Continued from here.
Before Van Helsing came out in theaters, Universal already
had a videogame and a direct-to-video cartoon crossover ready to go. They were
planning on sequels, and there was even a proposed spinoff TV series that would
utilize the movie’s costly Transylvanian village set.
We don’t want to get into some kind of a nostalgic funk
here, but we’re old enough to remember a time when movies weren’t made to be
marketing juggernauts, selling as many ancillary products as possible. We
remember a time when movies were made to get coke and hookers for Robert Evans,
or maybe a stromboli for Francis Ford Coppola. And our fathers (and their
fathers before them) tell us of a time when movies were made because the guys
who owned the studios actually liked movies.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – there’s a whole
chapter to come where we decry the forces of marketing and commercialization in
the moment, let’s just keep looking at Van Helsing. To Universal, which is no
longer just a movie studio but also a theme park and a music label and a secret
government program to create an army of stem cell warriors, Van Helsing wasn’t
a movie, it was an advertisement. At no point did someone at Universal worry
that their classic monsters were being abused – the movies can be (and in fact
were) re-released on DVD for massive profits! No one worried about the
incoherence of the plot or motivations of the villains – the videogame tie-in
needs as simple a story path as possible! The film is only the first part of a
revenue stream that the company expected to fill its coffers.
Of course, the good news is that it didn’t work this time
(although this is also why Van Helsing is maybe the ultimate modern shitty
movie – more on that in a minute). You won’t have to worry about turning on NBC
(a recent Universal merger partner) and being subjected to Law & Order:
Helsing movie ever made. The DVD cartoon already escaped, though. Beware!
The problem is that when a movie is not looked at as a piece
of art but as a piece of commerce, you’re going to end up with a Twinkie –
something mass produced and awful, designed only to hit a market need.
THE SOMMERS OF OUR DISCONTENT
We’ve gone after the man’s script, and we’ve gone after the
man’s CGI, now it’s time to look at the man himself. We can sit around all day
and point fingers at the Universal honchos and the System and capitalism and
the shifting of the magnetic poles, but at the end of that day not only will our
arms hurt from pointing so much but we’re going to have to agree that it’s all
Stephen Sommers is a strange fellow. Looking at him one
would never guess that inside his head rested the most destructive force to
ever approach cinema. And he’s a nice guy; we’ve met him. He seems like the
kind of filmmaker we’d root for. He loves all the same old movies we do, even
going straight to Ray Harryhausen for his Sinbad movie. Perhaps it’s why we’re
so rough on the guy. He’s an empowered fan of the right stuff. Oh, or maybe
it’s because Van Helsing made us yearn for Dracula 2000, which is unthinkable..
Sommers has made bad movies in the past. Van Helsing is by
no means his first foray into terrible – it’s water he’s been treading a while,
It just turns out this is the movie that’s the prize-winner. His first two
films were bad, but in very boring ways. His adaptations of Huckleberry Finn
and The Jungle Book are the sort of movie that are most offensive in their
mediocrity, and there’s a pretty good chance that you could walk out of a
showing of his Huck Finn and not be sure where you were for the last two hours.
Many alien abductions involving lost time can be easily explained by errant VHS
copies of The Jungle Book. Jason Scott Lee surely disagrees.
It was with Deep Rising that Sommers found his calling and
made his best bad movie, sailing the seas of cheese with a group of pirates on
an abandoned cruise ship facing a tentacled threat to rival the Hentai
industry. By most standards Deep Rising should be a terrible film, but somehow
it works. There’s a certain charm to see a premise that is decidedly a
direct-to-video release given the big
dollars to run rampant in theaters. Sometimes the result constricts one’s
private region, thanks to Jon Voight and Ice Cube and sometimes it’s betrayed
by the presence of Lou Diamond Phillips and Bat Diamond Batworthington.
Sometimes kismet is in the house and Deep Rising happens. A truly good bad
movie. A really bad good bad good movie. It’s just fun, dammit, and having
Treat Williams as your hero always goes a long way to making a film watchable –
hell, the only Joe Piscopo movie we’ve ever sat through was the Treat-starring
Dead Heat. Of course that’s also the only Joe Piscopo movie we can think of –
we’re not counting Johnny Dangerously, because that’s pure Truffaut.
But the high-wire act of making a movie that was goofy and
gory and fun and funny but never really stupid was one that Sommers couldn’t
maintain. He slipped a bit with The Mummy, even though many people didn’t
realize it. The ironic thing is that Deep Rising is so much better than The
Mummy, but The Mummy made so very much more money. It’s like when Brittany
Spears outsells Aimee Mann.
It seems like the lack of Deep Rising’s success may have
driven Sommers over the edge – he endeavored to make his next film as stupid as
possible, being content to gleefully revel in non-stop junk entertainment.
It wasn’t until The Mummy Returns that Sommers really
snapped, though. By that point he’d decided just to chuck in as much bad CGI as
he could instead of worrying about pacing or plot. The tiresome idea was to
simply smack audiences over the head with so much sound and fury that they’d be
too dazed to realize they didn’t actually like what they were seeing. Judging
by the big box office take, it worked: audiences walked out of the theater in
full Manchurian Candidate mode, blithely recommending the movie to their
That all fell apart for Sommers with Van Helsing. This time
he’d taken it far beyond Nigel’s 11. Van Helsing is so utterly cheerless in
tone and so exhausting in its pacing that it becomes impossible to ignore such
shortcomings as unbearably awful dialogue, ceaselessly moronic plot points, and
a surplus of lousy CGI (somehow the Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns, which
looked like it came from a Gameboy screen, didn’t faze audiences, but by the
time Van Helsing rolled around they had wised up). The studio wanted you to
experience Van Helsing like a roller coaster – a stupid experience where you
have a grin on your face, wind in your hair and your gut in your throat (or if
you’re Fabio, a seagull in your eye). Instead you experience Van Helsing like
Alex in A Clockwork Orange – with a big dick mask on your face.
is so weird. Only there could a movie rake in $120 million and still be a flop.
And only in
could such a flop go on to make a profit overseas and on DVD. But that’s the
magic formula of bad movies in the 21st century, and that’s just
what happened with Van Helsing.
The movie opened big – fifty million dollars in one weekend,
proof that no matter how many critics throw themselves in front of the bullet,
some of you are just too goddamned dense to listen. The real fact is this:
almost nothing is beyond the Satanic abilities of major studio marketing arms.
Absolute liquid shit like Van Helsing or the Planet of the Apes remake open to
remarkable numbers based purely on the strength of ads and trailers, which
wisely hide the fact that the people behind the film seem to secretly want only
one thing – to make you suffer. But it’s heartening to see that audiences
learned their lesson quickly and stayed away from their local screenings of Van
Helsing as if the celluloid was covered in a fine dusting of anthrax
powder. Of course, that lesson was
somehow lost when the movie came to DVD. Perhaps everyone bought a copy looking
for some sort of explanation for what had happened – imagine Triumph of the
Will with commentary by Riefenstahl.
a pretty great place to fuck up. Even after his first two movies didn’t light
anyone’s world afire, and his third (and best) film more or less failed,
Sommers kept getting more chances. So it should come as no surprise that even
though Van Helsing’s theatrical box office receipts returned about $120 million
on an investment rumored to be as big as $200 million, Sommers is still
directing, and producing stuff as well – as of this writing, he’s working on a
seemingly infinite number of new projects, including a new version of Flash
Gordon that cannot possibly hope to top the glory of Max Von Sydow battling
once and future nobody Sam J. Jones. While it’s sad to realize that the man
will never be properly punished for what he did to all of us, it’s good to know
that he’ll still be out there, providing fodder for future updates and sequels
to this book.
But Van Helsing and Stephen Sommers are almost beyond
criticism. Somehow, the director avoided the fan adulation that people are
prone to offer to names like Spielberg and Cameron, Raimi and Jackson. Sommers
has even managed to dodge the Emmerich name recognition, something that may
actually help him endure on the fringe of the summer movie universe.
There are true culprits out there. Films that take spun gold
handed down from the grace of screenwriters and make ill-fitting cock rings out
of it. Don’t believe us? Turn the page…