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Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2004
What are you trying to do? Scare us?
I've got to hand it to M. Night Shyamalan: His releases are always preceded by killer previews. Whether he can make a film that's half as good, however, is another matter.
His latest, "The Village" has a wicked little trailer that promises pure, crawl-under-your-seat terror. Come to think of it, so did his last flick, "Signs." But like that film, perhaps even more so, what we get is a movie that's strangely lacking in the fright department. Rule No. 1 of horror/suspense filmmaking: Your audience should never, ever, get to the climax and be left wondering, "Is that it?"
Despite what the trailers would have us think, Shyamalan's films are less scare-fests than exercises in the out-of-left-field, last-reel surprise. These are the sort of cheap tricks that can fuel a decent 25 minutes of "The Twilight Zone" or "Creepshow," but seem rather hard to sustain over a full two hours.
"The Village" starts off, as do all Shyamalan's films, quite promisingly, quickly creating a creepy atmosphere of dread. We're taken inside a remote Pennsylvania village, sometime in the 19th century. All contact with the outside world has been lost due to the forbidding dark forest outside the village's protective barriers. That's where "those we don't speak of" reside. The color red must be avoided at all costs, since it will attract the forest's ghastly denizens. And entering the forest is forbidden, as that also provokes the beasts. Add Adrian Brody as the village madman, gibbering like a loon, "They're coming, they're coming!" just to keep us all on edge.
Again, just like "Signs," as long as we don't see what's out there, it's quite terrifying. Rustling in the brush or ominous groans emanating from off-screen will raise the hairs on your neck. However, once Shyamalan actually shows us the menace, it doesn't seem like much. This is a total failure of technique: Scenes that need to scare the bejesus out of us just don't do it. The film's peak, when a blind girl (played by the promising Bryce Dallas Howard) is stalked in the woods, is a home-run ball waiting to be smacked, but Shyamalan swings at air.
Finally, the last-reel shocker, the cunning twist that Shyamalan has been building his entire film toward, is laughably implausible. The film's distributors, Buena Vista, made critics sign a pledge that we would not reveal any key details of the plot in our reviews, and far be it from me to break a coerced promise. But for those who must see this film, I'll say only one word: Boeing.
Like Shyamalan, Stephen Sommers is another director who seems to have found his niche and seems content to run it into the ground. After the surprise success of "The Mummy," Sommers has decided that his shtick is revved-up and computer-graphic-heavy remakes of classic monster flicks. Operating under the same "more is better" principle of capitalism that has brought us super-size 32 oz. cups of cola, Sommers loads his latest, "Van Helsing," with all the old monster-movie icons: Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman. (With a cameo from Mr. Hyde to boot.)
You'd be hard pressed to point to a single scene in this film that wasn't quoting -- or lifting -- from something else. Think Baz Luhrman ("Moulin Rouge") minus the campiness. Van Helsing himself, played by Hugh Jackman ("X-Men"), is the old vampire hunter lifted from Bram Stoker's novel, but updated to be an "extreme" superhero cross between Blade and 007. The James Bond lift is apparent when Van Helsing, an intercontinental hit-man for the Vatican (ha!), is called to a secret basement headquarters beneath St. Peter's Basilica, where a fussy monk (David Wenham, modeled on Bond's "Q") equips him with an arsenal of Victorian gadgetry, like a rapid-fire, silver-arrow crossbow and holy-water hand grenades.
Van Helsing is sent to Transylvania where he is to battle Dracula and his harem of brides in the service of Gypsy Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale, cinema's current Goth star). The land is also terrorized by lycanthropes and the specter of Frankenstein's monster, who holds the secret to godless creation of life, something Dracula is after to bring his stillborn children to life and, you know, rule the world. (The corridor filled with slime-encrusted hanging egg-sacs is pure "Aliens.")
This is silly stuff, but almost entirely lacking the verve and wit that marked "The Mummy." It takes some really wooden, colorless performances by Jackman and Beckinsale here to make you realize just how good Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz were in that film. Richard Roxburgh has some fun camping it up as the Count, but Jackman doesn't rise to the challenge, refusing to put the slightest inflection into his lines.
This is a film that relies entirely upon its CG effects and let's not mince our words here: They're cheesy, fuzzy in the details, and unconvincing in the monsters' obviously programmed point-to-point movements. Worst of all, they're sooooo comic-book: werewolves with torsos thrice the size of Schwarzenegger and naked succubi with curiously nipple-less breasts. Mr. Hyde, meanwhile, talks like Fat Bastard and crawls up buildings like King Kong. It's the kind of contemporary group-think creature design that has become the norm in Hollywood, but was previously best left to Dungeons & Dragons rule books and Iron Maiden album art. It's guaranteed to look hopelessly dated in 10 years' time, that is if anyone still remembers this eminently forgettable film.