Universal has recently announced plans to remake their classic monster movies with the goal of making an interconnecting universe in the Marvel model. This isn’t exactly revolutionary or a departure from history. The Universal Monsters were, you could say, the first cinematic universe. While the individual films for each of the monsters were better than the eventual team-ups, the movie universe undoubtedly has its roots with the Universal Monsters. In 2004, following the success of his Mummy remake and its sequel, Stephen Sommers was placed at the helm of Van Helsing, an attempt at modern monster mash. In a slight departure, the filmmaker didn’t cast Hugh Jackman as Abraham Van Helsing, the vampire hunter from the original Dracula, but as Gabriel Van Helsing, his younger, uncopyrighted brother.
Finally watching Van Helsing a decade after its initial release, it’s not difficult to understand why the film was received so tepidly by critics and audiences alike – it’s a really bad movie. The awfulness of Van Helsing isn’t limited to just one lone aspect, it’s a failure of writing, acting, special effects, editing, and cinematography. Its failings are all consuming.
There is one sequence in the film that isn’t an abject failure, which is not say that it’s a triumph either. Opening with a lengthy black & white sequence where Victor Frankenstein’s creature comes to life. Shadows, contrast, and perspective dominate the frame as the villagers are coming to lynch Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West). Admirably shot, this sequence takes a turn for the un-fucking-believable when Dracula (Richard Roxburgh hamming it up) is revealed to be the puppet master pulling Victor’s strings. Victor and his creation (Shuler Hensley) then make their escape to the windmill, which is set ablaze consuming creator and creation. While not exactly a rousing cinematic experience, the sequence is the best looking thing in the computer generated piece of schlock known as Van Helsing. Even as it relies too heavily on nods to the Universal Monsters of better years, the sequence does feature strong directorial decisions, like showing Dracula’s transformation from humanoid into demon entirely through shadows.
The film’s story is beyond overstuffed. It opens with the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, who is later referred to as Frankenstein (any horror fan knows that this is blasphemy), at the behest of Dracula. When we’re introduced to Van Helsing he’s battling Jeykll and Hyde. Then we’re introduced to Anna (Kate Beckinsale with an unfortunate Slavic accent), who with her brother is attempting to take down the Wolf Man. Van Helsing and his Friar man-servant, Carl (David Wenham), travel to Transylvania to take down Dracula. In Transylvania it is discovered that Dracula was using Frankenstein in order to hatch vampire eggs. Yes, Dracula’s evil plan involves becoming a daddy. Then it turns out that Anna’s brother was turned into a werewolf. Also, Anna and Van Helsing team up with Frankenstein’s monster to take down Dracula. Oh, and Van Helsing is responsible for helping to create Dracula hundreds of years ago. In order to defeat Dracula, Van Helsing must become a werewolf and then they can battle. Did you get all of that? If so, you’re a better person than I.
Now I definitely prefer practical effects, matte paintings and miniatures, but I’m not a Luddite about these things. However, the effects of Van Helsing are as bad as recent memory can recall, maybe another Hugh Jackman vehicle, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, are as bad. In most of Van Helsing’s action sequences, practically the entire frame is filled with digital imagery. The sets, creatures, and even some camera movement are constructed entirely within a computer. What this does is tether the film’s aesthetic to 2004’s technology. Then again, Sommers does have a history with questionable computer effects.
I recall a saying by Roger Ebert, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you never want to remind audiences of a movie they’d rather be watching. Van Helsing places itself in that precarious situation but to the nth degree, simultaneously making the viewer yearn for The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jeykll & Mr. Hyde.
More than anything, Van Helsing is a film built upon a fallacy – that bigger is better. It’s a film that sacrifices anything resembling narrative coherency in order to just cram more creatures, more set pieces, more computer effects. There’s no logical reason that this film should run over 2 hours, yet it does. Van Helsing has all the hallmarks of a bad comic book movie – too many characters, too many subplots, placing effects over story and character at every turn. So while Dracula Untold may usher in a new era of a Universal Monsters interconnected universe, just remember that when they team up, it might just be Van Helsing 2.