tek's rating:

Van Helsing (PG-13)
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Caution: potential spoilers.

This came out in 2004, but I didn't see it until 2016. Apparently it was panned by critics, but personally I can't really understand how anyone could possibly dislike it. I'm not quite sure what it is anyone likes about movies, if they don't like this one. I mean, okay, it's not great, but I definitely found it to be a lot of fun, and more clever than critics (and probably a lot of viewers) gave it credit for. So, let's break this down: basically, it's an action movie, and I think it succeeds quite well on that level. As for horror... well, actually, very little in this movie is really scary, but it's not un-scary. Anyway, there's a fair bit of humor, and while some of it may seem kind of dumb, I never got the feeling that that was unintentional. To me, it felt like a very tongue-in-cheek, campy, self-aware sort of humor, which I really liked. And I never felt like that detracted from the action or from the story. And as for the story... well, it's basically an homage, of sorts, to the classic Universal monster movies of old. It kind of stitches those familiar stories together in new and unexpected ways, so I guess I could understand if some fans of those movies aren't happy with the outcome. (The film itself is a sort of Frankenstein's monster, one might say.) I know a lot of horror stories may be allegorical, and it can be fun or interesting to watch (or read) them in that light, but it's also always been possible to enjoy such stories without digging too far below the surface. I think whichever way anyone wants to enjoy a story is perfectly fine. So I don't see a problem with this story not really having anything below the surface. You might say that the patchwork story and humor are too silly for the source material, but I disagree. I think, as long as you were just enjoying the old movies on a surface level, they could be just as ridiculous as this one... and that's a good thing, in my opinion. That's what makes it fun. And honestly, the whole idea of bringing disparate monsters together is nothing new. The example that mainly springs to mind, for me, is "The Monster Squad," which was way sillier and more comical than this movie, and that's considered a cult classic. So, whatever.

Anyway, it starts in 1887, in Transylvania. Victor Frankenstein has put together a "monster" and brought it to life. We all know the story. But it quickly takes a turn from the familiar, as there's already a huge mob laying siege to his castle at the time that the creature comes to life, before it even has time to do anything. (They're just upset about the doctor's grave robbing.) More importantly, we learn that Dr. Frankenstein's experiment had actually been financed by Count Dracula, who has his own plans for the doctor's creation. (We don't learn what that plan is until later, and I'm not going to spoil it.) But even if we don't hear the plan right away, Victor does. And when he learns the truth, he doesn't want to let Dracula use his creation for what he has in mind, so Dracula turns on him. But his creation thinks of Victor as a father, and tries to save him. They end up being chased by the mob to a windmill, which the mob burns down with Victor and the monster inside.

Flash forward one year, in Paris. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a famous monster hunter whom pretty much everyone in the world considers a murderer, because the monsters he hunts revert to human form after he kills them. At the moment, he's after Mr. Hyde, a very imposing CGI monster who also happens to be rather snarky. (He reminded me a little bit of Shrek, only not green and a lot scarier-looking.) So, Van Helsing and Hyde have an amusing conversation and a very cool fight that firmly establishes Van Helsing's badass bona fides. (The fight takes place at Notre Dame Cathedral, which seems to suggest a blending of the Jekyll & Hyde story with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I thought was rather a nice touch.) Subsequently, Van Helsing returns to Rome, where we learn that he works for some kind of secret Holy Order. And there's a friar there named Carl, who invents weapons for Van Helsing. Meanwhile, Van Helsing's boss, Cardinal Jinette, briefs him on his next mission. It seems there's a royal family in Transylvania that has been trying to kill Dracula for like 400 years, and the head of the family from the start of that vendetta had made some kind of oath to God that would preclude him or any of his descendants from entering Heaven until Dracula was dead. Now there are just two members of the family remaining: Velkan Valerious, and his sister Anna (Kate Beckinsale). If they fail to kill Dracula, then they and their forebears will be doomed to Purgatory. So, Van Helsing will have to go to Transylvania and try to help them. And Carl (who is not a field agent) will have to tag along. (Oh, we also learn that Van Helsing has no memories before his working for the Holy Order... except some vague thing from centuries ago.)

Before Van Helsing and Carl arrive in Transylvania, we see a scene of Velkan and Anna (and some random townsfolk) fighting a werewolf. Velkan and the werewolf end up falling over a cliff together, which leaves Anna as the last remaining Valerious. And when Van Helsing shows up in town later, she (and the townsfolk) are not immediately eager to accept his help. But then Dracula's three brides attack (in CGI forms that are kind of like Man-Bat, or something; though throughout the film we often see them in their much more attractive human forms). Anyway, Van Helsing kills one of them, and the other two fly away in despair at their loss, after which Anna finally accepts his help. (The townsfolk still aren't keen on him. Particularly one guy, who I think had been part of the mob that killed Frankenstein a year ago, and who kinda reminded me of Riff Raff. But neither he nor any of the townsfolk are really important.) Later, it turns out that Velkan is alive, but he's been turned into a werewolf, a fact which Anna wants to keep secret (though of course Van Helsing immediately figures it out).

So, they decide to look for Velkan and try to cure him, but also they need to find Dracula and stop his plans. And it seems Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), is now working for Dracula, trying to recreate his former master's experiment. (Igor kind of seemed to me like a particularly ugly Dick Tracy villain. Also I need to mention there were some other servants of Dracula who helped with the experiment. We don't really see what they look like under their masks or whatever, but I thought of them as sort of steampunk Jawas. I think the name of their race was mentioned at least a couple of times, but I never really made out what the name was. Whatever they were called, they didn't seem to speak any intelligible language.)

Anyway... so there's lots of sneaking around and investigating, by our heroes. And lots of fighting, and some mysteries to solve. (We eventually learn that Dracula knew Van Helsing centuries ago, and could help him remember all he's forgotten, but... that never happens. So that mystery remains mostly unsolved, I think.) And... well, Frankenstein's monster returns to play an important role in everything, but I don't want to reveal any details of that. And lots of other stuff happens, which I also don't want to spoil. The whole movie is kind of crazy, but that's what I loved about it. It's trying to be a lot of different things at once, and while some people might think that means none of the elements really work as well as they might, personally I thought all the elements worked really well, both individually and as parts of a whole. Of course, that's just my opinion. I won't hold it against anyone who disagrees (as long as they don't hold my enjoyment of the movie against me). I guess.

There's also an animated prequel short film, The London Assignment.

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