Review: Van Helsing 2004

Director Stephen Sommers up against his own The Mummy of 1999

Dracula to Werewolf: "Don't wish for death so quickly!"
Werewolf: "I'd rather die than help you!"
Dracula: "Oh, don't be boring. Everyone who says that dies."

Generally speaking, the 2004 Van Helsing is held to be a not very good movie. Saturated with special effects and action sequences, the simple story is a comic book-ish tale of a group of heroes (Helsing, his assistant Carl, the Frankenstein Monster, ace vampire-fighter Anna Valerious) going up against Count Dracula and his cohort of three deadly wives who can turn into bat like creatures, swooping skyward to frighten and hunt the local populace.

Despite the puzzle of why the film isn't as good as it ought to be, it is all the same enjoyable in a way few other movies are, or can be. For one, Van Helsing looks like an unashamed effort to take Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine onto the screen with the kind of special affects and sheer movement that wasn't technically possible in the old Universal monster rallies.

Affection for those old, slowly creeping monsters from the black and white world of celluloid nightmare comes through in director Stephen Sommers' epic of colorful, loud, Hollywood gothic peopled with the familiar characters from the past but given twists that almost bring them into the 21st century.

Frequent insertions of comedy helps this Universal Pictures monster mash. The downside, though, is that like a superhero film overstuffed with men and women in tights, Van Helsing suffers from good but then too much CGI effects. This combined with a rapid, constant stream of action sequences becomes a case of too much that's too good, leading to repetition and sameness. What is otherwise a highly-detailed effort, the film story is hollow and this viewer wondered how much story must have been simply edited out in order to bring in even more stunt work and CGI.

This film recalls director Stephen Sommers' earlier revival of The Mummy at Universal that was released with great success in 1999. However, The Mummy was a deck of cards with many faces, something that isn't achieved in Van Helsing, mostly because star Hugh Jackman doesn't have the easy, simple grace to be funny like Mummy star Brandon Fraser who could move from action star serious to humor and then back again in seconds. Jackman is serious for long stretches which gives the film a feeling that the main actor isn't in on the jokes, though he does provide some good deadpan delivery of some lines, but its not enough to let Sommers' script have its cake and eat it too the way Fraser was able to in The Mummy.

But maybe that was deliberate. Jackman is able to benefit the proceedings with his Wolverine-esque fighting and action style and he never misses when performing this chore, but modulating to the funny insides of Van Helsing just isn't part of his assignment, throwing off the easy balance which the The Mummy had but Helsing lacks.

Hugh Jackman's characterization of Prof. Van Helsing is a far cry from the little old man with spectacles in the 1931 Dracula described by the Count as "...for one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing." In this 2004 Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman doesn't know a lot, he guesses at matters (including his own past), and though he tries awfully hard, he can't save the heroine (Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious). In a way, this Prof. Van Helsing has more in common with the ultimately ineffectual Professor Abronsius from the funny horror film from 1967, Fearless Vampire Killers.

Richard Roxburgh, who gives Van Helsing's Count Dracula some very funny line readings and is able to move from serious-threat to joke cracking and back again with ease is probably meant to help ease-up the overt-seriousness in Hugh Jackman's style (and this is a mystery, since Jackman's Wolverine in the X-Men movies was able to effortlessly deliver sardonic jokes one after another), to bring more balance between Roxburgh's Dracula and Jackman's Helsing. It just doesn't gel together that way, though. The two opponents don't get to spar using words (the way Everett Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi did in the 1931 Dracula) which would have helped in Van Helsing which is so loaded with action. There is some good and witty dialogue, and more of that would've helped the movie refresh itself as it moved through the plot, but that's not what we get.

Not that the fighting sequences between Dracula and Van Helsing are not impressive, for they are, but without the grounding in language that was such an important part in the duelling between the vampire-fighting professor and the deadly king vampire, we end up deadened by the CGI and fights.

Another issue is surprising, considering the writer and director. Van Helsing is focused on making the old Universal horror formula work (though in a very, very updated way) but doesn't bring in elements that made his The Mummy so good, such as by throwing in some Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure (which, to be fair, is actually just an updated version of the same 1930s foreign adventure films that The Mummy is partially derived from). Van Helsing is full of brawling, but is somehow light on the adventure, which is unexpected, since the plot carries us from place to place in a whirlwind of changing CGI locales.

The mono-genre limitations around Van Helsing appears to be the main failing, and no matter how well Roxburgh brings in the funny lines without losing his sinister motivation as the Count, and despite all the goofy jokes spread across the screen by David Wenham as Van Helsing's assistant Carl, or (the under utilized) Kevin J. O'Connor as Igor, Hugh Jackman's seriousness and the razzle-dazzle special effects (particularly effective with the werewolf vs bat-form Dracula battle scenes) is too plentiful at the expense of all the other talent on the screen.

To make this problem even clearer, aspects of Van Helsing look like a parody of other films, like Coppola's Dracula of 1992, for example, helping make a reasonable argument that I have seen in some reviews that Van Helsing can be celebrated as a camp project. I'm not going to protest against that view, but it seems like a nice, friendly way of praising the film and overlooking the deficits in other areas.

But maybe that's the best way to take this film, to believe it was meant to embrace camp. Because this is where Van Helsing has its biggest failure, in an area where camp typically just doesn't care to do much more than act as a spectator, that is, Van Helsing lacks a good sentimental, melancholy center, which is what powered so many of the old Universal monster movies. Whether straight up horror like the 1931 Frankenstein, or the inside-joke infused sequel of 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, the old monster films from the Universal lot were made in the years of the American Great Depression and in the still simmering aftermath of World War One, and the escapism offered was peppered with feelings of doom, trouble, depictions of marital alienation and especially the general knowledge of happiness foolishly lost and replaced with monsters lurking around the corner, usually because someone brilliant and seemingly a paragon of establishment virtue has made a single decision to go up against God, in the end learning human limitations: "I meddled in things man must leave alone". But the heroes of Van Helsing don't battle Dracula within such an environment, but use teamwork and gadgets in a battlefield more like a video game shooting gallery with levels of obstacles to overcome.

Transforming the Universal stable of classic characters into 21st century personalities is a challenge, and Van Helsing tries different ways to complete the task. Despite the failures in the film (and the relative failure at the box office, with Van Helsing making $300 million gross against a $160 million production budget); Stephen Sommers did achieve what I originally stated, he brought Famous Monsters of Filmland to the screen in a way that gave it the speed, color and inventiveness that was always hinted at in the old films but not technically within reach. When Roxburgh's Dracula transforms into a giant bat and battles Jackman's professor now changed into a werewolf (you'll have to see the film to see how that conundrum came about), it is as if one of the covers of FM featuring the monsters fighting athletically in a way they never could in the original films has finally been realized.

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Original Page July 9, 2021