Decades ago magical creatures like the brooding but seductive Dracula marvelously portrayed by Bela Lugosi, the creepy but gentle Frankenstein brought to life by Boris Karloff, and the sympathetic but frightening Wolf Man hauntingly performed by Lon Channey Jr. drew people to the theater to be scared out of their wits. Thanks to Universal Studios, these treasured creatures live forever on our screens -- not only in past releases but also in a new 3-title set, The Monster Legacy Collection.
Stephen Sommers, the writer/director who conjured up another legendary character and great action in his Mummy movies, enlivens the action-adventure comeback with Van Helsing, a fresh story for this treasure trove.
The character Van Helsing appeared in Bram Stroker’s original novel Dracula in 1897, and was portrayed by Edward Van Sloan in the 1932 movie, Dracula. Looking for a new character to spice up the classic monster genre, Sommers keeps Van Helsing’s original mission -- to rid the world of evil -- but makes the character younger and larger than life with a complete film of his own. And, he found a way to fit all the classic monsters into one story.
Sommers infuses Van Helsing’s intriguing character with plenty of backstory. “He doesn’t remember about his past, and while Van Helsing is a hero, he’s also a wanted man in the land. He kills monsters …,” said Sommers.
Who better to play a larger-than-life character than Hugh Jackman? He’s drawn raves for his performance in the X-Men films. As an amazing singer and stage performer, he takes command of his roles and dazzles with his bravado voice. Jackman has shown audiences that he’s also a contender in the romance department in Kate & Leopold with Meg Ryan and Someone Like You with Ashley Judd. He’s perfect casting opposite Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing. With his strong acting skills, great looks and versatility, Jackman certainly fulfills the visualization of the Van Helsing character.
Allen Daviau, Van Helsing’s cinematographer, found Jackman’s character quite interesting. “He’s our hero! And what can you say about photographing Hugh Jackman; I mean all the way through the making of the movie he was doing singing lessons and dancing practice to prepare to be the toast of Broadway. He’s a wonderful person to work with.”
Although Kate Beckinsale delivers some weak dialogue, she does an admirable job as Anna. Besides being a gypsy princess, she’s a monster hunter who must kill Dracula to rid her long line of ancestors from a family curse. Beckinsale holds her own in Van Helsing, action for action.
Filling the bill as Dracula, Richard Roxburgh is absolutely wonderful. He interprets the character in a refreshing new light as penned by Sommers. He’s a kind of Mick Jagger character, cool and fun, yet deadly serious about his need to survive on other people’s blood.
Monster by day, gentle beast by night, the Frankenstein in Van Helsing even talks, which is a tad overboard, but why not? Broadway’s Tony award-winning actor Shuler Hensley rises from the table, bringing Frankenstein very much to life in Van Helsing.
Will Kemp takes on the aerobic assignment of the pouncing Wolf Man and carries it off splendidly. My only complaint about his character is that his costume seems overdone -- more like a comic book character.
Sommers does an okay job with both the story and directing, but many of the accolades of Van Helsing go to five-time Oscar-nominated (E.T, The Color Purple, Avalon, Empire of the Sun, Bugsy) cinematographer Allen Daviau. Of course all films, as Daviau points out, are collaborative efforts and more than 1,000 crewmembers worked on Van Helsing.
“We shot on more than 70 locations, most of them in Prague because we could use a lot of the existing structures there to capture the look and feel of 19th century Europe and a place where these monsters existed,” said Daviau. “Prague also allowed us the space we needed, as Steve Summers loves huge sets and likes a lot of room.”
Along with a second camera crew and many of the films shots being done in CGI or with the help of ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), Daviau accomplished an enormous task of lighting the huge sets and capturing the complex action on film. One of the most memorable scenes is at Dracula’s massive ball, filmed inside Prague’s St. Nicholas Church.
“It’s now a museum with very valuable paintings,” explained Daviau. “So we had limits, but you just get inside places and learn to adapt things with camera and electric crews. We used 1,400 low-heat, oil-burning candles to help set the mood and light the scene.”
Blended seamlessly are Van Helsing’s imaginative story and direction by Sommers, its terrific performances, and outstanding collaboration by Daviau as well as by production designer Allan Cameron and costumer designers Carlo Poggioli and Gabriella. The result? A fun, action-packed and highly interesting movie.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for nonstop creature action, violence and frightening images.)