Van Helsing — 2004
Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) makes his Monster (Shuler Hensley), just as the angry torch-wielding mob arrives. We learn that Frankenstein’s experiments have been funded by Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who wants the Monster for an undisclosed purpose. Dracula kills Frankenstein, but the Monster escapes, only to seemingly die in a burning windmill.
Meanwhile, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) – a warrior for a interdenominational holy anti-monster order – is sent to defeat Dracula. He travels with Carl (David Wenham), basically a monkish version of Q. In Transylvania, van Helsing meets Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsdale) a warrior woman whose brother recently died fighting the Wolf Man.
Several expensive fight scenes later, Van Helsing and Anna follow Velkan (Anna’s brother now a werewolf) (Will Kemp) into Castle Frankenstein. There they learn that Dracula’s vampire brides have been giving birth to demonic offspring – dead demonic offspring. Dracula hopes to use Frankenstein’s equipment to bring them to life. Thousands of baby vampires are unleashed on Transylvania.
However, the power to keep the vampires alive is coming from the wolf-man and once he’s freed they all burst into disgusting goo. Turns out the wolf-man’s body contains insufficient power for keeping them alive.
Guess whose body is infused with enough life-giving energy to make this work? That’s right: the Monster. So Van Helsing turns into a Wolf Man and–
You know what? That’s basically the movie. Dracula plot is foiled, Van Helsing is cured and happiness is restored. Oh, and Ygor’s there too. For a long movie, there’s not a lot of plot. A very large portion of this movie is just CG fight scenes. There’s an attempt to set up Van Helsing’s mysterious past as something to peg a sequel on, but there’s no sequel so it’s just distracting. Oh, and Anna dies for no especially good reason. Almost forgot.
But is it good? Well, as a horror movie it’s an expensive disaster, but if you look at it as a Universal Horror-themed superhero movie, honestly it’s not so bad. Probably the highlight of the proceedings is Richard Roxborough’s swaggering, scenery chewing Dracula. The part when he’s getting super emotional as he bemoans the fact that he has no feelings is hilarious. Hugh Jackman is Hugh Jackman. This is a good thing if you are a Hugh Jackman fan but if you are not so fond of Hugh Jackman you may find this film a little too Hugh Jackman-y. Shuler Hensley playing the Monster brings a dignity to the character, even if the direction keeps trying to undercut him by making the Monster a figure of fun.
The plot’s contrived as all get out, but that’s not necessarily a weakness. As I’ve said before, Dracula and Frankenstein don’t really belong in the same fictional universe, so a story that includes the two of them really has no choice but to be contrived. Besides, the plot mostly exists just to string fight scenes along.
It’s the fight scenes that are the strength and the weakness of Van Helsing. The filmmakers quite clearly looked at the somewhat lacklustre fights of the Universal Horror films in the monster mash era and said ‘we can do better than that’. To their credit, that’s just exactly what they did. The trouble is, they didn’t seem to know when to stop. The fight scenes just keep coming, leaving little time for character to develop or theme to emerge. They’re quite decent fight scenes, I guess, though not especially memorable.
But let’s look past how Van Helsing works as a movie. How does it work as a Frankenstein movie? Here some genuinely interesting choices have been made. Not only is the Monster the ‘good one’ of the Universal Trio, he’s also depicted as intelligent and lucid. What’s more, Dr Frankenstein is depicted as more naïve and gullible than evil, willing to sacrifice his own life to prevent Dracula’s plan from coming to fruition. The choice of Dracula as designated ‘bad guy,’ the Monster as designated ‘good guy’ and Wolf Man as ‘the tortured character stuck in the middle’ has been done before, but I guess that’s because it works.
Even so, just for a change, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Monster as the arch-villain and Dracula as his terrified henchman. Could work.
In the end, I don’t hate Van Helsing. It is what it is, and what it is is a CGI-heavy action movie that borrows Universal Horror iconography. Other than the whole Dracula’s-biological-clock-is-ticking plot, it doesn’t really add anything to the mythology. It has almost every possible combination of Monster-on-Monster and Monster-on-Human battle. I remember seeing it at the cinema and not thinking that my money had been wasted. That’s about the best I can say about it.
Where Van Helsing has a problem, it is simply that it’s neither interested in examining the ideas arising from its source material, or coming up with new ideas of its own. I love the old timey Universal Monster mash. Love it. But honestly, there’s not much interesting that’s been done with the idea this side of Monster Squad. I know Universal’s working on a gritty reboot of the whole thing and who knows, maybe that will work [UPDATE: It didn’t]. The assumption seems to be that what was wrong with the old time Monster Movies is that they were cheap, and if you throw a bunch of money at the concept they’ll find an audience.
Why not? That plan worked brilliantly for turning other old-time B-movies into 21st century blockbusters like The Lone Ranger, Tarzan or The Green Hornet… Oh, wait.