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'Van Helsing' is no match for 'Godzilla'

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2004



If you're a die-hard "Dracula" devotee like me, the name Van Helsing conjures up memories of Bram Stoker's great gothic novel and its progeny, including Tod Browning's classic 1931 movie.

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I've just seen the new picture called "Van Helsing," though, and those nostalgic vibes are fading fast.

This isn't a horror movie, it's a sensory assault, full of flaming fireballs and shrieking banshees that make your eyes and ears feel as jeopardized as a vampire at sunrise.

Taking a cue from low-budget horror hashes of old, "Van Helsing" pours every ingredient it can find into its caldron, from Dr. Jekyll's alter ego to the Wolf Man's favorite poem.

At the center is our hero (Hugh Jackman, in his biggest role to date), who discovers that Frankenstein's monster holds the key to Dracula's demise. At his side is a friar with supernatural knowledge (David Wenham) and a lovely woman (Kate Beckinsale) who makes Charlie's Angels look like wimps.

The movie has some fine visual touches, but it's edited so quickly that there's no time for real atmosphere to build.

Nor is there a shred of psychology to the characters, human or otherwise, thus foreclosing any emotional connection with them.

In sum, "Van Helsing" is yet another video game disguised as a wide-screen epic. Here's hoping the box office drives a firm wooden stake through its hokey Hollywood heart.

For a more thoughtful dose of horror, look for "Godzilla" in its new release. This isn't the heavy-handed Hollywood remake of 1998, nor the cut-and-spliced Japanese version that stormed American screens in 1956. It's the true original edition, directed by Ishiro Honda in 1954 and never distributed in the United States until now.

If you've seen Mr. Honda's movie before, you probably remember its slapdash voice-dubbing and - stranger still - the unlikely presence of Raymond Burr in a leading role.

The scenes with Burr were shot in Hollywood two years after Honda completed the picture, though, and spliced into the story on the (sadly accurate) theory that American moviegoers won't flock to a film unless it contains a face they're already familiar with. To squeeze the Burr scenes in, the US distributor clipped out 20 minutes, and then added 20 more minutes to suit American attention spans.

Most inexcusable of all, the US distributor decided that the movie's serious message was more serious than Saturday-night monster fans could handle. So that landed on the cutting-room floor as well.

Ironically, a different kind of serious message emerges from this act of money-driven censorship. Just nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by US atomic bombs, the recently traumatized people of Japan welcomed a commercial movie suggesting that nuclear tests might stir up physical and psychological demons - symbolized by Godzilla - awakened to mass destruction by precisely such tests, that humanity is unprepared to handle. Two years later, Americans were deemed unready for such a message by their own entertainment industry.

Not that Honda's original "Godzilla" is a message movie first and foremost. It's a horror flick, and an ingenious one at that, with visual effects so vivid that gimmicky spin-offs became an enduring staple of popular film.

Its producers gave it what was then Japan's biggest-ever budget, enabling Honda to make the title monster the most realistic of its day. He was also able to cast Takashi Shimura, of "The Seven Samurai" fame, for the main human role.

So step aside, King Kong, even if you do have another remake of your own coming from "Lord of the Rings" guru Peter Jackson next year. Godzilla is back, and he still has something to teach us.

"Van Helsing," rated PG-13, and "Godzilla," not rated, both contain violence.

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