As a horror-movie geek, I’m supposed to hate Van Helsing and call it travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham as concerns its desecration of the 1930s horror films from Universal. And, truth to tell, were I to hold it up against those films — a number of which I’ve watched recently since Universal brought out a box-set tie in with Van Helsing‘s release — it would indeed come up wanting.
However, while Van Helsing does evoke those 1930s classics — its opening is a deliberate homage to James Whale’s Frankenstein — its primary inspiration lies in the studio’s late-in-the-day “Monster Rally” pictures of the 1940s. By then, the horror film had degenerated into something far less glorious than those original movies. Inspiration was being replaced by desperation, and in order to keep the horror franchise going, the Frankenstein Monster was introduced to the Wolf Man. When this actually goosed sagging box-office returns, it was then decided to throw all the monsters into one film, House of Frankenstein, which gave us the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, a hunchback and a mad doctor. (The Mummy was supposed to be around, too; blessedly, no one could make this practical.) This feat was duplicated the following year with House of Dracula, and then sent up three years later with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Despite their many pleasures, it would be a stretch to call these movies high art (though they had their moments of high artistry). And it’s these latter “horror” films that Stephen Sommers’ picture actually most resembles, albeit in contemporary terms. Van Helsing hardly disgraces those original films, though it does lack their cheapjack charms. (It’s sobering to realize that Sommers’ movie cost far more to make than the combined price tags of the entire classic canon from 1931 through ’48.)
For good or for ill, Van Helsing is an Event Movie, in every sense; the film has all the subtlety of a runaway train hurtling down the Matterhorn. It’s amusing to contemplate how things have changed over the years, since the Universal horrors of the 1940s are now being held up for their subtlety — though at the time of their release, these films were being dismissed as anything but by the makers of the far-subtler horrors of the RKO Val Lewton movies (like Cat People). “At Universal, the prevailing idea of horror was a werewolf chasing a girl in her nightgown up a tree,” Lewton director Mark Robson once opined.
That’s pretty much Sommers’ approach as well — though in a not-wholly-successful postmodern manner. Not content with just rethinking the old Universal monster flicks — and even dragging in Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for seasoning — Sommers has cobbled together a patchwork movie that’s a kind of repository for a whole heap of pop culture. His Gabriel Van Helsing has less in common with the Abraham Van Helsing of yore than he has with James Bond, something that seems to annoy a lot of people.
Perhaps the offense arises because the connection isn’t implicitly spelled out. Maybe if our hero introduced himself as “Helsing … Van Helsing,” folks would get the joke that he’s meant to be the 007 of the monster-fighting world. And that, in fact, may be the problem with this whole whiz-bang movie — it’s not campy enough.
When Dracula’s obligatory three wives resemble nothing so much as rock ‘n’ roll backup singers, it’s probably wise to just go all the way with the idea and play it for comedic effect. Sommers keeps striving for a significance that his film and its core concept can’t contain; this isn’t surprising, since even at 132 minutes, Van Helsing can’t manage to even explain its own story. And Sommers is at his worst when he tries for significance.
While Dracula as rethunk by Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge!) grew on me over the course of Sommers’ film, the director early on gives the Pointy Toothed One a “big moment” designed to afford the character some depth that is not only tedious, it’s embarrassingly bad. His Frankenstein Monster (Shuler Hensley, who interestingly once played “Poor” Jud to Hugh Jackman’s Curly in Oklahoma!) is the closest Sommers comes to creating a well-rounded character of some pathos; the rest only seem to have pathos because the script says so. But then the script says a lot of things that don’t really work, or that are left unexplained.
Why is Van Helsing apparently immortal? Why do vampires produce gargoyles when they breed? Why exactly does Dracula need to shoot electricity through the Frankenstein Monster to bring his spawn to life? I’m not sure any of this really matters, but it would matter less if this film had the courage of its convictions — to be pure popcorn junk without making half-hearted stabs at having some kind of depth.
For horror fans, Van Helsing ought to get points for evoking Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, along with making nods to Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Vampire and The Fearless Vampire Killers — that is, if horror fans can get past the fact that Sommers’ film is not as good as its models, and also isn’t a classic horror picture. For everyone else, Van Helsing ought to work as the great, lumbering summer-movie behemoth that it is.
Sommers’ film is big, loud, fast-moving and constantly good to look at — as are its lead characters. Individual scenes are breathtaking and, while the story doesn’t hold together, parts of it actually manage moments of genuine suspense. Chunks of it don’t work at all, and at times the whole thing resembles a video game. (There’s one fall done by Kate Beckinsale — or her CGI equivalent — that looks like a pinball game, as she bounces from here to there to there.) But enough of the film works as entertaining, big-budget junk that I can’t say I didn’t find it enjoyable. As for the gripes that it’s not exactly subtle … we’re talking a Stephen Sommers summer-release flick, not Merchant-Ivory Meets the Monsters.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to check out that box set of Universal classics and see how this sort of thing was done at its best.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke