Continued from here.

THE WORST SCRIPT…EVER

Van Helsing is a textbook case of how Hollywood kicks writers in the goodies. In
this case, they had such little respect for writers they didn’t even bother to
hire one. Instead, Sommers took on the whole job – directing, producing, and
pounding on typewriter keys while obviously doing something else - maybe approving the craft-service menu.

Did Van Helsing ever have a chance? The concept – a
mysterious hero takes on the greatest Universal monsters – seems like a
fantastic idea, and this book is about championing the idea after all. But was
there ever a point before the insufferable movie was released (or, more
appropriately, unleashed) when Van Helsing was full of glorious possibility?

Nope.

You know you’re in trouble right on the first page of
Stephen Sommer’s script when you read this:

A MAN spins around into a CLOSE-UP, his elegant face is
covered in soot, sweat and taut lines of exhaustion. But his eyes sparkle with
an incredible intelligence, bordering on madness. This is DOCTOR VICTOR
FRANKENSTEIN. And then he yells one of the most famous phrases in film history.

VICTOR

He’s alive… He’s alive!! …. HE’S ALIIIIVE!!!

That’s nice, Stephen, but “one of the most famous phrases in
film history” you mention is actually “It’s alive!” Now, that’s nit-picky,
sure, but when you’re raping the greats, at least do so with accuracy.

The strange thing about reading the script for Van Helsing
is that dialogue which sounded absolutely ludicrous when spoken onscreen is
even worse in print. A prime example is Dracula’s whining speech after one of
the Brides is killed it’s important to note that nowhere does the script
actually refer to Dracula as a complete pantywaist, meaning that may have been
a decision made on the set while the director and actor Richard Roxburgh were
ripped to the gills on absinthe):

DRACULA

No! I have no heart! I feel no love. Nor fear, nor joy, nor sorrow. I am
hollow! Soulless! At war with the world and every living soul in it! …But soon,
… very soon, the final battle will begin.

In the film it comes across like Roxburgh is doing Murnau’s
Nosferatu as interpreted by Fire Island summer
stock, but on the page it comes across much more like something a pimply, pasty
goth would say while in the throes of a really good Vampire: The Masquerade
gaming session. Come to think of it, Van Helsing in general is like sitting
through a really bad role-playing session.

Depressingly, the awful “humor” in the film is present in
the screenplay. Sommers actually wrote out in advance that one of Dracula’s
Brides, a vampire living in 19th Century Transylvania
would say – out loud – “Too bad, so sad.” Or the classic “You can’t go until I
say you can go… and I say you can go when you are dead!” Watching the movie you
can perhaps think that these kinds of jokes arose from the antics on set, that
the energy of the production was such that these kinds of attempts to be zany
or anachronistic (and that line’s anachronistic today in the sense that it’s around
fifteen years out of style already) came from the cast and crew having fun. The
script shatters these illusions. Sommers has these jokes in there the whole
time, and they made it through rewrites and polishes. Someone read that page
and thought those lines were apt.

Perhaps saddest of all is that the script is constructed
without much thought or care for logical soundness. Let’s briefly focus on the film’s truant
logic, demonstrated right from the opening prologue in which Dracula confers
with Dr. Frankenstein regarding the animation of dead tissue. Drac has determined for Whatever Reason that
only Frankenstein’s Monster is powerful enough to bring his dormant vampire
brood to life. Since the experiment
appears to be a success, the good doctor is impulsively exterminated by the
fanged scenery-chewer, because there’s absolutely no chance he’ll need his
expertise in the future, right? Alas, an
angry torch-wielding mob of villagers answers that question mere moments later
when they chase the Monster to a nearby windmill and set it aflame. A full year later, Van finds the Monster
still hiding in the charred remnants of the windmill — it seems that with all
their posing and marauding, the vampires couldn’t be bothered to search there
all that time, despite having watched the Monster plunge into the fiery
structure, which is located about a hundred feet from Dracula’s base of
operations.

For a diabolical villain, Dracula has all the common sense
of a high school sophomore with his first six-pack. For example, our heroes encounter Igor and
learn that Dracula possesses a “werewolf cure.” Because even though a werewolf
is the only thing that can destroy him he still likes to use them as henchmen
and keeps the cure around in case one ever gets tired of being bossed around
and just decides to just disembowel him (by this point, even Jackman is wearing
an expression of “What the hell?!?”). In
addition, Dracula conveniently keeps the cure in a tower on the complete opposite
side of his fortress, because you would want to keep the only thing that could
prolong your existence as far away as possible, in a jug filled with highly
corrosive acid.

And then there’s the errant physics, perhaps best
illustrated by the constant swinging that occurs throughout the film. (And
let’s specify in advance, to make sure you’re not too horrified to keep
reading, that we’re not talking about monster orgy parties here)Everyone in the
film (yes, even the Monster) swings at some point — Sommers appears to have
confused “suspension of belief” with actual suspension, or he just fell in love
with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and wanted to emulate it in some way (he also has
his characters walk on walls). Sommers
may have little interest in the laws of gravity, but he’s infatuated with excessive
swooping on wires and/or smashing through glass.

If you thought that all the parts that would make Van
Helsing coherent or even interesting ended up on the editing room floor at the
behest of some cigar-chomping out-of-touch-with-art studio exec concerned only
with the bottom line, you’d be wrong. There are almost no deleted scenes on the
DVD because Steve’s script don’t contain no fat (i.e., characterization or
feasible plot). Here’s what Mr. Sommers says about his screenwriting talents:

“[M]y scripts are pretty tight from the beginning, and I try
to make sure that there are no story holes. But sometimes you realize, oh, if I
take this little part out there will be a hole, but the audience doesn’t care.”

Actually, Stevie, we think it’s
you who doesn’t care.

There were some edits made to early drafts of the script. At
one point it included a scene with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Speaking
to CHUD.com, Sommers said, “I originally put a moat around Castle Dracula and I
thought, what will be in that moat and then I thought, oh, Creature from the
Black Lagoon! Then I realized I was pushing it there, so I got rid of him.”

Pushing it there? At any rate, Gill Man is really the
only Universal monster to escape. Lucky, lucky Gill Man. Efforts to contact the
Creature from the Black Lagoon’s representatives were unreturned, but the
outgoing message mentioned something about celebrating a close call.

JUST FULL OF BAD IDEAS…

Van Helsing’s Wolf Man is the least changed of the monsters.
The film’s Velkan preserves some resemblance to Lon Chaney Jr’s Larry Talbot –
an innocent man cursed by a werewolf bite (and Sommers even keeps the original
film’s endearing and groundbreaking racial diversity by making Velkan himself a
gypsy, just like Bela Lugosi’s character). But that’s pretty much where the
comparisons end – Van Helsing’s Wolf Man is a mess of pixels whose ancestry is
more Altered Beast than Universal backlot. The original Wolf Man was so cool
because he was more man than wolf; Sommers loses that by aping the American
Werewolf in London take on the beast – a great, modern interpretation (and
still 100 times better looking than the ILM-canthope), but owing little to the
classic look.

Sommers’ amended laws of lycanthropy make little sense as
well, because apparently a werewolf is not only susceptible to lunar effects
but also drifting cumulus. The full moon still triggers the transformation from
man to beast, but only on a clear night will he remain a werewolf – as soon as
clouds float past the moon, it’s back to human form (which still doesn’t
explain why the film has werewolves running around in broad daylight). These
werewolves also tear through their human skin and then completely shed their
fur with each transformation, which seems like a neat idea from a design
standpoint but is rather confounding to watch (this would also mean being
locked up on a night with scattered clouds would result in a room blanketed
with furballs and sheathes of skin, and no one wants to clean up that sort of
mess). To make matters even worse for these piteous beasts, a new full moon
occurs every couple of days in Sommers’ version of Europe.

Dracula in Van Helsing is almost too embarrassing to
discuss. There have been hundreds of variations on the classic Bram Stoker character,
including some truly dreadful performances – Frank Langella, Zandor Vorkov
(Dracula vs. Frankenstein), the pompous powderpuff on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
– but Roxburgh is without a doubt the worst. Besides having three brides, the
Sommers version – surprise! – bears absolutely no resemblance to the Bela
Lugosi take. While Lugosi was portraying a dark, dangerous foreign sexuality,
Roxburgh is playing a foppish Eurotrash atrocity. In the 1930s, the “Count”
part of Dracula’s name gave him a regal bearing; in the 21st
century
it makes him a whining, petulant moron. It’s also explained that Van Helsing’s
Dracula is a relative of the Valerious family, which sort of implies that his
vampire is essentially a hairless winged werewolf. It might be worth noting for
the trivia buffs in the reading audience that Roxburgh appeared in two movies
in two years alongside bastardized versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr
Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character – the first was 2003’s The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen, a movie whose pure crappiness would go unrivalled for almost twelve
months.

But perhaps the character that best personifies Sommers’
utter lack of interest in the Universal classics is Frankenstein’s Monster. In
Mary Shelley’s novel, the Monster speaks eloquently – Boris Karloff’s Monster
couldn’t be further from that. Yet Sommers goes back to the source material,
preferring it over the movie version that he claims to care about so much.
Beyond that, he chucks any bit of the iconic Monster make-up – the flat head,
the neck bolts, the black outfit with the elevator shoes – for some kind of
absolutely goofy domehead thing that makes you wonder why Dr. Frankenstein
decided to power his creation with one of those plasma globes from Spencer
Gifts. It’s tragic that Herman Munster is more faithful to Universal’s Monster
than Sommers’.

The whole Munster
family ends up having more to do with the Universal monsters than anything seen
in Van Helsing. It turns out that Stephen Sommers wasn’t making a movie based
on beloved characters he grew up with – he was making a marketing opportunity
hinging on name recognition. Go rent The Monster Squad. At least that film can
teach you some important Wolfman anatomy lessons, namely that he does indeed
have nards.

The subject of “What Went Wrong with Van Helsing” is so
ludicrously vast you could get a PhD in “Why Van Helsing Sucks” and still not
scratch the surface of the problem. To even begin to cover the subject, each
page of this book would have to reproduce one frame from Van Helsing and we
would have to complexly analyze the stink that positively bursts from that
image. We can’t imagine that you’d want to read such a thing so let’s just
examine some of the grotesque errors, heinous misjudgments and sheer hatred for
filmmaking that went into creating Van Helsing.

MAYBE THE PROBLEM ISN’T THE
SCRIPT, MAYBE IT WAS THE CGI!

Once upon a time, the Industrial Light and Magic name alone
brought awe to moviegoers. From the days of the first Star Wars film, when they
glued model battleship kits together to construct an Imperial Navy of Star
Destroyers, to the new computer age, when a few hundred dual-processors and
some young mouse-jockeys mainlining Red Bull and Starbucks could turn Robert
Patrick from cold liquid steel to a human being (we’re still not sure which is
his natural state and which is the CGI state), ILM has defined the cutting edge
of bringing fantasies to life onscreen.

So what happened with Van Helsing? If we can leave behind
our incessant geek snobbery for just this second, we would like to ask ILM, in
all seriousness, if everything is OK at The Ranch. The work in this movie is
just beneath you. A sizable percentage of the film (creatures, stunt men,
environments, etc.) merely consists of wire-frame models and bump-mapped textures,
which wouldn’t be so bad if the end result wasn’t comparable to that found in
local commercials for carpeting companies (admittedly the FX look slightly
better on a computer monitor, which may explain why any of it passed whatever
quality control was in place before anyone considered projecting the film on a
screen ten feet high).

Is it Daddy, ILM? We can only imagine how poorly George
Lucas has taken the endless drubbing of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. We’ve
got a whole chapter on him coming up – we hope that doesn’t lead to more
trouble at home for you. Look at it this way, though – we could have done a
whole book on him, but we’re going to give Catwoman some space too.

Whatever the cause of the delinquency at ILM, they aren’t
the only ones to ultimately take responsibility for the CGI in Van Helsing.
Certainly a large helping of scorn, derision, ridicule and hatred must fall on
the already-burdened shoulders of Stephen Sommers. See, it takes a special kind
of director to overload a movie with so much unneeded CGI that the whole thing
teeters on the edge of turning into Toy Story 3. You know, one without Pixar.
God help us.

But people, CGI is just a tool. When we say that Van Helsing
has too much CGI, what we’re really talking about is a tool used poorly, Van
Helsing uses it to create joyless, incoherent and headache-inducing action.
Sommers uses his CGI indiscriminately, creating sets that could have more
easily – and more convincingly – been created by a couple of Teamsters with a
few cans of paint. The effects in Van Helsing are sheer overkill. Besides the
rubbery character movement and unconvincing backgrounds, there’s so much
oppressive eye candy happening that it becomes unbearable, and by the time hero
and the villian have their final battle, you’d probably have more emotional
investment in reaching the bonus stage of any Mortal Kombat game. This is one
instance where the argument of “Well, it may be stupid but at least it looks
good” fails. It’s the same argument they make for Paul Walker.

Read part three here.

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