Monday, April 18, 2005

Van Helsing and Vlad: Two Vampire Flicks that Really (ahem) Suck

I love horror movies.

They've been a staple of my cinematic diet for literally as long as I can remember. My earliest childhood memory is of sitting on a couch in an apartment, probably not four years old, watching the 1932 Boris Karloff Mummy on TV as my mom, family dog and I ate popcorn.

The genre provided my springboard to appreciating film as an artform, and I learned a lot about cinema in general playing Six Degrees of Separation with Horror Movies. So I've invested a lot more thought and love into the genre than your average bear, and (all bias aside) I really know my stuff.

One prerequisite of being a devoted horror movie fan is harboring a fondness (or at least a high pain threshold) for crap. From the Republic and PRC Bela Lugosi B flicks of the 40's to the Italian zombie gutmunchers of the '70's and beyond, 90% of horror flicks hover below par, or worse, in quality. Like the weary college kid who tolerates his imbecilic dorm mate, though, a horror fan puts up with--and even affectionately embraces--lousy horror flicks. It comes with the territory.

The point to my rambling intro is this: it takes a lot for a real horror fan to actively detest a genre movie, to regret having wasted 90 to 120 minutes of his or her life watching it, and to want to warn everyone within earshot to stay the hell away from it (Jesus, I've seen Andy Milligan's The Ghastly Ones more than I've seen Spartacus; taste isn't an issue here). So when I tell you that, within the last week, I've had the misfortune to endure two horror flicks so irritatingly bad that, yes, I want to shout to the rooftops about their badness, and that I regret with all my heart and soul having watched them, you know it means something. Just what, I'm not sure.

Both films at issue here are, curiously enough, vampire movies.

Van Helsing was a $160 million multi-megaton event flick originally unleashed on audiences in the spring of 2004. Director Stephen Sommers, hot off of the success of the two Mummy movies, was entrusted by Universal Pictures with the rights to the undisputed crown jewels of their Creature Treasure Trove: Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein's Monster. You'd think all that money and carte blanche from Universal woulda produced something of quality, or at least something that was fun. You'd be thinking wrong.

The earnest, stolid old vampire hunter of Stoker's novel gets reincarnated in this treatment as a testosterone-stoked hybrid of James Bond, Batman, and Blade. In the employ of the Vatican, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is assigned by his papal bosses to trek to Transylvania and take out the notorious Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). Drac, it seems, lost Frankenstein's Monster (Schuler Hensley) and wants the big lug back as a power conduit to bring the vampire's bloodsucking progeny to life. Also thrown into the mix are a Romanian noblewoman (Kate Beckinsale) fighting the vampire, and her brother (Will Kemp), a werewolf enslaved by Dracula.

Sommers had a 50/50 batting average with me prior to this. The Mummy was a pleasant surprise, a silly but robust adventure flick with a crackerjack cast and a refreshing sense of affection for its forebears. It felt like a popcorn programmer from the '40's in the best sense of the phrase, with blessedly few concessions to modern trends. The Mummy Returns, on the other hand, junked up the works by turning its winsome female lead (Rachel Weisz) into a glossy and bustierred anachronistic buttkicker, by making its other leads utter dunderheads, and by selling out its old-fashioned thrills for meaningless high-speed chases and stupidity. Van Helsing, by comparison, makes The Mummy Returns look like King Lear.

Sommers demonstrates a twisted reverse-Midas touch in Van Helsing, in that he somehow manages to induce numbingly bad performances from capable and appealing actors with horrific consistency. Jackman's made a career out of being great in even the most indifferent roles, but here he's a piece of plywood with no motivation, personality, or presence. Beckinsale hauls out a ridiculous Slavic accent and runs around in kinky leather like a dominatrix chanelling Eva Gabor. Roxburgh should be whupped hard for his condescending and overwrought vampire king (He's such a caracature, I'm surprised he didn't flap his arms and say, "Blah! Blah!" at some point). Only David Wenham (Lord of the Rings' Faramir, completely unrecognizable and very funny as VH's sidekick) and Hensley (a sympathetic monster despite the sorry script) emerge from the carnage favorably.

Van Helsing comes off as the product of a pubescent mullet who saw a Count Chocula cereal commercial, then got it into his head that he could write a movie. That same ritalin-craving kid then got the bid to direct, and went through a two-bit carnival haunted house for his visual template. And then Universal Pictures gave that sugar-overdosed and attention deficient adolescent 160 million smackers to bring his vision to life. Stephen Sommers, to my knowledge, does not fly an ape-drape, but he sure wrote, produced, and directed one aggravating, visually blurry, ugly, cheap-looking, and insulting piece of product.

My wife and I met a really nice fellow horror enthusiast, a tattoo artist named Matt, last October on a trip to Romania (more on that adventure in the future). When I brought up Van Helsing (which I hadn't yet seen), Matt said with sage directness, "If you like the old Creature Features, DO NOT watch Van Helsing. It will piss you off." I shoulda listened, Matt, 'cause it did.

Vlad, a tiny little effort released to DVD earlier this year, starts out in period drag, with the father and brother of the title figure (Vlad the Impaler, the original Dracula in case you're keeping score) being buried alive by Turkish warriors. Within minutes, the movie turns into the story of four modern-day post-graduate students on a trip to Romania to visit Poenari Castle, Vlad's ancient stronghold. One of the students has stolen an amulet from the corpse of Vlad, and so the evil prince comes to life (in the form of Anthony Quinn's son Francesco) to kill, harass, and fornicate. A cult of Vlad worshippers also pursues the post-grads, hoping to attain the amulet and its magic mojo.

Two of the most popular devices to pad out the running time of low-budget features, dialogue and exposition, get hauled out in spades here. An hour into Vlad, the movie's thrown in vampirism, Brad Dourif, dope-smoking, gratuitous nudity, time travel, impaling, baby-trampling, and car chases--and it's STILL as dull as ditchwater! Billy Zane displays presence to burn as a heroic Romanian who attempts to protect the thick-witted students from the Vladites (his accent's pretty darn good, too), but even he's not enough to flavor this bowl of gruel. Take it from someone who's seen a LOT of bad horror movies; avoid Vlad at all costs unless you're in the market for a digitally-mastered sleeping aid.

Incidentally, the movie actually played theaters in LA for about fifteen minutes last year (see this puff piece for further details). That revelation induces more chills than all 89 minutes of Vlad combined.

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