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Ghoul Trouble

In anxious times we need our monsters, but Van Helsing just pummels undead geezers.

By Dorothy Woodend 13 May 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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Van Helsing opens like all those Universal Pictures of old -- in glorious black and white. An angry mob, seemingly lead by Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is storming Dr. Frankenstein's castle. Inside the fine doctor has just perfected his recipe for reanimating dead body parts. Before you can say "It's Alive!!" Dracula shows up and gives Frankenstein a really deep hickey. The newly birthed monster (Shuler Hensley) incensed by this cheekiness takes his dead dad, and runs off to the old windmill which for no apparent reason is filled with half full bottles of absinthe. No explanation is given for this, and that's just the beginning of the improbable lead by the inexplicable. The villagers light the windmill on fire, Drac and his brides fly around, and Frankenstein's monster falls into the flames, but all of this is only the opening preamble.

Cut to 19th Century Paris. When we first see the eponymous Van Helsing (played by Hugh Jackman), he has what looks like a turtle neck pulled up to his eyes, and the stupidest looking hat I've ever seen. He is busy chasing Mr. Hyde (of Jekyll and Hyde) around Notredame Cathedral. Things go pretty much like you'd expect. Hyde falls down and turns back into Dr. Jekyll. Van Helsing gets yelled at by a gendarme and retreats to the confessional where it is revealed that he works for a secret society run by the Catholic church, that has protected mankind from evil from time immemorial, (which leaves them too busy to watch out for all those pederast priests, I suppose.)

Van Helsing with his sidekick Carl (David Wenham) are dispatched to Transylvania to help the Valerious family vanquish some more evil after Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother Velkan (Will Kemp) try to capture a werewolf in a trap made of toothpicks. "Be Varned!" There are a lot of V's in this film. Van Helsing must vescue Valerious and Velkan from the vampires and the verevolf. Mel Brooks where are you vhen we need you? Things go from bad to vorse. The attack of the letter V continues when the vampire Versaces attack Anna's village. The vamps are out to get Valerious, but Van Helsing finally manages to kill one. Van Helsing and Anna then follow Velkan, who is now a werewolf himself, to Dracula's castle, where they stumble into the Count's fertility problems.

Fertility clinic for harpies

Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who has apparently been raiding Adam Ant's wardrobe, and spends most of the film flipping back one errant strand of hair like an undead Jennifer Aniston, is trying to placate his three whiny wives, Aleera (Elena Anaya), Verona (Silvia Colloca), Marishka (Josie Maran). All three harpies look like Donatella Versace on a bad day, complete with acid green and screaming fuschia chiffon dresses that transform into leathery wings at a whim not unlike the real Donatella. After a couple hundred years, seems these babes have got the nesting instinct quite badly. The heartbreak of infertility has left them with no ankle biters. Drac and his gals are busy trying modern methods of jumpstarting their vast brood of babies, using Dr. Frankenstein's right to life machine.

Now this just isn't scary, it's kind of embarrassing actually. And when the babies hatch and die and the vamps cry, you can't help but feel a little sorry for them. All of which leads to the biggest problem in the film, these monsters simply aren't scary. They're so frickin' old, mouldy and moth eaten, watching Van Helsing kick monster ass is like seeing someone beating up on your Grandpa. Just leave the poor old dudes alone. They've done their time battling humanity and now they just want to retire to a gated community in Florida and play golf with the rest of the geezers.

Throughout the film there are references from many other movies, the aliens' egg cases from Ridley Scott's Alien, the evil baby from Larry Cohen's It's Alive, even the jawas from Star Wars show up, muttering away in their Lilliputian voices. Homage is one thing but this is just grave robbing. Like Frankenstein's creation, Van Helsing is disjointed, patchy and clumps around in big boots, squashing any semblance of narrative coherency flat. Things catch on fire for no apparent reason, there are so many chase sequences you lose track of who is chasing whom, people swing wildly about on chains and the ending is so schmaltzy, your eyes will roll so far back in your head that they get stuck.

Evil getting devilishly slippery

If Van Helsing was meant to be a Saturday afternoon matinee fodder, it is both too ponderous to be fun and too silly to be scary. Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who unearthed the mummy before this, the film proves that the canonical monsters of horror cinema just don't cut it in the evil department any longer.

The New York Times argues that Van Helsing is a return to the old fashioned notion of good conquering evil, but evil is an increasingly slippery concept lately. Aren't we all just a little bit evil? Modern day Frankenstein's monsters are legion, with facelifts, injections of dead tissue and full face face transplants from dead donor to live donor. Watch our puffy faced politicians suck the lifeblood from the body politic and tell yourself that monsters aren't real. Of course, they are. Monsters are us!

When horror on screen is competing with the real world, there really is no contest. Sharon Waxman in the New York Times argued that "Van Helsing spends almost all 125 minutes of the film relentlessly pounding monsters... Some film and social historians read these types of movies as thinly veiled wish-fulfillment fantasies in a complicated world, or even as a coping mechanism after a societywide trauma." We need our monsters to beat on to make us feel better, they're bad and we're good. But in order to vilify, you need clear definitions of good and bad, and these type of definitions are harder and harder to come by. Today, evil is all over the place, and we really don't know who to take sides with anymore.

Godzilla, right on cue

Van Helsing is of course, only one of the first offering of the summer blockbuster season, which relies on the old standbys of monsters and mayhem. Hellboy, itself a monster movie, is much better entertainment, and fan boys have placed their hope in AVP (that's Alien Versus Predator for the uninitiated).

Even Godzilla himself is making his farewell appearance this summer, just like Cher, only with less plastic surgery. Fifty years after G's first appearance, the re-release of Ishiro Honda's original, uncut version of Godzilla rampages onto North American shores. Godzilla may be old, but he's still got something to say. "Godzilla isn't just the bomb -- he's hate and anger, war, the poisoned environment -- in short, he is mankind itself, the destruction wrought by the rage within us, an inner ugliness we can never quite seem to shake" writes critic G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Gate. Which sounds about right.

It is perhaps fitting that Godzilla should make a reappearance right now, as always his timing is impeccable. The original version of the film was censored for American audiences, and any references to the A-bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cut, and replaced by Raymond Burr. Which bears an eerie echo to current information censoring from another American action.

Dorothy Woodend writes for many publications, and reviews film for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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