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…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

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.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …