By Devin Faraci

Universal’s classic monsters were never conceived to be classic. At least not in that stodgy way that they have come to be known – black and white canon, films that are unapproachable to modern audiences. They were crowd pleasers, pulpy B-films from a time when the style of movie making was very different from today.

The idea of taking these monsters and giving them a modern attitude isn’t a terrible one. Unfortunately, it seems like Hollywood has forgotten how to update old fashioned pulp since the days of Indiana Jones, and Van Helsing is no exception.

Gabriel Van Helsing is the Vatican’s secret hitman, dispatched across the globe to knock off the things that go bump in the night, sort of a 19th century Hellboy. He doesn’t remember anything about his past except brief flashes, like a memory of fighting at Masada – in 72 AD. To make his life worse, most of the monsters he offs turn into regular people when they die, making it seem like he’s a murderer to everyone, including himself.

Van Helsing gets sent on a mission to Transylvania to aid the remaining members of a gypsy tribe who have sworn to finish off the evil Count Dracula. I won’t get into the details here, since they’re convoluted and a touch nonsensical, but the Drac wants to get his hands on the Frankenstein Monster because for reasons that are never adequately explained he’s the key to hatching the thousands of little pods that apparently happen when the Count bangs his three lovely Brides.

Mix into this the Wolf Man, in the form of the gypsy prince Velkan, brother to heroic Anna Valerious, and you get something that vaguely resembles Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, only not funny and with more special effects. Not necessarily better, but plenty more. The first thing I want to make clear here is that, while Van Helsing is a bad movie, it is by no means the kind of bad movie that is fun to go see. Van Helsing is an assaultively bad movie, one that hurtles forward at such a speed and with so much noise that it would take the quickest draw Joel Hodgsons-in-training to get really good lines off. But don’t take the fact that it moves briskly to mean that Van Helsing is exciting – it’s incredibly tepid, but in a fast paced fashion.

I’m not sure where to start on what is wrong with the movie, since so much is wrong, so I’ll start with the few things that are right (we’re going to try to think positive here!). David Wenham, who played Faramir in The Lord of the Rings, does a fantastic job as Carl, the Q-cum-bumbling idiot character in the movie who accompanies Van Helsing to Transylvania seemingly because the Pope thought they might need some comic relief. Taking a grotesque and thin character and making him the most likeable thing in the film is a testament to Wenham, who came across poorly in the theatrical version of the Two Towers, but who really got to shine in the Extended Edition. The lesson here is that Wenham has a natural charisma, and when allowed the right screen time he wins audiences.

Shuler Hensley, a stage vet, plays the Frankenstein Monster and seems like the only person in this movie vaguely aware how to ham it up in just the right way. His Monster is a throwback to the well spoken Monster of Shelley, and he delivers over the top speeches full of angst with an almost Shatnerian glee. This movie is dumb, Hensley knows, but while he will play broad he won’t wink at us.

On the other hand Richard Roxburgh seems to have had a terrible argument with subtlety. He plays the screen’s single worst Dracula, and to any other actor this would be a career killing performance. But since most people couldn’t pick Roxburgh out of a line up of pygmies, he should be fine. Not to mention the fact that being the worst part of a truly awful movie means that you deflect a lot of criticism.

Roxburgh’s Dracula is a simpering bitch, given to inexplicably screaming his lines, moaning about how the world is mean to him, and walking upside down just so the wire work coordinator earns his day’s pay. I wasn’t certain how his Dracula could be any less menacing until he turned into a giant CGI monster that looked kind of like a big puppet. Then I knew. I also knew that there would be nothing funnier on film this year than Dracula’s Brides doing some sort of modern dance writhing in the background of all their scenes.

Hugh Jackman has really drawn the short straw with this film. He’s not bad, but he is woefully miscast. Van Helsing is supposed to be a dark and troubled loner who considers himself a killer, a man without a past whose present is an endless series of violent battles with the forces of Satan. Jackman did okay with a similar character in the X-Men films – he managed to tap into a feral ferocity that made you believe Wolverine would fight until shredded. But here he can’t get the brooding down, probably because the movie is so cartoony light. You never feel like Van Helsing has a dark side – he’s like the sweetest boy at church all dressed up for Halloween.

This is the point of the review where you dismiss this all as a review from someone who is too snobby to enjoy the film. I wish that were the case. Van Helsing is boring, plain and simple. While the film is full of incident and action sequences, it all rings hollow. And it’s for a simple reason – the CGI.

It’s vogue to bitch about CGI effects in movies. This past week at the Troy press day Peter O’Toole talked about what a tremendously wonderful tool he sees CGI as, having experience working on logistical nightmare epics like Lawrence of Arabia. Its’ a good point, but one easily countered by movies like Van Helsing which use so much CGI as to blur the line between animated and live action movies.

The action scenes are all done with digital stunt people, robbing the audience of the gee whiz thrill of seeing a daring stuntman taking an impossible jump. All the elements in the big coach chase sequence (one of the stupider moments in an aggressively stupid movie, wherein a horse drawn carriage explodes on the road like a Ford packed with TNT) are CGI, and the digital sheen removes all connections with this world. You no longer wonder “how did they do that?” You know it was some guy sitting at a computer for two months, mainlining Red Bull and Doritos. Once the excitement of wondering how the filmmakers tricked you with an effect is gone the effect needs to compensate in other ways, with realism or extremeness (is that even a word? How about X-Tremeness?) – Van Helsing has none of that.

In fact, the quality of the effects are endlessly poor. The Wolf Man, while no doubt a feat to the people who follow the minutia of digital rendering, looks really fake. I would have frankly preferred a fake looking guy in a suit over a fake looking PS2 Boss. Frankenstein’s Monster, being a guy in make up, comes across very well, even if he does more than slightly resemble the Monster from Young Frankenstein meets Frankenberry. Meanwhile, the “pygmy bats,” the offspring of Dracula and his overemoting Brides, look like Goldy the Gargoyle from Sandman comics, only slightly less cartoony. And the opening baddie, Mr. Hyde, appears only moderately better realized than the one in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although completely ripped off from that version.

In the end, the biggest shame about Van Helsing is the way that it disrespects the classic versions of the monsters. None of them look like their black and white counterparts, and the Wolf Man has absolutely nothing in common with Larry Talbot and his mythology. Frankenstein’s Monsters is a take on the novel version, and nothing like the grunting Boris Karloff classic. Dracula has none of the suaveness or charisma of Lugosi. What’s the point? These are generic versions of these characters, missing any of the elements that have made them immortal in our imaginations. Stephen Sommers, tired of defacing the Universal monsters one at a time, has begun taking them on en masse, and manages to make a film dumber and more stultifying than either of the Mummies.

3.8 out of 10