Thanks to an excellent box set of DVDs released by Universal, I’ve been diving back into all those classic horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Dracula, Frankenstein (and its superior sequel Bride of Frankenstein) have been spinning in my player for the past couple of weeks, getting me primed for Universal’s much-touted tribute to the old horror gods. Van Helsing throws thousands of vampires, werewolves and a modernized Frankenstein’s monster at us, and those monsters are missing what the great Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney possessed: humanity, in their own sick little ways.
Van Helsing is seemingly gazillions of slick computer-generated monsters jumping all over the place, and it gets a little hard on the eyes after the first hour. While director Stephen Sommers’ desire to throw a thousand thrills a minute at ticket buyers is certainly admirable, he should’ve calmed his monster-happy ass down a few ticks for this puppy. In the end, the movie suffers a bit from special-effects overload.
Things start out old-school, as Sommers uses black and white for a sequence that borrows from James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein. In the homage, Dr. Frankenstein brings his monster to life, but he has some sort of strange alliance with a scheming Dracula (the unforgivably tedious Richard Roxburgh), who has evil plans for the Doc’s latest creation. The action leads to that famous windmill, and then becomes color as things switch over to late 19th-century Paris.
The next sequence has a leather-clad Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, wearing a stupid hat) doing battle with Dr. Jekyll, a big cartoonish oaf who looks and sounds like Andre the Giant. The sequence has some genuine scares and laughs, but the director reveals that his film is going to be overly frantic and sometimes messy. This loud, rapid-fire sequence that pushes the limits of visual tolerance actually proves to be one of the film’s tamer passages.
Sent by the Vatican to kill monsters, Van Helsing has lost a chunk of his memory (the film suggests he might be the archangel Gabriel but never verifies it). Jackman plays the action-star role to decent-enough results, but I’m guessing most would prefer more Wolverine to the further adventures of Van Helsing if given a choice.
As for the monsters, Dracula is a bore, his flying wives are annoying, the werewolves look like Looney Tunes characters on crack, and Frankenstein’s monster is hilarious. The monster speaks in a booming, well-articulated voice, and has some sort of fluorescent green fluttering going on in his see-through cranium. Shuler Hensley portrays the monster as heroic, but I found him quite boorish and wished for him to go away.
Kate Beckinsale, who just finished a stint wearing sexy black Goth garb in Underworld, cuts off circulation to her legs once again as Anna Valerious, targeted for death by Dracula. Beckinsale, risking innards trauma in a tight corset and saddled with a Transylvanian accent, seems to be vying for some sort of constant horror-film presence à la Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. She’s a lot better looking than those old coots (especially the 10-years-dead Cushing), so her presence is welcome. Let’s just hope that the films she inhabits are, someday, just as interesting as the wardrobe she sports within them.
I know the usual complaint is that a filmmaker doesn’t provide enough. In this case, Sommers has given a little too much and should’ve streamlined his story. If he were to lose the werewolves, recast Dracula, revamp the silly Frankenstein’s monster and tell him to shush, and switch out the stupid Jackman hat for something a little more accessible, Van Helsing might have been a serviceable film in the end. (CPL, CR, CS, NM, ER)