Are Heroes Overrated? You know, some evil thing is stalking the planet, only for the hero to come in and save the day, as they do. It is all rather common at the moment, and it appears that there are a lot of heroes out there that can do the same, so is it all a bit overrated? I mean, if there are many who can do it, why do we bother putting so much faith in one Super Hero when chances are there is someone else out there equally qualified to do the job of ‘saving the day’. Why do we need to worry if something evil comes along, when we all know too well right now that someone is likely to come along at some point to solve the problem. Maybe we should all just get on with our lives, in the fullest knowledge that there are heroes out there tackling things that go bump in the night, and in the meantime we can all sit down, flick on the TV and drink Hot Chocolate!
Released in 2004 by Universal Pictures, Directed by Stephen Sommers and Produced by Bob Ducsay; Van Helsing is a Fantasy Action-Adventure film which intends to pay tribute to the Universal Horror/Monster films of the 30’s and 40’s released by Universal and based on the works by Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Set in the horrifying (maybe not in real life, it may actually be really pleasant, who knows) area of Transylvania, the film follows the adventures of Monster Hunter Van Helsing; inspired by the character of the same name from Bram Stoker’s book Dracula. The film endeavors to include other monsters in it story too alongside Vampires including Frankenstein’s Monster and Werewolves.
In 1887, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) has successfully created a monster with the help of Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Dracula though wants to use the creature for his own evil plans and Kills Frankenstein. While his castle is raided by the local villagers, Frankenstein’s Monster takes his creators body to a nearby windmill which in turn is burned down by the villagers. In Paris one year later, the renowned monster hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is wanted by the police, but before he leaves he quickly dispatches the elusive Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane). He returns to the Vatican in Rome, where his superior; Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong) tasks him with yet another mission: to go to Transylvania, and kill Count Dracula. The mission being to help the last bloodline of the Valerious family, who may not enter Heaven until Dracula is killed. Jinette also suggests that Helsing may find out answers to his nightmares and forgotten past there too. Before setting off on his mission, Van Helsing gets weapons and gadgets from Friar Carl (David Wenham) who also accompanies Helsing to Transylvania. Meanwhile in Transylvania, Velkan (Will Kemp) and Anna (Kate Beckinsale) Valerious try to kill a rogue Werewolf, but Velkan is seemingly killed in the pursuit, leaving only Anna left.
Van Helsing and Carl arrive in Transylvania, where they get less than a warm welcome from the townsfolk, especially the gravedigger Top Hat (Tom Fisher). Anna arrives and tries to get their weapons off them both, but then Dracula’s Brides Verona (Silvia Colloca), Marishka (Josie Maran) and Aleera (Elena Anaya) attack. After a quick attack Helsing manages to kill Marishka, which makes the other two flee. Back at his castle, Dracula orders his remaining brides and his little minion Dwergers with their supervisor Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor) to prepare Castle Frankenstein for an experiment. Back at her home, Anna is knocked out by Helsing determined to protect her, only for her house to be broken into by Velkan now a Werewolf. Anna and Helsing track him to Castle Frankenstein where they discover Dracula is trying to give life to his dead-born children using Velkan’s Werewolf DNA to power Frankenstein’s lab. The experiment fails however, and after a brief confrontation with Dracula; Helsing manages to escape from Dracula, rescuing Anna in the process. The two then stumble into an underground cave where they find Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) who tells them that without him, Dracula cannot successfully give full life to his offspring. Believing the creature not to be evil, Helsing tries to get the creature to Rome with the help of Carl and Anna. During the night they are attacked by the Brides and Velkan, now fully consumed by the curse. Verona and Velkan are both killed but Helsing is bitten by Velkan, meaning soon he too will turn into a Werewolf. To make matters worse; Aleera kidnaps Anna and takes her to Budapest, and informs Helsing that Dracula will trade her for the Monster.
At a Grand Masquerade ball, Van Helsing rescues Anna from the clutches of Count Dracula, but watches on in horror as Igor manages to capture the Monster. With only a few hours left until Van Helsing transforms into the Werewolf, and Dracula manages to put his plan in motion, Carl reveals that Anna’s great ancestor was the father to Dracula. Dracula was murdered but in turn made a deal with the Devil. Not wanting that on his soul, Anna’s ancestor makes a pact with the church, for his entire family and bloodline to go to Heaven as long as Dracula is killed, but was unable to do so as he could not kill his own son. He did leave messages however as to how they may be able to accomplish it, and in turn are able to find the location to Dracula’s castle. All three go there, and find out that Dracula holds a cure for Werewolves, because the only thing that can kill him is a Werewolf. Anna and Carl head off to get the cure, running into and a foul of Igor in the process, while Helsing tries to save the Monster. Too late however, Dracula’s offspring are born. Aleera tries to kill Anna, but with help from the Monster and Carl, Anna is able to kill her and proceeds to get the cure to Helsing. Meanwhile, Helsing runs into Dracula, and at the stroke of midnight he turns into a Werewolf, strong willed enough to attack Dracula, eventually killing him. Anna arrives and is about to inject the cure, but Helsing attacks her. Just as Carl is about to kill Helsing, he notices that Anna managed to get the cure into Helsing, who takes the dead body of Anna in his arms, howling into the night as he slowly becomes human again. The following morning, The Monster is given its freedom and rows out to sea. Meanwhile Carl and Helsing hold a pyre funeral, but then Helsing sees Anna and her family’s spirits finally ascend into the clouds.
Now just to be clear in case anyone got confused by my introduction, this is not a Super Hero based movie. It does not feature anyone in brightly coloured flamboyant costumes nor does anybody wield any amazing super powers that they use on and off willy nilly. In all honesty this film actually has more in common with spy films along the lines of James Bond. Yes, it is at heart a fantasy adventure film with lots of interesting well designed monsters and creates some interesting ideas in its story, however I do get the feeling that more detail could have been provided. When watching this you will be forgiven for thinking it’s a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones, lots of near swashbuckling adventure scenes like those of Indiana Jones (or at least I think so) while also containing a gadget based scene not too similar to Q Branch in the 90’s and 2000’s. Once you get past those near comparisons however you can finally get in-depth with this film. It’s adventure style works quite nicely and the action is well done, but what this film tires to do is create a fun fantasy film, incorporating creatures and stories of the kinds that modern Gothic fairy tales are known for, continuing to show a real sense of peril and danger, while also making it light-hearted enough to be enjoyed to the full, and not needing to hide behind your seat.
When looking at the film’s plot, it is quite interesting to note that this film is near two hours long, but the lack of thorough detail makes you think otherwise. Don’t get me wrong; it is beautifully crafted and creates some ideas and goes on to generate incredible twists, it just doesn’t feel all that smooth, more blocky and jumpy, like as to say they could have included a bit more detail here and there. The ending is rather anti-climactic and it feels like it is trying too hard to move onto the next scene throughout. I just feel that in the end it could have revealed a lot more; it feels like there is some stuff that is mentioned, or answered little bit but not fully. This whole history between Dracula and Van Helsing especially, the idea that there was history between them, but as to exactly what that was goes relatively unanswered, more suggested. When walking away from this film you’ll begin to wonder if Helsing is the Arch Angel Gabriel and the one responsible for Dracula’s death in the first place, something sort of suggested but again; not really answered. It is something of a shame that there isn’t enough bite, there is a squeeze of teeth and the story does try to wrap up everything neatly but I think it just tried to do too much in the end, and couldn’t wrap it all up either; however the history of Dracula is still a pretty interesting scene.
Van Helsing is made up of a rather interesting selection of cast members, all who do their role well. Well when I say well, there are a few who just fall short of the mark. While you do have people in much smaller parts like the Gravedigger who is a rather nice addition to the cast, and whose appearance be it all a bit small, he is the kind of character you want to see more of; whereas the brides of Dracula are rather annoying. Not annoying because their villains, but annoying because they are annoying! While it is fair to say that the vampire voices are rather generic and possibly a bit camp, all three brides are just over the top. Their look in Vampire mode is definitely over the top and their human presence is far more interesting, but to me their look is too, sort of, Sultan. They look like extras picked from a movie version of Arabian Nights. What did it for me is that Marishka is the better performing of the three, but when you take in all their voices together, plus a brief moment of Marishka posing off in the village, they look and sound a lot like the actress Valeria Golino in Hotshots! Part Deux. It’s just off-putting and rather unnecessary, they don’t even make good villains. With those 3 are out of the way though, the rest of the cast are pretty good. Although I would say that I think Velkan is rather over used, not as much as the three brides, but is sort of toyed around with a bit too much to the point where it is not really necessary anymore. To begin with he is, and it is a great way to show how the Werewolf curse works for the sake of the story, I just think for someone who is meant to be a Werewolf, there is a lot of human scenes.
The film does struggle with some moments of casting I feel, especially when you consider having Alun Armstrong in a part and only have him on-screen for about five minutes. The same could be said for Robbie Coltrane as Mr. Hyde, a very interesting character that you just want to see more of, but is more used as an introduction. It’s just a shame that not one, but two high-caliber and very experienced actors, are not used in a much longer or greater position; I mean I could understand more if you had lesser known or relatively newer actors in those parts, but why the other way around. Just want to point out though that both Stephen Fisher and Samuel West do good jobs, if very minor ones for the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Victor Frankenstein respectively.
As for the films main sightings after the above, they all do really good jobs in the roles they have been asked to do. Igor for instance does well of being conveyed as the foolish and simple Igor, who at times shows some level of his own will and even levels of grumpiness toward Dracula. It is meant to be a more comedic role, but as the film progresses you can see more of his strengths, and even who he really is as he begins to talk more sadistically and even gets into a fight, and that voice is pretty chilling too. Frankenstein’s Monster similarly has a wonderful voice; more operatic which makes me think of Dynamo in The Running Man (but thankfully not all the time). The monster is very much like the creature he is based on, at least in the popular media light fashion, although is seen to be more physically active, and a real fighter. But deep down he is not muscle; but a man wanting his right to be alive in a world that will not accept him. A lot of work has been put into his back story, and he shares some brilliant quotes with the rest of the film’s cast, especially the line: “I Want to Live!” He is a great addition to the cast, and a very entertaining one, maybe a little over dramatic in places but a real good entertaining character while also not being in any way, shape or form; the comic relief. That is more handed down to Igor and Carl equally. Carl is something of an assistant as well as a librarian, not much of a fighter, but more like Willow in Buffy. He is a researcher, someone who shows the important side and value of good research. He is something of a minor fool, who sounds like someone trying to responsibly not get into trouble, but does. In the end though, he shows his true strength, and even a little attitude, as without him they would never have been able to defeat Dracula, as in the end it came down to reasoning and understanding as well as a touch of philosophy too.
The film’s main trio are made up of some really fine acting talent. For many years now, I have said that Richard Roxburgh’s performance as Sherlock Holmes is my favourite, and still do. Here we get a rather more different performance with him as Dracula. Yes the voice could be considered Generic, but I would not say the passion was. The way he can just say the right things in the right fashion of voice is amazing. Sometimes he could be sorrowful and sad, others he can be mysterious and cold, and others he can be grand and excited. He too has some really good quotes from talking about his lack of heart, to his lack of ring in the final fight with Helsing. Richard Roxburgh delivers in what is a rather fine and fun role, making sure that Dracula lives up to the vampire we all know and love (I know) while also making sure that we know he is the villain and why he should always be the villain; a very enjoyable character, possibly also my favourite depiction of Dracula. Kate Beckinsale meanwhile plays not a damsel in distress, but a brave and confident vampire hunter. She does possibly overplay the accent a little too heavy, but for everything else that she does, she too, like Roxburgh is rather enjoyable. Be it living up to the Indiana Jones like performance, to the voice of reason unlocking the true person of Van Helsing, to of course being the ruthless lady of vengeance. It is hard to really see her in a role like this; however I cannot see anyone doing a better job than she does. She is very Countess of Monte Cristo like in how she performs and how she talks, but in that essence she is rather cool and fun to watch. It’s hard to really pin her down as to whom she is and what she does and what makes her so good. It’s another one of those je ne sais qua moments, where she is/doing something really quirky and cool, but you don’t know what?
Hugh Jackman is of course playing the titular character of Van Helsing. Here he plays the Vampire Hunter of course who at least to begin with is rather cold and callous, more being a simple Monster Killer than anything else. He is a man with a history, and much like Wolverine (weirdly) is a man whose history is currently not well known (and as explained in the plot section above is still rather unknown to the audience). As the film progresses however he begins to learn more about compassion, first showing it to the Monster, and then learning it through desire for Anna, who helps him see more. In her part, she is more of a secondary object, but he too begins to learn and realize more and begins to see her in a different light (although I feel that him immediately coming onto her by the end is a bit clichéd and could have been developed more). This new character though is definitely different to the one who first appeared in the streets of Paris, although his search for his missing past definitely takes something of a back seat and it seems as in the end he does not really care. One thing remains though throughout is how cool a character he is. This ranges from the way he acts to how he talks, but one thing that certainly helps is this Undertaker like look: The Hat, Jacket and standing in the shadows with a pistol.
Van Helsing, much like many other fantasy films comes with a whole castle full of visual special effects, some of which are absolutely gut wrenching. The effects on the whole are done quite well and are mostly visible in monster designs. The Dead Born vampire spawn are really icky and creepy while also hanging around in those pulsating pods which are near stomach wrenching. Mr. Hyde is a nice little effect although be it not a long one, as too is Dracula’s Mirror Scene and the Transylvanian Horses scene. Dracula’s monster form I would say is ok, but all of these effects really tremble under the majesty of what has to be the most impressive Werewolf in movie history, that of Van Helsing’s transformation. The transformation is quite creepy, especially where the skin appears to fall off (similar to another icky effect early on with Dracula’s healing burned face), and to begin with he looks more like a gorilla than a wolf, but then when his snout takes form, and as you see him standing over Dracula, it is such an impressive sight (I keep wondering why on earth Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban couldn’t create one just as awesome), and the fight between the two I feel is not as long as it could be, and nearly wastes this amazing Werewolf. If I was a Werewolf, I would want to look like the one at the end of Van Helsing, who wouldn’t? For me that is the whole highlight of this film.
Which is more than can be said for the soundtrack! The soundtrack composed by Alan Silvestri does actually sound rather pleasant and for the genres that this film is trying to convey is a suitable fit. It’s just it’s rather overused. Not as much as The Last of the Mohicans (which I am certain only has one piece of music in it); but still quite a lot. It does have some nice pieces of music, the End Credits is good, some of the battle scenes, the funeral, the Masquerade ball, and the adventure style theme tune used prolifically throughout are all pretty cool; however, there are two pieces of music which sound near exactly the same (unless they are just one piece) which is used nearly every minute during the last great battle, and it is so noticeable (like Last of the Mohicans) as it is used prolifically in scenes that suggest Indiana Jones like action: Like swinging on a rope for instance. It’s not exactly annoying, just irritating, because the music on show is pretty good but nearly let down by one (or two) piece used too much.
On the whole though, I think this is a really cool film, maybe not the best or the greatest of Fantasy Adventure films, but overall I think it’s a really cool, fun film. It has an interesting story, a cast made up of categorically worthy actors but not overplaying their roles; keeping their roles fun and interesting, some cool special effects helping to create some certainly breath-taking Monsters and one of those soundtracks that is now rather recognisable for certain pieces used elsewhere. Yes, it does have its issues: Some cast members are near gratuitous, the plot is a bit sketchy with bits not even answered and there are a lot of uncivilized bits as scenes and effects go. Though for everything that does not work, there is more than one that does altogether creating an entertaining yet very cool and sincerely engrossing film.