Van Helsing (2004) *½
Alright, here’s a brilliant fucking idea. Let’s get Stephen Somers, the guy who transformed The Mummy into a big, dumb action movie, to build another big, dumb action movie out of the carcass of House of Frankenstein. Just what the world needed, right? Actually, I guess I’m not being quite fair. To call Van Helsing a big, dumb action movie is to sell it somewhat short— better to say that it’s a huge, moronic action movie. It’s what would have happened if classical Universal Studios horror and the James Bond franchise had a bastard love child, which they then abandoned to be raised by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. All in all, not a pretty sight.
I admit to being somewhat taken with the opening scene, however, which could have been released on its own as a short feature called The Complete History of Universal Horror in Ten Minutes or Less. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) and his assistant, Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor, from Lord of Illusions and Deep Rising), are in the top-most chamber of their Transylvanian castle’s highest tower, hard at work on imparting life to the doctor’s artificial man (Shuler Hensley). Meanwhile, a sinister-looking undertaker whom I’m going to call Coffin Joe (Tom Fisher, of The Mummy Returns) is leading the biggest torch-bearing mob in the history of Universal Studios in an attack on the castle’s main gate. Pretty standard stuff so far, but when the creature comes to life, the film takes an interesting departure from its antique predecessors by revealing that Frankenstein’s patron, the man who set him up with his swank castle and expensive electronic gear, is none other than Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, from— surprise, surprise— The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Dracula’s generosity has hardly been altruistically motivated. The vampire has big plans for the doctor’s creation, and if Frankenstein himself doesn’t like those plans, then Dracula is perfectly happy to toss him out to face Coffin Joe and his mob. But perhaps the count should consult the monster first; it doesn’t like the vampire’s scheme (which we won’t be hearing about for ourselves until much, much later) any more than its maker, and it bursts its bonds just as the mob knocks down the gate outside. Dracula and Igor take to their heels, Frankenstein is killed in the melee, and the monster runs off with the body to a decaying windmill not far away. There the mob surrounds it, with results more or less identical to those obtained in 1931.
A year later, in Paris, international monster-hunter and all-around Victorian superhero Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, of the X-Men movies, looking remarkably like the title character in Vampire Hunter D) is hot on the trail of the notorious Mr. Hyde (From Hell’s Robbie Coltrane, probably best known for playing Hagrid in the Harry Potter films). Van Helsing tracks his prey to what I take to be Notre Dame cathedral (and I don’t know about you, but I personally was a little bit disappointed not to see a cameo from Quasimodo at this point), where he squares off against Hyde with an array of gadgetry that would do Batman proud. But because the human monster reverts to his natural guise as Dr. Henry Jekyll upon his death, the Parisian authorities simply add one more to the tally of similar “murders” for which Van Helsing is wanted all over Europe.
Van Helsing doesn’t do this hazardous work alone, or at his own instigation either. He’s the top operative in the field for a secret branch of the Catholic Church (I’d like to think they’re a rehabilitated Knights Templar, but that’s just me), dedicated to rooting out and destroying supernatural evil all over the world. Werewolves, witches, zombies, succubi— Van Helsing’s fought and killed them all in his time, in the hope that one day, on one mission or another, he’ll uncover the key to restoring his mostly-missing memory, which currently consists of nothing but things he ought not to be able to remember in the first place. His boss, Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong, from Krull and The Mummy Returns), has a new assignment for him, which will send him all the way to the other end of the continent. Far away in Transylvania, the last surviving members of the Valerious family look to be nearing final defeat in their clan’s centuries-long struggle against the vampire Count Dracula. A distant ancestor of theirs once swore his entire lineage to the task of destroying the undead count, vowing further that neither he nor any of his descendants would set foot in heaven until Dracula was no more. Obviously the Church can’t bear to see so many souls lost to the abyss, so Jinette is sending Van Helsing to Transylvania to provide backup. He’ll also get a sidekick in the form of a brilliant young friar named Carl (David Wenham, of Dark City and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), who’ll be on hand to play Q to Van Helsing’s 007. (And by the way, contrary to what Somers thinks, a friar most assuredly is a monk, with all the responsibilities and restrictions that entails. The only point of distinction is that friars do their work out in the real world, rather than cooping themselves up within the walls of a monastery.)
Van Helsing’s arrival in Transylvania is not welcomed warmly. Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, from Haunted and Underworld) doesn’t believe herself to need any help, even now that her brother Velkan (Will Kemp, of Mindhunters) has disappeared while fighting a werewolf, and Coffin Joe is just as eager to lead a mob to kill the two outsiders as he was to lynch Dr. Frankenstein the year before. What changes the natives’ opinion of Van Helsing is his performance in action when the village is attacked by Aleera, Verona, and Marishka (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, and Josie Mahan), the three wives of Dracula. (Incidentally, I think somebody on the special effects crew here is a Go Nagai fan. In their monstrous forms, the vampire women are dead ringers for Devilman’s Sirene, while Count Dracula looks very much like Devilman himself.) When Van Helsing takes down Marishka by soaking a clip for his machine-crossbow (this extremely cool but utterly impossible contraption is, naturally, an invention of Carl’s) in holy water, it marks the first confirmed slaying of a vampire in more than 100 years. Coffin Joe still isn’t happy (he contends that the remaining three vampires will now kill far more villagers than usual out of a lust for revenge), but Anna certainly is.
Her opinion makes a slight shift back in the other direction that night, though, when Dracula sends Velkan, now a werewolf himself, on a reconnaissance mission to Castle Valerious. Van Helsing does his damnedest to kill Velkan, but Anna will have none of it. She informs Van Helsing that Dracula is said to possess a cure for lycanthropy, and as long as some possibility exists of returning Velkan to normal, she will countenance no efforts to destroy him. Seeing her point, Van Helsing goes with her on a foray into what appears to be the vampire’s secondary headquarters— Castle Frankenstein— with the object of getting their hands on this mysterious cure. What they find instead is the true nature of Dracula’s current project. The castle is filled with the inert cocoons of thousands of vampire larvae. Because vampire spawn are born dead, they must be jump-started with the life-essence of other organisms, and to that end, Dracula has Igor modifying Frankenstein’s machinery to perform the opposite of its intended function. The snag is that mere human life is not enough to power an entire brood of infant vampires, as Dracula discovered when he sucked the soul out of Anna’s father in an abortive effort to bring his progeny to life. His next attempt— powered by Velkan— works a bit better, due to the added vitality conferred upon Velkan by the werewolf’s curse, but the resulting swarm of imp-like baby bloodsuckers self-destruct after less than an hour. Obviously something even stronger than a werewolf is necessary.
So what’s stronger than a werewolf? How about the Frankenstein monster? After all, Dracula did tell its creator that the thing was the key to his unexplained plan. In fact, as Anna and Van Helsing learn when they accidentally discover the creature’s hidden lair beneath the ruins of the windmill where it was supposedly destroyed a year ago, the Frankenstein monster understands perfectly well what Dracula wants from it, and its determination to prevent that from happening has at least as much to do with its quiet, subterranean lifestyle as its fear of pitchfork-armed villagers. So you can imagine how happy all concerned are when they notice the big wolf-like shadow bolting away from the ruins shortly thereafter, and it sinks in that Anna and Van Helsing have inadvertently led Dracula straight to the very thing he seeks.
There’s at least a whole other movie’s worth of stuff going on between here and the closing credits, but frankly I’d rather not go into it all. Partly that’s because of my longstanding policy against revealing too much about the storylines of films that are still in the theater, but it’s also because the second half of Van Helsing was tiring enough just to watch, let alone to write about in detail. Suffice it to say that if you really like chase scenes, things catching on fire for no reason at all, and CGI monster fights that look like they came from one of the Killer Instinct video games, you’re going to love Van Helsing’s second hour. If you were hoping for a movie with even as much substance as House of Dracula, on the other hand, you really shouldn’t have bothered buying a ticket to Van Helsing in the first place. That just isn’t what Stephen Somers is about.
On the plus side, Van Helsing deserves credit for accomplishing what Universal’s 40’s-vintage monster rallies consistently failed to. It brings together just about all of the classical Hollywood horror bestiary in such a way that all of the major players (and most of the minor ones) have something significant to do. I’d have liked it better if Somers had found a way to pull the trick off in less than two hours and twelve minutes, mind you, but that’s another matter altogether. Also in Van Helsing’s favor is the rather greater success Somers enjoys in adding a bit of wit to the film than he had in his earlier mummy movies. The frequent Universal Horror references and in-jokes are used and arranged in a way that reveals much more respect for the old movies than was evident in The Mummy, and the climax features what may be the ultimate thinking person’s bad-ass one-liner. (Admittedly, the idea behind that one-liner was stolen from an old Spaghetti Western, but you take whatever you can get when dealing with Stephen Somers.) Finally, while the revamped monster lore used here will doubtless take purists aback, Somers at least uses it more or less consistently throughout.
On the other hand, Van Helsing suffers from just about every defect ever exhibited by an action movie released within the past ten or fifteen years, and none of the things Somers does right (most of which seem almost accidental anyway) are able to compensate. Indeed, I don’t think the need for compensation would even have occurred to him. There may not be an outrunning-the-explosion scene, but that’s pretty much the only cliché that’s missing. We’ve got enough rope-swinging for at least five Indiana Jones movies, two bridges that collapse at inopportune moments, the most blatantly impossible vehicle jump of all time, and a truly absurd amount of hanging one-handed over a drop to certain death. Anna’s kung fu is never impeded in the slightest by her leather corset and five-inch heels, there isn’t a character in the film who doesn’t emerge unscathed from a life-threatening fall or collision on numerous separate occasions (not even the cow!), and Somers somehow manages to work in a pair of “C.Hi.P.s”-style spontaneous vehicle explosions even though both of the vehicles in question are conspicuously non-explosive horse-drawn carriages! It’s really quite amazing.
This is also a film in which it mostly doesn’t make sense to complain about characterization, for the simple reason that there just isn’t any. We can believe that Gabriel Van Helsing remembers nothing of his life prior to becoming a professional demon-killer, because nothing he does leaves any impression on us, either. The romance that develops between him and Anna Valerious has no life to it, and obviously exists for no reason other than that something essentially like it had invariably sprung up between the hero and heroine of practically every action-adventure movie made prior to this one. Not even Count Dracula has any detectable personality beyond that which was inserted digitally after the fact (his disconcerting habit of walking on the walls and ceilings of Castle Frankenstein, for example), an inexcusable fuck-up for which both Somers and actor Richard Roxburgh deserve to be soundly bastinadoed. And yet somehow this total absence of flavor coincides not with a lack of energy, but rather with an overabundance of it. Van Helsing is unquestionably monotonous, but its monotony is that of a long, unbroken string of exclamation points; it’s as though shouting were the only way of making a point that Stephen Somers knew. Taken together, it’s exhausting, and the movie’s unnecessarily great length only makes it more so.