June 18, 2004

Van Helsing

The Outside Food Critic is a little depressed.

The Outside Food Critic has applied for jobs from Texas to Toronto, and hasn't had even an interview in months. Outside Food Critic's checking account is hovering somewhere around Absolute Zero (that would be on the Celsius scale—oo, look, a temperature joke!). And, even though every surface has been scrubbed, Outside Food Critic's house is still infested with tiny black ants. Life is bleak, and the cat is annoyed.

I had no choice but to throw myself bodily into a car wreck.

Van Helsing posterGoodbye, Cruel World

Van Helsing
Starring: Hugh "frequently barechested" Jackman, Kate "spunky heroine" Beckinsale, Richard "dead sexy" Roxburgh, David "not playing Faramir in this movie" Wenham, Robbie Coltrane as the voice of the anti-Shrek, and the Addams Family.
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
MPAA says: PG-13, for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality. Frankly, I don't find toothy batlike creatures breathing on the back of someone's neck particularly sensual.
Running time: 132 minutes
Release date: May 7, 2004
Seen at: Tinseltown South, where the staff this night were alternately disinterested, incommunicative, and impolite. Shown in blur-o-vision for the previews and first two-thirds of the movie, which then turned into "completely indistinguishable blobs" until, after some protesting, the projector was finally focussed on the screen. When approaching this theatre from southbound I-35, allot an extra 5-10 minutes to get past the perpetually backed-up traffic light at the overpass. This movie was shown, appropriately, in Theatre 13.

More of a fender bender, really
I'd been told to expect an awful movie with lousy special effects. Having seen the bargain-basement effects in the trailers myself, I was sure other reviewers must be on target about Van Helsing's awfulness.

Boo!Van Helsing takes on every horror-movie cliche it can find and serves them up in an uneven but ultimately enjoyable junk-food meal. If Hellboy is a free-spirited comic book, Van Helsing is live-action anime. It starts off poorly, as if trying to dispense early on with a flurry of marketing department-mandated video-game activity before freeing itself to chew through the goofy plot. It's not straight-out camp, more B-movie plus comedy—a cousin to "Abbot & Costello Meet [insert every possible monster here]." The movie opens in a black-and-white 1930s/Young Frankenstein tableau, with a crowd of easily confused torch-wielding villagers apparently led by Riff Raff.

Once the movie gets past showing off all the weaponry that will be in the video game, and once it has set up the scenes you'll have to fight through on your Playstation, Van Helsing finally settles into a fast-paced story. Implausible, illogical, weird, overwrought, and relatively fun, particularly if you're a fan of any of the actors.

Had Van Helsing shown up on television, I doubt there would have been many complaints. Of course, watching something silly on television doesn't require the huge outlay of cash of an evening at the movies.

Anna & Van Helsing Meet the Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, etc. etc.

Vampire Hunter D Gabriel Van Helsing arrives at a beleaguered village, and the scene goes something like this:

Torch-wielding villagers: Kill the stranger! For no good reason! Rargh!
Anna (Kate Beckinsale): His name is... Van Helsing.
Torch-wielding villagers: Oooo.
Outside Food Critic: It's Vampire Hunter D!
Torch-wielding villagers: Oooo.
Riff Raff: Kill him anyway!

Fortunately, the village is attacked, cows fly through the air, and people are otherwise distracted.

But, who is this Vampire Hunter Van Helsing, you ask?

Anna and her heelsVan Helsing is an action hero with a flop of anime-hero hair, who has forgotten his past and is driven by orders from a secret Vatican-based society. The Vatican's ecumenical anti-monster division, which seems to be run like Maxwell Smart's Control headquarters, sends Van Helsing and two bagfuls of destructive toys out to destroy the supernatural evils threatening the world in 1888. On this journey he also has the help of his trusty gadget-inventing sidekick, Carl (David Wenham with a bad haircut). Kate Beckinsale is Anna Valerious, the requisite heroine, squeezed into a leather corset with her decolletage fluffing out the top. Her family has spent nine generations attempting to destroy Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who is henpecked but is cooler than cool and scary as the devil himself and has a nice ponytail holder. If Anna and Van Helsing don't succeed, all nine generations of Valeriouses will be consigned to Purgatory forever. Oh, and Anna has a dishy brother, Velkan Valerious (Will Kemp), who has the courtesy to remove his shirt at various junctures.

Velkan Valerious (Will Kemp)Thus, Van Helsing has journeyed across the Carpathians into Transylvania to a small village populated by vampire-chow (you'd think people would relocate; maybe they're having as much trouble selling their condos as I am). Along the way, Frankenstein (Samuel West), his Borg-like piston-legged monster (Shuler Hensley), furry werewolves, Igor, Jawas local Tatooine union 101, and some truly unnattractive children variously menace, slaughter, explode, growl, howl, catch fire, and waltz. Plus, there's the cow.

The special effects manage horror of the "nightmares for the next ten weeks" level when they are simple and on the small scale. Through most of the movie, though, I expected Donkey and Puss-in-Boots to peek around a corner and invite the CG-critters out for lunch. As for the plot and Van Helsing's hidden past, you'll know what's coming, but it hardly matters. There are occasional spooky moments (creepy, not simply "jump out and yell boo!"), and there is even some elegance and spine-chilling beauty. Then there are the painfully obvious bits, the expected homages, and, well, a distinct lack of logic. Most disappointingly, the climactic confrontation is edited poorly, robbing the audience of some of the satisfaction of seeing the battle between hero and villain through to the end.

David WenhamIn case you needed proof that every chase scene ends the same way, even a horsedrawn carriage can explode in a fireball if tipped over the right sort of cliff.

To See or Not to See: Worth a look on video or DVD. Rent it, don't buy it.

Sitting through the credits so you don't have to: The theatre brought the lights up in the middle of the credits so that one of the staff could poke around under my seat (repeated questions about what they were looking for were pointedly ignored), so the screen was hard to see, but I doubt I missed anything fancy after the first few minutes of creepy lettering.

Outside Food: Garlic bagel chips and a bottle of red fruity drink pretending to be wine pretending to be a cut-crystal wineglass poured up by Frank Langella.

Blurry Previews: Catwoman; The Day After Tomorrow in a new trailer showing lots more of the nifty Armageddon effects; M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, where everyone wears yellow felt but appear to have names and not numbers; The Stepford Wives with plenty of Macintosh product placement; and Matt Damon looking almost completely adult in the Bourne sequel.

Van Helsing photos by Frank Masi © 2004 Universal Studios.

Posted by OutsideFood at June 18, 2004 11:59 PM

Since the site isn't updated regularly, and since the comments feature is constantly abused by spammers, Comments are now disallowed. Sorry!