Early in the undead morning of Tuesday, I had a conversation that really affected the way I viewed VAN HELSING 14 hours later. Around 3am, a friend of mine called, an actor who I’m working on a top secret cool as fuck (I think so) television series with, and it is something that he’s been working on for quite some time now, and had been pushed into the background given the theatrical things I’ve been busy with recently. Anyway, last night we were chatting, and he’d had a conversation with Tarantino a few nights before… One where he was talking to Quentin about his own writing process, and specifically the secret magic of how to write exciting genre material that just tingles the short hairs. And Quentin told him, essentially this. (Paraphrased advice follows)
‘Remember when you were nine years old and that favorite TV show of yours and all your friends just began to not be as good as it once was? How it used to be this thing you worshipped, but now the formula has gone a tad tepid and like 3 of your friends are over for a sleepover and you’re all hopped up on too much sugar talking about what the coolest episode ever would be? You’re vibrating from the energy of just unleashed possibilities and your Mom is telling you to get to sleep, but that Nine Year Old creative force is just shaking… running a thousand words a minute, spilling everything you ever dreamt of to your buddies and it feels like the greatest thing any of you have ever heard? Well that’s where you have to write from. You have to write with that energy and that fire. It is all about that magic 9 year old unleashed.’
I couldn’t agree more.
I think VAN HELSING is that hopped up eight bowls of Frosted Flakes with marshmallows sugar rush of a 9 year old dream of what the ultimate badass Universal Monster movie would be. I also believe that for Stephen Sommers this is an incredibly personal film. Call me naÃ¯ve, claim that I swallowed Sommers’ childish fantasy hook, line and sinker, but as I watched the radiantly energetic and fun-filled VAN HELSING, I was giggling along with my dad and we loved it.
After the last frame of the movie, there’s this goofy overly expensive cg end credits thing, and it has Stephen Sommers’ writing and directing credit, along with the phrase of, “For my Dad.” That was the final note that hit me exactly right. When you watch Sommers’ electrified energetic talks about the Universal Monsters on the recent FRANKENSEIN, WOLFMAN and DRACULA sets that came out… you’re watching someone spill about Universal Monsters that I’m willing to bet all the chips, had endless 9 year old conversations with his Dad about what the coolest monster movie ever was… and that 9 year old grew up to be Stephen Sommers, and this is that nine year old’s coolest monster movie! And I'll be damned, but I bet every drop of blood in Sommers' universe tastes like Big Red!
Sommers loves this material… there isn’t a second of this film where I couldn’t feel that unfettered enthusiasm for the material unleashed. Like a half-crazed unleashed pre-adolescent fantasy ought to be told, this thing is filled with conveniences that are there solely for the sake of coolness.
For example… Why walk when you can swing, cuz wouldn’t it be cooler if Frankenstein swings baby? Hehehe… The amount of swinging going on in this thing, for a bit you’d think this was influenced by Bob Crane’s life had he swung like Weissmuller. Gravity, Torque and the physical realities mean nothing in Sommers’ universe. All those things are sacrificed to his personal God of Cool.
I mean, every element of this thing has that same unleashed gloriously childish sensibility to it. There isn’t a single cynical frame of self-awareness in this thing. Sommers is essentially leaping for joy in his favorite childhood pajamas trying to make a hole in his ceiling while laughing and leaping upon his bed. It’s crazy, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but God Damn if it isn’t a shitload of fun.
I mean, things that just didn’t make any sense to me when I read his script, which I wasn’t really a fan of, suddenly leapt to life onscreen. And I think I get it. You see, when you read something, or at least when I read something, its easy to get hung up on a detail. A thing like… Why the fuck is Van Helsing’s first name Gabriel, he’s supposed to fucking be Abraham! BUT – when you watch the film, and you see him doing impossible after impossible stunt. Well frankly, it’s because Gabriel kicks ass for the Lord! LITERALLY. This Van Helsing is the mighty left hand of God, smiting those that offend the eye of God.
There’s a crazy cartoon logic at play in this film that dares to invent its own whacked mythology. It is at that level that you’re either going to go with it, or fucking hate this thing as a piece of shit.
The rules are never laid out in black and white in this film, and if you bring in the established rules and have no room to budge with them… Well, you’ll write a bitter review of this film like Ebert did with the original BLADE… where he was just pissed about all this Silver killing Vampires nonsense and how a vampire with really great sunblock and long sleeves and UV glasses can walk around in the daylight… He just couldn’t handle that. Too much. Well, this oughta kill him.
Here the sun isn’t about UV light, in a way the sun and moon are the eyes of God, and when the Sun sees only you, no veil of cloud, no brick between you… if you’re a vampire you will be burnt to death.
The crazy Werewolf thing is similar. The full eye of the moon, when it is cast upon those cursed to be a werewolf, it forces you to reveal the demon hell spawn inside. And the transformations themselves… well if you’re a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night… and you fight becoming a werewolf… it’s a painful prolonged skin ripping transformation… BUT – if you give yourself over to it, embrace what it is you have become… that transformation is as simple and seemingly painless as a Vampire’s. Dracula even mentions that at a point, talking about “first-mooners” and how they fight it, there hearts aren’t in it and they’re a pain cuz they haven’t learned to just go with it. The difference at the end is, that werewolf knows it must be a werewolf, must become a werewolf and wants nothing more than to BE the werewolf.
You see, the characters and creatures of Van Helsing are all self-aware of their purpose and motivations and reasons for being. Like David Wenham’s wonderful Friar Carl. He knows he’s not a monk and he knows the vows he’d have to take to become a monk… he’d rather be a Friar. And god damn it, he’s a Friar with the best Eugene Pallette Friar foot forward. He celebrates his aloofness, relishes in the quirks.
Like Dracula… Dracula as played by Richard Roxburgh isn’t really like any Dracula I’ve seen before. He’s a cocky father of evil. He’s been around for ages, knows he’s pretty much fucking invincible… he knows he holds all the cards, three lovely wives and a giant castle of booger encased babies… and why is he so fucking happy? Well look at it like this… If you were Dracula and Josie Maran, Silvia Colloca and Elena Anaya were your wives… and you produced what visually looks like a billion boogers of babies… You’d be a pretty satisfied evil fuck too!
Speaking of them Vampire Harpy Bitches… God I love them. Every Harryhausen ounce of me loved them. That attack on the village… the joy they had of fucking with the villagers. It was great. And Van Helsing’s gas powered crossbow from God… MAN – That thing fucking kicks ass! I also really dig the bottled lightning brain of Frankenstein’s Monster. And I couldn’t help, but think how cool it’d be to have a life-sized prop of that head, but with one of them Plasma ball things encased in it so that your Frankenstein Monster really had that plasma dancing about. And if you could swing open the skull top and the face side… hehehehe… that’d be cool!
If all of this is making you make a poopie-face and your digestive system is kicking fits… I don’t recommend you see the movie. If you’re just gonna be a miserable bitch about it all… DON’T GO. But, if you have an ounce of a 9 year old Monster Lover in you… This thing will kick your ass. But it really is that 9 year old thing. If you’re a miserable angsty 15 year old cynical ball of shit type… you are going to twist like bacon on a red hot grill during this thing.
ILM did great fun work here. You could really get a sense of glee out of their work. Same with Alan Silvestri -- who seems to really love John Williams’ Grail theme from “Last Crusade” and a whoppingly concussive BEE GEE’s styling Evil Fighting Groove that he has going on in this baby.
The production design, monsters, sets, costumes and weapons are all just gorgeous. This film may have cost a zillion dollars, but I can see every last penny of it up there. When you look at Stephen Sommers’ last film, MUMMY RETURNS – this is that movie on much more sugar. Amazingly beautiful locations, people and monsters. Crazy ass action and mystical ancient mumbo jumbo. I could have fought this film from frame one, but I didn’t. When I saw that color Universal World go black and white… and suddenly burst into white flames… I laughed and howled… and as it became a torch, I giggled. This film isn’t about subtlety, atmosphere and reverence. This is about going into those worlds and just tearing it up… having fun and moving around as fast as you can. Its about fun, and it really is up to the viewer to want to have it… or not. Personally, I had a shitload of fun.