imagined this part, which ends up being the solution to all Our Heroes problems.

It hurts just thinking about the logic of that. Contrivance is one thing. Deus ex machina is another. But this Sommers guy, he wants to render viewers dumber one frame at a time and have us pay him to do it to us.

It’s the same kind of logic that let script writers come up with an idea in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen where Tom Sawyer has to drive across Venice in a newly invented car in order to get to a particular building so that Our Heroes can blow it up with a missile in order to save, I dunno, humanity itself. They should be ashamed of themselves. It’s this level of staggering stupidity story-wise that just angers me. Sure, I know its popcorn trash that is not meant to be thought about after the ride is done, but this is stretching the boundaries of stupidity to new extremes.

Both movies have novel premises that were wasted with mediocre screenplays and a lack of vision in anything apart from the technical sense. And whilst LXG was disappointing to say the least (and downright awful in some bits), it’s still not the waste of celluloid that this is.

Still, I guess shots of Kate in her corset and Hugh’s hairy chest in this era of body hair phobia are enough to distract people. Also, have to give credit where it’s due, a round of applause for the people doing the hair. Amazing, truly amazing. They made Hugh Jackman look like Jaclyn Smith from the original Charlie’s Angels series, and in every scene where Beckinsale gets bumped around, her hair comes out of it looking magnificent. Perfectly coiffured and maintained, I was in awe of it bouncy, full-bodied curls and ringlets. Kudos to her hair. Kudos. Sure, her hair out-acted her, but that’s not entirely her fault. Someone dared her to put in a performance more boring than the one she gave in Underworld, and she didn’t want to weasel out of it. I’d say she won.

I can’t condemn the film entirely. It surely didn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was: a big budget popcorn flick devoid of brains or balls. So the fault is entirely mine, gentle reader, for expecting a film worth watching with more than a casual interest. It is crap, undeniably, but sporadically entertaining when it isn’t trying to mindfuck me with its sheer stupidity and boringness.

So go out and see it. With a ringing recommendation like that, how could you not?

3 times Hugh Jackman looked like he was thinking ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ out of 10.

"Too bad, so sad." vampire bitch #3, Van Helsing