Mickey Mouse launched Walt Disney Studios, and became a revered icon of family entertainment. Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster built Universal Studios, and they get ... this?
At this point in the history of Hollywood filmmaking, it probably seems absurd suggesting anything is sacred. Universal only became a player in Golden Age Hollywood by becoming the go-to studio for atmospheric horror, but in modern parlance, the studio’s classic monsters are “exploitable assets.” It wasn’t a question of whether they’d be trotted out again for a big payday; it was only a question of when.
And, of course, a question of how. Having already watched writer/director Stephen Sommers make a mint for them by twice turning The Mummy into the stuff of CGI-heavy action-adventure, Universal’s bosses figured it was only good business sense to hand Sommers the key to their vault of monster treasures. Based on Van Helsing’s $52 million opening weekend in the plum first slot of the summer season, they made a good choice.
They didn’t, however, make a good movie. Van Helsing is one of those frantic, frantically hyped baubles that allows people to throw out the word “entertaining” without considering for a moment what the word really means. And it doesn’t help matters any that it shows no respect whatsoever for its elders.
For a few minutes, there’s a hint that it might. A black-and-white prologue set in 1887 finds torch-wielding Transylvanian villagers storming the castle of Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West) as he brings life to his creature (Shuler Hensley). Also present is Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who commissioned the resurrection for some nefarious purpose. The creature apparently dies in the subsequent mob scene, but Dracula still has nefarious plans afoot.
Enter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a mysterious, perhaps immortal hunter who works for the Roman Catholic Church, snuffing out supernatural evildoers while hoping to recover memories of his past. He needs to help the Valerious family—with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) its only surviving member—destroy Dracula so that something or other happens, and before something or other else happens.
Sorry if the details get a bit foggy. Sommers has to do a lot of juggling to get the various characters functioning in the same narrative, leading to an incredibly tenuous series of connections. Sommers wanted a familiar vampire-hunter name for his protagonist, even though Jackman’s character has nothing to do with Dracula’s Abraham Van Helsing, so what the hell. He wanted to throw in an early fight with Mr. Hyde (a CGI ogre voiced by Robbie Coltrane) just for kicks and giggles, so what the hell. He wanted Brides of Dracula who could fly around during the day, so he has them waiting for convenient clouds to shroud the sun ... yeah, right, what the hell.
The buzzword for this kind of nonsense is “updating,” but no matter how much Sommers and company might plead otherwise, they’re really just showing a fundamental disdain for the material they’re dealing with. The Wolf Man means more than a neat special effect of a huge beastie ripping off its human flesh. Dracula means more than an excuse for Roxburgh to chew more scenery than he does carotid arteries. There’s substance in those creepy creations of yesteryear; it’s not all about how many Halloween masks you can cram into two hours. This thing is just a not-funny version of Abbott and Costello’s romps, but with a trillion megabytes of mainframe power at its disposal.
To make matters worse, Sommers can’t even make his basic cinematic language work. During one climactic battle, there’s a deadline that’s supposed to involve the last chime of midnight, only Sommers conveniently forgets about it when it would hinder his lumbering pacing; ditto the notion that the werewolves can be controlled by Dracula. Even Jackman seems to realize the whole thing is vaguely embarrassing, and that he’s only in it for a chance at leading man status and to wear a cool fedora.
It might be easier to enjoy Van Helsing as high-concept $100-million camp, if it didn’t try—and fail—to give weight to its brooding anti-hero’s quest. Only the Frankenstein monster feels legitimately connected to the character’s past, a small something to care about in all the big-dumb-loudness. For Stephen Sommers, it’s all about attaching his name to exploitable assets. Look for the Creature from the Black Lagoon to be blowing stuff up at a theater near you a couple of summers from now.
VAN HELSING, *.5, Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Rated PG-13