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Ven Helsing review - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Ven Helsing review
Well, I went to the show right after work. Then I went out and imbibed a bit. Not a lot, just a couple of grasshoppers (gotta love green drinks that double as breath mints). I hereby declare the summer blockbuster season open. I had a vast amount of fun.

In the tradition of deleterius, I call troll.

This movie has every stupid stereotype going, from at least three different genres of monster movie. It apes Indiana Jones, too, and Kate Beckinsdale's character is one of the Sue-y-est Mary Sues I've seen in ages.

And I really enjoyed it.

It was a clever parody.

I wasn't sure if it was just a movie that was so goofy it was funny or if it was intentional until the final battle, when Anna (KB's Mary Sue) is swinging across a chasm at Castle Dracula and the camera focuses on her, close-up and slomo, her hair blowing gently in the wind, her hand resting lightly on the wire she's swinging on, the antidote to lycanthropy in the other. She kind of tosses her head, like she's posing.

And then I realized. This is damn clever.

This isn't just some moron making a mishmash of monster movies, it's someone who knows the form and is having a whole lot of fun with it. Even stupid, cornball moments like looking up in the sky and seeing ghosts of dead people happily reuniting... it's so far over the top that I simply refuse to believe that I was meant to take it seriously. It reminds me of ivy&gracie's A Very Harry Cliche at SugarQuill, a send-up of every fanfic Mary Sue they could think of.

Van Helsing is a really great parody. It wouldn't work at all if the actors had been consciously comedic. Playing it straight was what made it work. But that shot of Kate Beckinsdale tipped their hand.

Once the parodic nature was clear, I could appreciate the non-parodic elements much better. Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing is actually kind of an interesting guy. I could deal with some of these adventures (though I insist on them resurrecting Dracula to get it back into bloody canon if they do any more). The moment when Anna is dancing with Dracula in a crowded room and looks into a mirror to see that she is the only person reflected is genuinely spooky. And there was actual characterization going on when Van Helsing opted not to kill Frankenstein's monster.

The stagecoach chase was well-staged, and the resolution of it actually managed to surprise me. Anna's brother--Falcon?--was well-played, and the difficulties of dealing with werewolves was dealt with decently. And hey, the brother/sister dynamic as a real, driving force, more powerful than romance. I like that.

I was also interested in the thematic question raised directly by the text: Is Van Helsing a holy man or a murderer? Interestingly, Van Helsing himself isn't sure.

Plot-wise... well, it's dumb, but all monster movies are dumb. No reason to worry our heads over that. It's way over the top, but that's part of the parody.

For what it's worth, I wish it hadn't been a parody. Van Helsing lost a lot to Dracula, and playing with the idea that he himself might have been an immortal holy man could have been played for a serious horror story without winking and smirking. Stoker didn't give us much, and I could see making a background like the movie gave him work in canon... though of course, he wouldn't have been able to go against Dracula and win. I mean, I can think of an alternate plotline, in which Anna was his wife--no reason his wife couldn't have fought at his side--and they faced Dracula and his wolves, beating the wolves but not beating Dracula, who kills the wife and later comes to London to deal with the Fearless Vampire Hunters of the novel. That was the sort of story I was hoping for.

But for what it was rather than what I'd hoped? It was fun. It was a lot of action, it was well-choreographed, it had cool effects, and I laughed a lot. Summer is here.

What I didn't like was the sequence with Cowl, Van Helsing's Friar sidekick, deciding to seduce a local girl. Totally gratuitous, and it didn't even really figure in the plot. Smack-smack-smack-smack-smack.

Okay, done smacking.

And with summer officially open, I like to look at the themes of the blockbusters, the things that are going to keep coming back. What's catching people's attention this year? Where are they clapping?

Well, there were a few things about this movie that I'm expecting to see again and again.

1. The unappreciated hero. Van Helsing has two prologues, one explaining the villain, the other introducing the hero. In the first, a brilliant scientist is misused by a villain trying to set a dangerous weapon on his own people. In the second, set in Paris, Van Helsing is wanted. He finds a dead child, and goes after the monster who killed her. He does battle, almost dies, and ends up killing the monster, who reverts to human form as he dies. The crowd looks up to the top of Notre Dame and screams, "Van Helsing! You murderer!" He rides out of town, unwanted. Later, he arrives in a town in Transylvania, does battle with vampires, is the first to kill one in ages, and is told, "They only take a few a month! Now, they'll be out for vengeance! Why would you do that?"

Er, well, not to get all political, but I have a feeling that's going to be a big thing. It was done in Spiderman the first, and I'm guessing it will be reprised in 2. HP: PoA features an unjustly convicted man, and an unjustly persecuted one. And, how to put it... I don't think it's accidental that it opens in Paris.

2. Gates. Every other minute in this movie, a gate is falling down in front of someone, blocking their attempts at rescue or escape. I mean, this is a standard, but the number of times it happened in Van Helsing was striking. I'm expecting this summer to have a lot of heroes who keep being physically blocked through no action of their own. More than usual in action movies. Fern's prediction. May not be gates, but walls falling, traffic jams, etc.

3. Monstrous heroes. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen VH. But you'll see a prominent werewolf early on, and of course Frankenstein's monster is active in the plot. Meeting monstrosity with monstrosity. We know it's in PoA. It's advertised in The Chronicles of Riddick. It appeared in Hellboy, as I understand it (I mean to see it). I don't think it's out of the question in Spiderman 2.

I can't think of any others. Anyone else notice trends?
1 comment or Leave a comment
maidenjedi From: maidenjedi Date: May 8th, 2004 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Looking at it from a pure parody angle, I can appreciate this movie a lot more. I had trouble deciding what I thought about it while walking out of the theater - I was more or less okay with it until the Mustafa-oops-we-mean-Anna in the clouds bit. That didn't work for me at all. But everything else did, in one way or another. I LOVED the opening sequence at Frankenstein's castle. But then, I'm a big monster movie fan, and I was looking for all the Universal nods.

As to trends, I think you've nailed it. There will be a backlash against the current political situation. "Van Helsing" was definitely the beginning of that - I think you're right, there is no way it's an accident that it opened in Paris. I expect "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Manchurian Candidate" to be the most obvious ones (the former has your traffic jams, I'll lay odds). "Spider-Man 2" will probably hang on the ambiguity of some of Spidey's duties and choices, particularly calling attention to his defeat of the Green Goblin in terms of Peter's relationship with Harry.

"Prisoner of Azkaban" might play more heavily than some of us are anticipating, which is weird to say since we all know it's as dark as you can get. Politically, I'm not sure how it will come off. It might be a broader critique than the others.

"The Stepford Wives" will be another heavy hitter, and will focus (obviously) on the women's movement and current feminism completely. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see NOW endorse it, come to think of it. If it makes $$, I expect it to have some serious impact on the already swelling wave of feminist spirit. It'll be interesting to see.

Other films I expect to have political undertones are "I, Robot" and "Troy". Between the two, you've got futuristic critique of certain political trends and a war epic about a war fought for bad reasons by rash men.

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