Back in the Forties, Universal Studios hit upon the idea of combining their collection of classic monsters in various permutations in an effort to get more mileage from them. Thus were born Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman and House Of Dracula. When this cycle of films became jaded, Universal threw comedians into the mix, generating the likes of Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The restless bones of Boris and Bela have been returning to haunt every subsequent generation. Stephen Sommers got his chance to helm The Mummy in 1999, a big budget reworking of the story with a macho Indiana Jones-type hero, a feisty heroine and a comic sidekick. For the opposition were an evil monster and a plethora of inept support villains. The result was a hugely entertaining confection that spawned one direct sequel and a spin-off.

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Curiously skipping remakes of the other classic monster tales, Sommers moved straight to the monster compendium movie, throwing as many menaces as possible into the fray. The result: Van Helsing.

Opening with a recreation of rampaging peasants with burning torches, the film gets off to a fine start. In the very next sequence, the director blows it. Moving on to Paris in 1888, we are introduced to Van Helsing, trading fisticuffs with the Mr Hyde monster. Pity poor Mr Hyde; two films have turned him into a travesty. First there was The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman that introduced him as a bizarre computer-generated goblin and now Van Helsing does exactly the same thing.

Computer Generated Imagery is a mixed blessing for fans of genre films. It's at its most impressive when creating impossible set extensions, for example the eye-popping scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe enters the Coliseum in Rome. Also, there are many examples from the Star Wars prequels.

Creating character animation is still hit-and-miss. The best example might be Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Then there is Yoda from the second Star Wars film and Dobby in Harry Potter. Amongst these film franchises, there are legions of other convincing CGI beasties. I was particularly impressed with the Hippogriff in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.

Van Helsing's problem is that they seem to have chosen the animated look, rather than the photo real look. So when Mr Hyde appears on screen his texture and bearing most closely resembles Shrek. If that wasn't bad enough, Robbie Coltrane's line reading sounds uncommonly like that of Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movies. All that is missing in the final CGI-filled confrontation are PlayStation game controllers.

Van Helsing doesn't pretend to be anything other than a comic book adventure, but even comic book adventures need some kind of grounding in reality.

The Hyde creature is swiftly dispatched and we move on to the body of the plot. It transpires that Van H is a kind of James Bond for a mixed religious group, operating out of the Vatican. He is seen receiving the latest weaponry and being briefed on his mission, of which I'm still none the wiser, even after two viewings. In addition to the hardware, he acquires a sidekick in the shape of a novice friar, played by Australian actor David Wenham in a fashion far removed from his heroic Lord Of The Rings role, as Faramir.

Moving on to Transylvania, Van Helsing picks up the next staple of a Sommers film, the feisty heroine, portrayed by genre veteran Kate Beckinsale, looking glam in corsets and tight jodhpurs.

Pause for examination of Hugh Jackman. This capable Australian actor first made his mark as Wolverine in the X-Men films, blending neatly into the ensemble cast. As leading man in Van Helsing, he seems a little adrift and makes for a rather bland hero.

Richard Roxburgh, yet another Aussie, playing Dracula, seems to have modelled his performance on the worst bits of Gary Oldman's Count in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film, pushing him way over the top.

The brides of Dracula are in the plus column. Winningly portrayed, they get the best action scenes and character moments. When in bat mode, they resemble Ray Harryhausen's harpies from Jason And The Argonauts and they get the best use of CGI when they move to bite and their jaws extend to impossible dimensions (although we've seen similar effects in Blade II).

In all the areas that The Mummy succeeded, Van Helsing falls flat. The humour is forced, the ham acting becomes annoying, the plot is too obscure, the monsters are not convincing and even the action seems unexciting. Worse, the film tries to emulate another disappointing comic book adaptation, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which at least was buoyed by Sean Connery's charisma.

The Final Word: as big a fan as I am of The Mummy and Stephen Sommers's earlier Deep Rising, I'm afraid I was unable to warm to Van Helsing and sat through it thoroughly dispirited, occasionally eyeballing the old wristwatch and wondering if I still had time to watch Bubba Ho-Tep afterwards.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2006
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Van Helsing packshot
CGI overload as Dracula hunter encounters famous fictional characters and assorted beasties
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Jennie Kermode **
Sobhano *

Director: Stephen Sommers

Writer: Stephen Sommers

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor, Alun Armstrong, Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran

Year: 2004

Runtime: 145 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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