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The Horror, The Horror 

No life in cretinous creature feature

The wallet-busting extravaganza Van Helsing (* out of four) may be the first 2004 summer movie out of the gate, but in virtually every other regard, it's a movie of "worsts," not "firsts." If Dr. Seuss was rolling in his grave upon the release of The Cat In the Hat, then everyone who ever had anything to do with Universal Pictures' classic monster movies -- from superstar Boris Karloff to director James Whale to makeup artist extraordinaire Jack Pierce -- must be doing likewise. And with all that seismic activity occurring simultaneously throughout West Coast cemeteries, it's likely that California might drop off into the ocean any moment now.

Of course, you don't have to be a fan of cinematic staples like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man to take offense at this abomination. Admirers of skillful direction, intelligent writing and impeccable performances will also be feeling the pain. Besides, it's not as if the classic creature features were faithful to their respective source material: The events taking place in the Karloff Frankenstein usually bore little resemblance to the story that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley originally spun, and the Bela Lugosi Dracula likewise deviated from Bram Stoker's text. But if those golden oldies engaged in their own fits of dramatic license, the end results still evinced a literary feel: These were deeply realized, richly detailed films that were fully committed to their characters and the fantastic situations in which they found themselves.

Watching Van Helsing, you begin to wonder if anybody involved with the film has ever actually held a book in their hands, let alone read one. Here, the text of Stoker and Shelley (and Robert Louis Stevenson, since Jekyll and Hyde make cameo appearances) is treated as nothing more than toilet paper in the outhouse of writer-director Stephen Sommers' imagination, soiled and shredded beyond all recognition. The movie's influences aren't Shelley and Stoker or even Karloff and Lugosi -- that would be asking modern audiences to draw upon something they probably aren't familiar with. Instead, Van Helsing, a movie whose contempt for its predecessors is only matched by its condescension toward its audience, almost exclusively draws from modern touchstones of pop culture.

Van Helsing, played by Hugh Jackman, is presented as a cross between Indiana Jones and Jackman's own Wolverine character from the X-Men films: He's a hat-wearing adventurer who can't recall any memories from before the moment when he was enlisted by a shadowy religious cabal to stamp out evil wherever it flourishes. This Vatican-sanctioned group operates from an underground lair in which scientists create all sorts of neat gizmos and gadgets -- a direct steal from the James Bond series. Van Helsing is ordered to go to Transylvania to vanquish Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), whose master plan involves using an unwilling Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley) to provide the necessary juice to bring Dracula's countless offspring to life. The baby Dracs, incidentally, hang in pods identical to the ones seen in the Alien series, and Dracula is assisted by evil minions who look like a hybrid of two Star Wars races: the Jawas and the Tusken Raiders. As for the Count's three brides, who spend the majority of their screen time moaning, whining and speaking in ridiculously arch accents, they resemble nothing so much as three sorority sisters who are peeved that the frat house keg has been tapped dry.

At any rate, Van Helsing also has to contend with two more creatures of the night: a Wolf Man who seemingly moves at the speed of light and yet never seems able to catch anybody, and a hunchbacked assistant naturally named Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor). Luckily, the monster slayer isn't going solo on these endeavors, receiving assistance from the stammering Friar Carl (David Wenham), the voluptuous vampire hunter Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), and the Frankenstein monster, presented here as a touchy-feely brainiac who might as well be sporting a T-shirt that reads, "Don't Hate Me Because I'm Ugly."

Every summer, there are a couple of films that force all critics to uniformly scribble, "This resembles a video game more than a motion picture"; director Sommers' previous bastardizations of a horror legend, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, certainly fell in that camp. But with Van Helsing, that sentence will have to be officially retired. This movie is so dependent on its computer-generated effects that it simply couldn't have existed if someone had pulled the cord out of the wall socket.

This may, in fact, be the most impersonal picture of this nature I've ever seen: Even less heavy FX sequences that could have benefited from some human interaction are processed through the computer, as if Sommers envisioned himself as a code programmer more than a movie director. This might not have mattered as much if the effects were awesome and drew us into the story, but most of the time they're cheesy and obviously fake -- I'll take the shoddiest stop-motion animation over shaky CGI images any day of the week. And while a film of this nature needs a bombastic score, the one provided by Alan Silvestri still comes off as overkill: It beats the viewer into submission.

Because they're playing cardboard cut-outs and forced to deliver some truly dreadful dialogue, the actors never stand a chance. Jackman, perpetually charismatic even in dreck like Swordfish and Kate and Leopold, has been rendered dull by Sommers' limited vision of the character, while the monotonous Beckinsale, who previously starred in another tacky vampire flick (Underworld), seems more suited for a stint as a mannequin at Frederick's of Hollywood (her frilly outfit screams "S&M Chic"). O'Connor is as annoying here as he was in those Mummy movies, although Wenham (best known as Faramir in the Lord of the Rings films) somehow manages to get better as the film progresses -- his comic relief isn't that funny, but he at least seems to be trying to give a genuine performance.

As for Roxburgh, familiar to moviegoers as Ewan McGregor's loathsome rival in Moulin Rouge, his performance as Dracula just might be the worst one I've ever seen -- and this is coming from a guy who's sat through all-time turkeys like Blood of Dracula's Castle and Dracula's Dog and has seen just how low actors can go in this role. Even Leslie Nielsen's Count in Dracula: Dead and Loving It is more threatening than the fop that Roxburgh presents in this picture. It's clear that Roxburgh -- and, by extension, Sommers -- viewed this project with disdain, and his unbearable smugness and misplaced air of superiority prove to be the final nails in the coffin of this monstrosity.

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