Van Helsing (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the 1930s, monster movies were the staples of Universal Pictures' line-up, a cash cow as the industry metamorphosed from silent films to talkies. Although the monsters came in all sizes and flavors, none could match the appeal of the "Big Three": Dracula, Frankenstein (a misnomer – properly, it should be "Frankenstein's creation"), and The Wolf Man. By the early '40s, however, the monsters were getting long in the tooth and losing their appeal. Karloff had traded in the boots and make-up for mad scientist roles. Lugosi had hung up his cape. And Chaney had begun multi-tasking. In 1943, in an attempt to revive interest, Universal introduced the first of three cross-over films, in which more than one of the Big Three appeared. That was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (the two principals are obvious). A modest success, it was followed by House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, both of which featured all three. The "golden era" of Univeral monster movies officially ended in 1948, when Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man met Abbott and Costello. This final movie has not aged well, and represents little more than a painfully embarrassing footnote to a series of films that grew increasingly more campy with each new sequel.

Turn the calendar ahead nearly 50 years. Writer/director Stephen Sommers, the man who brought The Mummy back from the grave and turned it into a successful franchise, has decided to attempt the same with the Big Three. It's a nice idea and, at least in principle, appeals greatly to the 8-year old inside of me. Yet even the Creature Double Feature-addicted child that I once was would be appalled by the results. Sommers has conclusively proven that some things are better left buried. Despite being armed with the latest in special effects technology (which he overuses and abuses), Sommers has crafted a trio of monsters that are even more woebegone than they were in the Abbott and Costello encounter. Van Helsing is the worst would-be summer blockbuster since Battlefield Earth.

Before I start mercilessly shredding this movie, let me offer a silver lining. Those who delight in bad movies and enjoy producing their own unfilmed versions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may gain a measure of semi-masochistic enjoyment out of Van Helsing. There are quite a few unintentionally funny moments, although the overall experience was too intensely painful for me to be able to advocate it as being "so bad, it's good." (The length is part of the problem - boredom eventually overwhelms cheesiness.) Some, however, will doubtless view it as such. More power to them, since sitting through this movie requires something more than a strong constitution and a capacity for self-torture.

The storyline is simple enough, as befits a screenplay written with pre-pubescent boys in mind. It's also excruciatingly dumb, but that probably won't come as a surprise to many people. After all, how many smart monster movies are there? Late 19th-century superhero Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) arrives in Transylvania at the behest of a secret religious organization to stop Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) from spreading his evil across the world. With the help of local vampire hunter Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), Van Helsing stalks Dracula, who is searching for Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley). The monster is apparently very good with electricity, and Dracula needs his help to give birth to a swarm of baby vampires. To make matters more difficult for Van Helsing and Anna, the count has a pet werewolf on hand, not to mention three harpy wives. Then there are all those bats, cobwebs, and inconvenient electrical storms. Each of the principals has an assistant. The vampire is served by Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), who appears to have arrived here fresh out of Young Frankenstein, and Van Helsing is abetted by Friar Carl (David Wenham), who is obviously an ancestor of 007's Q.

Van Helsing has an unfortunate case of amnesia, which thankfully saves us from having to learn about his past - the present is bad enough. This raises the question of whether all Hugh Jackman superheroes have memory problems. Cut Van Helsing's hair and give him long fingernails, and you'd have Wolverine - except that Jackman's performance in X-Men is considerably better. In fact, the only reason Jackman doesn't come across as inept is because he's surrounded by actors who are doing worse jobs. Kate Beckinsale's performance, for example, makes one yearn for the superior work she turned out in Pearl Harbor (the less said about her accent, or with it, the better). Richard Roxburgh portrays Dracula as a cross between Tinkerbell and his frothing-at-the-mouth Duke in Moulin Rouge. The count would have been better served had the filmmakers violated Bela Lugosi's grave and propped up the dead actor's corpse. And Shuler Hensley offers a Frankenstein's monster that's more Herman Munster than Karloff.

Not all of the humor in Van Helsing is unintentional, although everything that's actually funny is. The scripted comedy is feeble, such as when Friar Carl falls over a couch backwards. Now that's a moment guaranteed to bring down the house with laughter. (Sommers was slightly, but not greatly, more successful integrating humor into the Mummy movies.) In the interests of keeping the MPAA rating PG-13, the violence has been toned down so that the most gruesome stuff occurs just off camera. Also, Dracula's three topless harpy wives do not have nipples, and when they appear in human form, their naked flesh becomes mysteriously covered by a bikini top.

It's easy enough to praise the set design, which is wasted in a movie such as this. Sure, the castles all look great, but so what? The special effects have the cheesy, artificial look of computer generated images that have not been effectively incorporated. The werewolf and vampire transformations are downright silly. And the climactic battle is between two soulless, anonymous CGI creations. At least in The Matrix Revolutions, Neo and Smith were mostly played by human beings. Here, we're essentially seeing animation - technically slick but emotionally inert, and not even briefly exciting.

Curiously, Universal distributed a notice to critics requesting that we keep the final 30 minutes of the movie under wraps so as not to spoil the "surprises" for potential viewers. I would be more than happy to oblige, but I can't figure out what those secrets are. The only thing startling about the final half-hour is that it's just as bad as the preceding 100 minutes. I suppose we learn why Van Helsing is named "Gabriel" instead of "Abraham" (as in Stoker's book), but the explanation doesn't make much more sense than the random set of rules that Sommers establishes for vampires and werewolves. Somehow, I don't think the bloodsuckers in this film are any more averse to garlic than Emeril Lagasse.

Most monster movies are entrenched in the horror genre, but so little about Van Helsing is scary that Sommers is forced to rely on action. There's plenty of that, but each set piece outlasts its welcome, and the exposition that fills the interludes is hollow and boring. 15 minutes into the movie, we're already tired of the artificiality of the fights and chases, but there's still two hours to go. Van Helsing quickly becomes an exercise in repetition, which leads to tedium. Watching a movie about vampires, werewolves, and other assorted monsters is supposed to be fun, not drudgery. After enduring the atrocities perpetrated upon them by Sommers (which will not have any more of a lasting effect than the encounter with Abbott and Costello), hopefully the Big Three can return to their resting places, where they will remain undisturbed by that most heinous of motion picture possibilities: Van Helsing 2.

Van Helsing (United States, 2004)

Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor
Screenplay: Stephen Sommers
Cinematography: Allen Daviau
Music: Alan Silvestri
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2004-05-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1