Van Helsing is not only an irritatingly busy, soulless disappointment, but repeats the mistakes (and even the miscastings) from a run of recent attempts at wrestling myths and characters of classic gothic into franchise-friendly thrill-rides. Director-writer Stephen Sommers is already responsible for the headache-inducing, CGI-swamped Mummy films, while the cast finds room for refugees from such hardly-stellar items as Underworld, in which Kate Beckinsale first essayed wirework stunts in unfeasably tight trousers, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which Richard Roxburgh’s Moriarty was every bit as feeble as his Disney cartoon villainess reading of Dracula here. From LXG, Van Helsing even poaches a Fat Bastard-style take on Mr Hyde (here voiced by Robbie Coltrane) in a Paris-set sequence that references another classic (there, Murders in the Rue Morgue; here, The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
This cycle trades on audience affection for classic characters but is somehow completely unable to connect with what made them interesting in the first place – for all its bluster and budget, this brings less to the table than Guy Maddin’s micro-budgeted Dracula Pages From a Virgin’s Diary or even the weakest of the original Universal studios monster rallies, from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Coming from the corporate heirs of the studio that first developed these characters as franchises in the 1930s and ‘40s, Van Helsing finds tiny space for echoes of the originals – Samuel West gasping ‘it’s alive!’ in a monochrome prologue, the ‘even a man who is pure in heart’ rhyme from The Wolf Man, a paraphrased Igor line from Son of Frankenstein.
But the characters have no stature here, and their CGI transformed incarnations displace no weight at all; in the 1986 kid-comedy The Monster Squad, the same crew of classic creatures were brought out of retirement (even Van Helsing) and Fred Dekker’s film, though ramshackle, glowed with a child’s love for the Monster and a sense that Dracula should be the worst villain of all. Here, we have a Monster who seems to be doing a humourless take on Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein and a vampire king who is in a perpetual and literal hissy fit, surrounded by what seem like Jawas in what looks like Mount Doom. The three vampire brides, patterned after Francis Coppola’s harpie seductresses, look impressive – between Van Helsing, gypsy royalty and the vampires, there is evidently a superfluity of hair care products in this Transylvania – but get only repetitive swoop-and-snarl, transform-and-putrefy business.
A problem with Dracula movies has been finding villainy large-scale enough to be worth the attention of such a fiend. Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, in a wonderful passage, suggests the vampire intends to be ‘father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.’ Sommers elaborates on this to suggest the Count needs the Frankenstein Monster as a living component of a bit of sparking gadgetry which will animate gargoyle-like bat-homunculi incubated in Alien egg-sacs. This makes sense if, as it seems for most of the film, Dracula is the only male vampire in the world – but a late sequence, hurrying through affectless homage to Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires, brings on a whole population of the beasts, only to get rid of them instantly with a light-grenade gimmick laboriously set up earlier and (like a flash of insectile mouth-parts) clearly poached from Blade II. The whole film is like that: rushing so quickly to the next stunt-byte or effect that it leaves the last situation unresolved, with explanatory dialogue that all but comes out and says ‘just shut up and accept it’. Among many unthought-through implications is the extraordinarily unwieldy gypsy vow that motivates half the plot and which, logically, means Dracula too (born a Valerious) should get a free-pass to heaven in the finale.
It is typical of the ungenerosity of modern Hollywood that, as with LXG, a ten-minute end credits scroll lists every technician in the Czech Republic but omits the names of the authors who created the characters in the first place. As it happens, another LXG carry-over (adding up to a lot of borrowings from a source few would bother to plunder) is that this hero might as well be Dick Turpin, Batman, Buffalo Bill or some new-minted evil-fighter for all that it matters. Stoker’s Professor Abraham Van Helsing was a fussy, eccentric elderly Dutchman – a reading of the role taken by Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Lom, Frank Finlay and Laurence Olivier, none of whom dared attempt Stoker’s oddest bit of business, Van Helsing’s maniacal ‘King Laugh’. Van Helsing’s strongest screen incarnation was Peter Cushing’s Holmesian scientist-swashbuckler in Hammer’s Dracula and sequels, especially Brides of Dracula.
Hugh Jackman’s needlessly-renamed Gabriel Van Helsing has a kinship with Cushing, and even more with such scenery-swinging, gadget-wielding foes of evil as Horst Jansen’s Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter or Wesley Snipes’s Blade. Given a vacuum for a backstory (he remembers being at Masada in 73AD, but little else) that Dracula implies he knows more about than we ever do, this Van Helsing does nothing for Jackman’s post-Wolverine heroic cred. Aside from jumping around, firing off crossbow bolts and rescuing folk (Sommers is as fond of unfatal falls from high places as Joel Schumacher’s Batman films), he shows little character (he was a better Victorian good guy in Kate and Leopold) and is stuck with costumes, lines and weapons handed down from more established heroes.
It is probably time lovers of classic monsters lobbied congress for a bill along the lines of the list of films protected from colorisation to keep Stephen Sommers away from the Black Lagoon.
First published in Sight & Sound.
2004, US. Directed by Stephen Sommers. Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Shuler Hensley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Samuel West.
If there’s anything worse than a terrible film, it’s a terrible film that ought to be great. Given the combination of a post-Wolverine Hugh Jackman action hero and a triumvirate of classic monsters – Count Dracula (all-time baddest baddie ever), Frankenstein (which is what the creature gets called here), the Wolf Man (indeed, several) – this would seem to be something that couldn’t miss. Hell, even The Monster Squad was great. However, Universal Studios have entrusted their monster franchise to big time hack writer-director-producer Stephen Sommers, a man guilty of the CGI-swamped Mummy movies and continues here in the same breathless, breakneck, gotta-keep-moving vein.
In a black and white prologue, Frankenstein (West) toils amid the usual crackling equipment as a mob storms the castle. Dracula (Roxburgh), who has sponsored the experiments, double-crosses Frankenstein and tries to make off with the Monster (Hensley) for his own nefarious ends. In colour, we meet Gabriel Van Helsing (Jackman), monster-destroyer at large in the employ of a ridiculous inter-faith secret religious society. Van Helsing polishes off Mr Hyde, in a scene dangerously reminiscent of last year’s League of Extraordinary Disappointment, and gets his next job, which is basically killing Dracula but complicated by (get this!) a vow made by a gypsy four hundred years earlier that his whole family won’t get into heaven unless Dracula is killed before the line dies out. The family is down to a prince (Kemp) just turned into a werewolf and Anna (Beckinsale), a warrior babe in tight trousers. With a fumbling friar (Wenham) as sidekick, Van Helsing heads for Transylvania and a succession of mind-numbing fights, chases, falls from high places, wisecracks lost in the deafening sound mix, explosions, transformations and magic acts.
Jackman gets nothing to say, do or wear that hasn’t been in other films, while Roxburgh follows his rotten Moriarty in LXG and dreadful Holmes in the BBC Hound of the Baskervilles with one of the worst screen Draculas – this Count is a preening clod who fiddles endlessly with his hair when he isn’t a big goofy CGI bat tearing. Donner’s Monster is little better, and none of the Wolf Men really register. It’s one long string of stunt/effects sequences without pause for plot, character, terror, romance, mystery or point – if you had freeze-frame capability, you could admire the art direction but it flies by so rapidly that everything is lost in the flood.
First published in Venue magazine.