What is it with Universal Pictures not being able to properly revive their classic Monster Universe? The most recent and heavily panned iteration of The Mummy to kick-start the “Dark Universe” serves as a reminder that they’ve had one consistent problem. All these attempted all focused on action and spectacle rather than atmosphere, suspense and most important of all a strong script. To me, their first attempt was the ultimately ill-fated Van Helsing. This is an overly absurd and only occasionally entertaining blockbuster that really matches the philosophy of “turn your brain off” movies. It is at least honest in what it is as a go-for-broke bonkers popcorn flick than any other subsequent attempts to revive the Universal Monsters.
In 1887 Transylvania, Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) creates a monster (Shuler Hensley), which his master Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) plans to use for his own ends. Frankenstein is betrayed by his assistant Igor and killed by Dracula. The monster escapes the castle but is pursued by an angry village mob to an old windmill. They set it ablaze, with the monster and the doctor’s research apparently destroyed before Dracula can use it.
One year later, monster hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) returns to the Vatican in Rome, having killing the infamous Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane) at the Notre-Dame Cathedral. He learns that his mission to destroy Dracula and his amnesia are penance for unremembered sins that cause nightmares. He is tasked with helping the last of an ancient Romanian bloodline, Velkan (Will Kemp) and Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), who must kill Dracula before their ancestors may enter Heaven. Carl (David Wenham), a friar, provides Van Helsing with aid and weapons and accompanies him to Transylvania. They arrive and meet up with Anna, after successfully repelling Dracula’s brides and join forces to find Dracula and stop him from unleashing his children upon the world.
The cast are all over the place. Despite not having anything substantial to work with, Jackman does a good job as the reimagined Van Helsing, playing the role fairly tongue in cheek at the right times but does try to give the characters some pathos and weight. Beckinsale is far more unbalanced, with her Eastern European accent roving all over the place and failing at the forced emotional beats. Roxburgh is a campy, often comical Dracula, way over the top and never possessing any sense of menace to him; he really isn’t on the level of previous Draculas or even Imhotep in Sommers’ own Mummy films. Wenham tries to make his “comedic” dialogue funny but only succeeds half the time, but is more annoying than not. Hensley’s operatic and wounded performance hints at something resembling the tragic nature of the Creature buried underneath. The brides played by Elena Anaya, Sylvia Colloca and Josie Maran are a screechy and only occasionally scary trio, until they dissolve into a CGI puddle. Coltrane is clearly having fun as the cartoonishly cockney Hyde, and Armstrong lays the faux Italian accent on thickly as the Cardinal.
While the creature designs are mostly good and fairly faithful to what people imagine their monstrous to be, much of the CGI now looks dated and over-exploited, with obvious, digitally creature work that doesn’t hold up so well. The CGI vistas and castles, while also heavily dated, are semi-passable. The more subtle morphing effects are the best ones such as the transformation of the brides from harpies to beautiful women, thanks to the use of motion capture. Meanwhile, anything more extravagant looks pretty poor; especially the dissolving effects on one of the brides or the transformation effects on Dracula and the werewolves. The worst is the CGI vampire spawn. The few instances were prosthetics and animatronics are used go by so quickly you’d be forgiven for thinking this film didn’t have any. But to their credit, the makeup on Frankenstein’s Creature is sufficiently detailed and unique but similar in its own way.
For a film selling itself so much on its action and creatures to win you over, this film is very messy in that regard. Most of the action scenes are so rapidly edited and lengthy that they gradually get less exciting as the film wears on, everyone jumps around like the world they live in is one big trapeze act. The cinematography is schizophrenic and restless, the colourful and oversaturated blues and sharp contrast make it difficult to make things out. The overuse of lightning gets grating as the climax continues. There are many shots that look fantastic and many that frankly just look like sets. Little details that take you out of the movie really start to pile up, such as all the torrential rain falling on Dracula’s Castle which would have caused any remaining snow to be melted away by now, but you can clearly see the artificial snow lying where it’s placed.
The score by Alan Silvestri is rather fun, it revels in the over the top Gothic elements and combines them with fast paced action cues, heroic fanfares, and heavy use of a choir. There are areas where it dials back to rely on eerie and atmospheric music, but is predominantly action focused. Fortunately, the theme for Anna Valerious is one of Alan’s better themes created for this film, and could have been the standout piece in a different film.
One of the film’s biggest failings is the script, while Sommers’ Mummy films were no doubt laden with modern dialogue; here it comes across as particularly slapdash and lazy. Almost every scene contains some form of exposition to keep the plot going, and as such the characters get little in the way of development. The logical fallacies and unbelievable coincidences pile up. It tries to be suspenseful, adventurous and comedic at various beats, and very rarely succeeds at any of them, if ever depending on who you ask. The film revolves around characters being sufficiently dumb enough to fall victim to a rogues gallery of fairly transparent (sometimes literally) monsters and solve a mystery that is in of itself far too easily deduced. When characters you’re supposed to care about get killed off, there’s no emotional weight to it. The climax goes for an emotional gut punch before the very end, and it just isn’t earned.
The film starts out well enough, with a black and white opening paying homage to the Universal Monster movies of old, but on a grander scale. Even the dodgy effects seem better masked by letting the colour go in favour for dynamic lighting. The dialogue is not much better than the rest of the film, but it’s at least closer to the mark. One almost wonders if the whole film should have been shot in black and white. I would even say that despite the CGI and overly gymnastic Mr Hyde, the interplay between Van Helsing and Hyde gives a good impression of what the film could have been as a campy blend of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes in 19th century Europe.
The James Bond comparisons are evident within the first twenty minutes, with the cold opening establishing the tone and setting, the agent on a character establishing mission, then reporting to his superior who details from M, I mean the Cardinal; rendezvousing with his weapons and gadgets specialist Q, I mean Carl; and finally travelling to the location of interest and meeting up with the love interest. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t pay off as well as it could. For all his gadgets and bravado, Van Helsing really isn’t that good at his job, being at the mercy of the whim of coincidence and arbitrary plot beats.
I could forgive Van Helsing’s farcical, gratuitous action and its overblown tone if for one reason only: if it didn’t bore me. Not to say it’s boring all the way through but by the time the third act kicks in it becomes a slog to get through with set piece after set piece and nothing to hold it together. I wouldn’t call Van Helsing the worst summer movie ever seen, but I would say it had one of the most missed potential. It isn’t even the worst of Universal’s attempts to revive their classic monster library, and that’s saying something. The whole affair is campy, gratuitous and over the top as you can get, but all the flash and bang doesn’t amount to much. Even as a basic eye-candy turn-your-brain off film, it wears out too quickly.