Movie review by Greg Carlson
Director Stephen Sommers has already had his way with the Mummy, turning the great Karl Freund’s atmospheric 1932 classic into the noisy and noisome computer-driven action-thriller that starred Brendan Fraser. With “Van Helsing,” Sommers dumps the Mummy in favor of assembling a package of Universal’s stable of staples: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man (along with the Count’s sexy brides, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Igor, apparently for good measure). Team-ups like this one are nothing new (NBC’s 1976 live-action “Monster Squad” series even put a super-hero spin on the trio now featured in “Van Helsing”), but Sommers just keeps doing his usual: spoiling a good story with CG overkill and cardboard characters.
Hugh Jackman plays Gabriel Van Helsing (supposedly the younger brother of Abraham Van Helsing, but honestly, who cares?), a perpetually youthful amnesiac who has been doing battle with supernatural baddies for centuries. Working in the service of a clandestine organization of clerics – whose workshop copies the James Bond universe down to the inevitable introduction of cutting-edge toys and weapons that will come in handy when the plot demands it – Van Helsing hooks up with sidekick Carl (David Wenham), a wise-cracking friar who provides what little comic relief the movie can muster. They travel to Transylvania to square off against Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who is on the verge of hatching thousands of his devilish offspring.
Van Helsing eventually crosses paths with the improbably named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, decked out like some kind of gypsy pirate), a gorgeous vampire hunter whose family has entertained a wicked feud with Dracula for generations. Together, they slash and bash their way through endless skirmishes with the shape-shifting succubi, who don’t seem to mind that the Count is a bigamist. Van Helsing shoots at the swooping harpies with a technologically advanced crossbow that spits out ammunition like a 19th century Gatling gun, and Anna divides most of her time between swinging around like Tarzan and getting thrown by the blood-sucking ghoulies into the branches of tall trees.
With Sommers, more is more, and the computer-generated special effects are employed like a heavy truncheon. The movie’s only coherence lies in its incoherence, as set-piece after set-piece populates the screen with digital excess (in one, bat-winged beasties burst mid-flight, like thousands of kernels of hot popcorn). It doesn’t really seem to matter that major characters suffer from lycanthropy, or that the anguished, tormented Frankenstein’s Monster pops up only when it is most convenient to include him. Worst of all, Roxburgh’s Dracula is a one-way ticket to dullsville, lacking every detail that made Bela Lugosi’s iconic interpretation the premier cinematic version of the vampire.
On the plus side, “Van Helsing” contains an excellent chase scene involving the ever-popular runaway coach and horses, and the movie’s opening, photographed in gorgeous black and white by Allen Daviau, perfectly recreates the magical design of James Whale’s vintage Frankenstein movies. The rest of “Van Helsing” is a serious disappointment, however, as the film never quite achieves the sense of thrilling wonderment that made the original Universal horror cycle the monster movies by which all subsequent versions continue to be measured.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/10/04.