Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. This week, Dracula Untold is due to be released by Universal Studios, trying to establish a universe with their Monster properties in the vein of the comic book movies of late (and neglecting to have Brendan Fraser fight them all). For fuck’s sake, they’re draining three ideas this time around: The idea of explaining why the bad guy ain’t so bad after all, the unnecessary origin story, and the CGI effects driven creature feature that honestly is nothing more than an attempt to showcase a very very fake superimposition of an incredibly unoriginal design. And it sucks to say this, but there is one particular director who specializes in this third idea without ever really bagging a huge amount of money behind it. Not Michael Bay, not Zack Snyder…
I once actually came upon a funny tidbit about Stephen Sommers on IMDb in my early movie-frenzy days of 2007. I just went back to his page to find, to my glee, that said tidbit is still there, whether true or false.
“Industrial Light and Magic jokingly created the “Stephen Sommers Scale” to measure the extent of digital effects used in a given movie scene. The four parts of the scale, from lowest to highest, are “What the Shot Needs”, “What the Computers Can Handle”, “Oh my God, the Computers Are About to Crash”, and finally “What Stephen Wants”.” –source
Hahaha, but it’s straight to the point I’m making. These movies of Underworld and Priest and Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein, these bloodless retreads upon covered ground that add just a bit more grit and a whole lot more CGI monsters to the roof to make it seem both fresh and intense. These are all Sommers’ fault. His movies really are just so much excess of battles that are unengaging and repetitive with one entity of the battle just not really on the screen, so much as just having a degree of separation from the action, that I would be unsurprised if Michael Bay spoke to Sommers and told him, dude, you need to stop. But, hey, now everybody filmmaker vaguely interested in this generic output is going ahead with it and it’s not like it didn’t make money when Sommers did this. It just didn’t make as much that I expected it to blow up as a fad.
But then again, it was something Universal Studios went HAM on during this era. Re-packaging their well-known monster titles in order to get with what the kids were into these days, effects-extravanganzas like The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings and nostalgia, but not too much nostalgia so the movie’s don’t get mistaken as respectful to the essence of their concepts. Sommers was just the perfect man in their backpocket to bring these evil pipedreams to life.
The most obvious and easy to associate perpetration of this crime against cinema is Van Helsing, a 2004 Hugh Jackman vehicle which re-imagined Bram Stoker’s old, wise, and eccentric as a hip, young Vatican detective. How fucking kewl.
No, I’m not going to lie, this concept intrigued me. As a matter of fact, since we’re bringing all my skeletons out of the closet, I think I should mention that Van Helsing bought me so hard with its CGI and its contrived plot that it was my favorite movie when it came out. I bought it and still own the DVD to it. I was like, 12 at the time, so I have maybe that excuse. I didn’t know who Dreyer or Murnau or Bergman were. I liked the Universal Monsters and liked the idea of having them all in one movie that had them fight against one man. I was kind of stupid. I would argue I’m still kind of stupid, but in the more severe way than the folly of youth that is ignorance.
If I still have your respect enough to keep reading, this fact of my love for Van Helsing should prove that if the formula didn’t work in the field of quality, it worked in the field of profit. People went to see the movie and it made bank. It was the highest grossing vampire picture until Twilight came around and dethroned it. So, there’s that.
Anyway, I basically summed up the plot: Gabriel Van Helsing (Jackman), in this incarnation, is not facing off merely Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), but dealing with a motley crew involving a werewolf/man, Velkan (Will Kemp), who is hunted by Dracula for some reason, and a Monster made of cadavers (Shuler Hensley) who is also hunted by Dracula for some reason. Nobody seems to be on the same side, really, or have the same intentions. Only one of the ways that this movie is a complete mess, but 12-year-old me didn’t give a damn. The movie has Kate Beckinsale also in it, hunting Dracula for some reason, because Jackman needs a damn fine love interest and like hell will he upstaged by any competent acting.
In fact, Jackman happens to be one of a handful of decent performances, largely thanks to not relenting to the extravagantly camp Roxburgh whose Dracula comes off as one of those really slimy nightclub regulars with a fucking terrible Transylvanian accent that nobody from any part of Romania can probably see without being offended and speaking of terrible fucking accents (not a single Transylvanian character in this 132 minute fucking movie has the same idea of what sounds Transylvanian)… hey hey, that Beckinsale gal can’t be saved by a single part of her performance. Jackman and David Wenham, the latter playing a comic relief friar who makes a bunch of cool gadgets that showcase steampunk sensibilities, are totally game in their roles, it just happens to suck that said roles as do not work as a concept (Carl is… pretty much not funny).
The only actually good performance out of the whole thing is Shuler Hensley, the only person involved in the whole movie to know where the fuck his character comes from and as such is able to make hamfisted pseudo-existential dialogue actually sound close to profound compared to the rest of the movie’s line-deliveries.
And these fucking lines as written are just among the hundred of things that makes this way too long movie even more unbearable. You know those arguments where you try to get the last word and have to make it sound cool as shit? That’s how this movie is, except they’re not arguments. Everybody is trying to win this bad one-liner contest. The first scene we meet Van Helsing is a fight with Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane; motion-captured by Hensley) and Hyde does not say a single thing that doesn’t sound like shit some smug asshole would expect his posse to go “ooooohhhh!!!” at. Like “Here I come, ready or not” and “my turn”, but all treated as this end of non-sequiters. It doesn’t end. That’s basically how the conversation goes between Van Helsing and one of the Vatican Cardinals go (Alun Armstrong, this wide-eyed bloke who I’ve never seen in a movie without this look on his face like somebody caught him masturbating), Van Helsing versus the villains, everything. They stop whole fight scenes just for moments of this, like intercutting the attack on Transylvania by Dracula’s Brides, with a dumb one-on-one scene of Anna (that’s Beckinsale’s character) and Aleera (Elena Anaya) spitting these lines “like I know vaht lurks in ur lusting haert” that don’t matter to anything going on.
Keep in mind, this movie is 132 minutes with setpiece after setpiece like this (no really decent plot driving them) and unnecessary fucking scenes that would rather speak airheaded dialogue than even invest itself in a consistent storyline. It only tries to pretend it was getting somewhere in the final half where they force even plot elements the audience didn’t even consider to collide into a turd of a resolution (There are two movies I have seen where the intended twist went right the fuck over my head in every viewing until I had to be told there was a twist – Van Helsing and Men in Black II. I have to applaud anyone who catches them because Van Helsing‘s requires that you have some amount of knowledge of the lore of angels, while Men in Black II‘s just didn’t matter.) I shouldn’t need to say this running time is not earned worth a fuck.
Fuck you, 12-year-old me for loving this movie.
But this is making me way too mad for myself and it’s way too late in the night. So, let me think of other things than Hensley that salvage a bit of the film. And there are only two things: First, it still has a few competent setpieces. The opening is a tolerable pastiche of black-and-white imagery out of the 30s Universal Monster films that Van Helsing seems to trick you for a moment into thinking you’re almost going to see a good film, even though the dialogue is still stinted and Roxburgh insists on shitting on the scenes with flourishes of forced madness like snarling “huuuuuuumans” and sparks fly out of machinery. But Hensley also steps onto the film in this scene and gives a pretty powerful presence, even with his face mostly covered. And there’s an extremely entertaining horse scene that, even though it doesn’t dodge the bullet of having it end in ‘splosions, is able to keep me entertained with some rapid pacing and great beats.
And the score is, frankly, on my iTunes and has never left. Alan Silvestri made this brassy but sweeping score that sounds right at home on a playlist that includes the works of Nightwish, a whitewashed gothic tone, headed by a song that I never neglect to play when I am on a road trip, “Journey to Transylvania“. Just listen to that guitar work. Of course this is to be expected from the established veteran.
But that’s it and even then, Silvestri’s work has some forgettable pieces that don’t reach half the heights “Journey to Transylvania” reaches (the very low-ceiling sound mix ruins it anyway by making the movie sound like a bang and then a whisper haphazardly all over the fucking place) and for some decent setpieces, the movie constantly has this problem with its cinematography by previous Spielberg collaborator Allen Daviau that astonishes me as such bad work, I can’t even tell what the flaw is… it’s either underlit as shit except for a few lucky scenes that were probably green-screened or it’s film-grained with the cans they had in the very very fucking back of the warehouse. I don’t know, but the guy hasn’t shot anything except some educational films and shorts (4 in total) since this movie, so did he just give the fuck up?
In any case, Sommers went on to produce a mix between some of the most disposable movies I’ve seen (Odd Thomas) and the worst movies I’ve seen (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). But he didn’t always fail so magnificently… If it weren’t for his earlier 90s fare, I’d have considered his track record worse than Bay and Snyder. But we do have the 90s fare, namely The Jungle Book and The Mummy. The Mummy however is the one most relevant to this discussion… since it is the very very first of Universal’s “let’s modernize this monster thing to the hip kids” trend that is being rebooted.
Now, with Van Helsing, I think the main problem is that Sommers didn’t have a specific style to go with – he might have considered making a black-and-white film, but that’s way to niche to carry a movie without the right direction… so I guess it’s self-awareness that kept him of the deep end – a goal to hit with what he’s trying to make his movie into and that’s why we got a giant piss puddle of a movie. But The Mummy doesn’t have this problem. It’s very obvious what The Mummy is going for…
Sommers was trying to make a ’30s Republic serial. More specifically, what he thought a ’30s Republic serial was, based on Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark. Because, well, his interviews say “serial”, but his movie says “ramshackle version of Raiders because it’s also based on a serial and Sommers has never seen a fucking ’30s serial in his life”. But that’s fine, because it works. It makes the movie incredibly consistent at the least.
And with this consistency allows for some fun to be had. We don’t have to go “Wait a minute, where’s this movie getting at?”, but just be allowed to shut off our brains (if we wish) without feeling insulted. The Mummy is my perfect “shut off my brain” movie, flaws and all.
So in Ancient Thebes, the high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) has been getting along well with the Pharaoh’s wife Anuck-su-namun (Patricia Velasquez) and as a result, they end up in deep shit with both the Pharaoh and Anuck-su-namun dead. Apparently, that doesn’t lead to Imhotep being punished, because he tries to bring back Anuck-su-namun back to life, and THAT voodoo shit gets him in deep to be punished in the most severe manner, swearing to return as a plague on the land.
Fast-forward to 1923, and siblings Evelyn and Jonathan Carnahan (Rachel Weisz and John Hannah) have come upon a map that claims to lead to the lost city of Hamunaptra and their interest is piqued to the point of arranging for the freedom of the French-American soldier who Jonathan stole it from and claims to have been there, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser). From there on, the three reach Hamunaptra along with everybody else who happen to be looking for what is the world’s most easiest to find “lost” city and unknowingly unleash the curse of Imhotep, as his evil spirit begins to use gruesome methods to make himself wholly flesh before taking an obsession with Evelyn…
Let’s get something straight: The Mummy barely passes by me as a good movie and it’s very likely I may just be biased against its flaws. It has many of the same problems Van Helsing has: Namely, a lack of plot in exchange for setpieces and it doesn’t even have a score half as memorable as Van Helsing‘s.
But there’s a lot of elements that insist I forgive many of these flaws. For one, the CGI is not nearly as constant as it was in the powerhouse of Van Helsing. Scarab scenes and some pretty video-game looking sand shapes, but it’s not really as obvious the movie is riding on these moments as it was in Van Helsing and a lot of those scenes have fun elements of gunfights and swordfights that feel straight out of one of the Indiana Jones movies. It’s definitely a ramshackled version of Indy, but any Indy is welcome by me.
In spite of the lack of plot, the audience is more involved by a significantly more competent cast – Fraser needs to come back. He was a pretty stock but effective leading man in the movie, he had the quippy attitude, the rugged look, he seemed to know what he was doing with every weapon, I wouldn’t be surprised to watch an old jungle film and see him as the rugged, handsome adventurer. Hannah becomes the very wily but still ill-lucked comic relief. Weisz is the intelligent young beautiful ingenue who transfixes the monster. They’re all two-dimensional, but they feel like they’re all having fun and just shining out energy into the audience that makes the world more involving. We even get an exotic honor-bound foreigner in the form of Oded Fehr’s Ardeth Bey (the secret identity of the Mummy in the 1932 original film) and a wise all-knowing source of exposition in Ardeth’s father Terrence (Erick Avari), the only two Arab characters in the film (though Fehr is Israeli and Avari Indian, so they’re at least convincing to general audiences if not convincing to actual Arabs by me) that are more than just simple-minded racist caricatures, either sleazy slimeballs of grease or masses of braindead slaves (the Beys are still intense individuals). The Mummy is for the record one of two movies that are racist towards Arabs that I feel get to get away with it and that’s because in the type of movies that The Mummy tries to pay homage to you had to up the element of a strange land in anyway possible. That meant sometimes the ’30s had to show a very close-minded approach to cultural expansion – “This place would be great if it weren’t for the people”. Fucked up, but I doubt The Mummy was promoting this so much as acknowledging it was an unfortunate thing. There is even a throwaway silent joke about how cultures are portrayed that always makes me smile, where Rick straight up lights a match on Ardeth’s face. They got the yards covered.
But that doesn’t make up for lack of plot alone. Instead, it’s the momentum behind the setpieces that really keeps me involved in the story. The film, after its prolonged first act, ends up resembling something of a Five Little Indians scenario where we know exactly who the victims will be and using their deaths as markers for the real showdown. When Vosloo (who isn’t as good at communicating tragedy as he just is at looking very menacing without saying much) finally returns in full flesh, the story stalls briefly before becoming more or less a chase across the desert, going both ways… Imhotep after our heroes, then our heroes after Imhotep. This had me fooled for years watching the movie before I finally noticed the lack of plot development.
Whatever, though. If nothing else, the whole movie looks like it was baked in gold, the yellows are not distractingly saturated, but brought out just enough to feel some warmth in the setting of the film (even though for all its personality, the cinematography doesn’t really bring out the flair as much as the actors, direction, and script.) It’s essentially a ride for me. Doesn’t make it a good movie, but passable for me. In any case, it’s not an epic by any means, nor is it compelling romance, but its briskness sweeps me around enough to forget that this movie is basically two hours as well. It’s a distraction, a very silly one but one I can get into.
Anyway, in the end, we have to note for certain that while The Mummy and Van Helsing are not in the same absolute playing field towards content and quality, the truth is that they both have a similar approach to well-established material, attempting to give us thrills in lieu of scares. Do you know what this makes Sommers’ movies then?
That makes them action-adventure films. Not horror films. They never intended to be scary with this material, even though it probably should have been at least attempted. What a fucking twist.
And as you sit there in complete contempt of me saying “Salim, why the fuck did you waste all this time writing about an adventure film?” I will say, “‘Cause shut up!” and run the fuck out.