Skip to main content

Van Helsing, I don't want to go to Transylvania!


Van Helsing
(2004)

There comes a point in a director’s career, particularly when that director is both writer and director of his movie projects, when the blame for his failures must be levelled squarely in his direction. No letting him off the hook by placing the blame on studio meddling or unmeetable deadlines. The peculiar situation of Stephen Sommers is one in which, as his autonomy grew, so uncontrollable budgets usurped any aesthetic, stylistic or narrative coherence. And Van Helsing is the overblown disaster, all of his own doing it should be emphasised, that lay in wait as a natural result of this.

The warning signs were there well beforehand. Sommers had found success through adaptations of a couple of classics of children’s literature; The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book. They were reasonably popular, and the latter in particular was a money-earner for Disney. So, he went on to steer a film that remains the highlight of his career; monster movie with a capital “B”, Deep Rising. It’s a movie where he manages to judge the knowing tone just right, helped considerably by the unlikely return to leading man duties from Treat Williams. It should be noted that he wrote all of these, as he did the two Mummy outings that followed. It was these two films that gave him the clout to make anything he wanted with Universal.

The first Mummy is an agreeable-enough, sub-Indiana Jones popcorn flick, but with none of the love and care Spielberg brought to the daring archeologist (the first few adventures, at least). Rather, the story, tone and pace lurch with wild abandon from scene to scene. Sommers’ hyperactive approach has little time for character-building or plot nuance. In that sense, he is very much the churn’em out successor to the ‘30s serials that Spielberg and Lucas were bringing far more acumen to. The Mummy Returns, which came two years after the first installment, is an overblown, CGI-mess even by Sommers’ half-baked standards. The effects frequently looked half-finished and, worse, seem to have resisted all attempts by the plot to keep them under control. It was a big hit at the box office, of course, but Sommers seemed to be exactly the kind of high-energy, low-quality director that was gaining an unfortunate foothold at the beginning of the millennium (see also Brett Ratner).

And so, he was handed the keys to Universal’s kingdom. He had revitalised one of their monsters. Why not let him take on all of them? Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman… We should probably be grateful that the film was his undoing (he has had only one film released since). Van Helsing wasn’t an outright flop, but it was a production that had so much money thrown at it, it would have to have made double it’s gross worldwide to be considered a success (the budget was reported at $160m, the gross was $300m). The proposed sequel and planned spin-off TV series (Transylvania) both floundered and, over-night, Sommers was persona non grata (when many of us were just surprised it had taken studios so long to recognise the obvious).

And yet, it’s not like Sommers hadn’t seized upon a decent premise. Or even a strong choice of leading man (even if picking Hugh Jackman was based purely on post-Wolverine cachet). And it isn’t as if he has no idea of how to direct; it’s that his choices are so hyperbolic that they become anti-dramatic. As a writer, his work is rudimentary at best; perhaps he realises this deep down and consequently feels the need to douse his failings in that department under a bombardment of visual effects and semi-comprehensible action. His cinematographer, Allen Daviau, worked with Spielberg a number of times during the ‘80s, but Van Helsing’s uniform sheen of colour-corrected greens and blues is as uninviting as the cartoonish CGI that erupts from every frame.

For Sommers, only excess will suffice. And so, appropriately, the script reflects this attitude. Van Helsing isn’t just a vampire hunter, he’s a Vatican-sponsored monster masher who has been alive for centuries and suffers from convenient amnesia concerning his distant past (as crassly as one would expect, this isn’t Abraham, but younger brother Gabriel; purely for reasons of Sommers’ production company retaining the rights to the character… that no one is interested in exploring further). Because heroes these days need to have a mysterious past and superhuman qualities. And he is equipped with James Bond gadgetry and even a Q-figure to tell him what they do. So too, Dracula doesn’t just want to haunt Transylvania; he wants to take over the world with his progeny, given life through the experimentation of Baron Frankenstein. And, er, something to do with a pet werewolf.

You can see Sommers with all the Universal monsters to play with, trying to connect the dots between them in as extreme and ludicrous a fashion as possible. It’s just a shame there’s no sign of Gill Man (but we do see Mr Hyde, who was not one of Universal’s pantheon). Every element is introduced at the level of “shouting” and builds from there to a crescendo. It’s a wearying script, so one-note that the freneticism becomes banal.

This is, if possible, even more true of the camerawork and editing. Sommers’ CGI-enhanced visuals require a perpetually airborne camera, be it crashing towards grounded characters are following flying harpies.  Or just trailing falling monsters as they show little regard for gravity, geography or physics. There’s no weight to the scenes, reflecting the absence of weight within the drama. After a while, it becomes quite confounding that the director seems so clueless about straightforward drama. Yet he also seems to have scant understanding of pacing, tension and simple dynamics between figures within the frame. I said that he appears to understand the basic requirements of direction, and he does, but his choices are willfully destructive to engaging an audience. He continually positions and moves the camera for maximum impact, but he is rarely serving the drama by doing so. And it is always used that way. The result is simultaneously both lifeless and frenziedly steroidal.

The design on the film is similarly slapdash, with anything half decent usually buried under a mess of lazily fake-looking CGI. The werewolf rips off his human skin to transform but there’s no impact; it’s just CGI gloss. The nude harpy/vampires of Dracula’s harem lack any hint of eroticism (even though the choice was clearly intended to be suggestive) because they are so CG-crappy. And the less said about Mr Hyde, the better. The connecting sections of the head of Frankenstein’s Monster are quite nifty, but the overall design is lacklustre. Igor looks like no one got beyond sticking a bit of putty on Kevin J O’Connor’s face. And the less said about the vampire spawn, the better. The costumes of Van Helsing and Anna are ridiculously sumptuous leather ensembles, over-designed costumes that only fit with the film because every aspect is so predictably attention-seeking in its artifice. The sets are likewise all about flashy grandiosity, invested with zero atmosphere.

Hugh Jackman is always dependable, but completely lost within this mess, particularly when saddled with a character this rudimentary. Kate Beckinsale is virtually indistinguishable from her role in Underworld. Richard Roxburgh delivers his usual scenery-chewing assault on dignity and good taste as Dracula, just as he did playing Moriarty in the previous years The League Extraordinary of Gentlemen. Only David Wenham’s comic relief friar escapes with any credibility, somehow able to inject a lightness of touch when the dialogue (uniformly awful) provides no such opportunity (it’s a consistent disappointment that a film so perpetually inane is also so bereft of an engaging sense of humour; Sommers attempts to write gags, but they are crashingly obvious and flounder as badly as every other aspect of the film).  The relentless colloquialism of the dialogue becomes annoying very quickly.

Van Helsing is a relentlessly hyperactive, gaudy ADD monstrosity. Characters fly about the screen as dismissive of the laws of physics as Sommers’ script is of dramatic integrity. The tiresomely excessive result feels every one of its 131 minutes. Sommers returned with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in 2009, replete with the same kind of car-crash direction. The film was a big enough hit to ensure a sequel, so Sommers is now free to inflict continued retina damage upon audiences across the globe. The director returns this year with Dean R Koontz adaptation Odd Thomas. He’s also attached to a remake of When Worlds Collide. Just imagine the incomprehensible results that will yield.

*

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…