Van Helsing (2004) – Directed by Stephen Sommers – Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Shuler Hensley.
Seven years on and VAN HELSING still reeks of bad stew.
There’s no reason why this film shouldn’t have been a blast given the inclusion of Sommers (hot, at the time, off the first two Mummy movies), Hugh Jackman (hot, at the time, off the first X-Men movie), Kate Beckinsale (hot, at the time, because she’s always hot), Richard Roxburgh, a triumvirate of horror movie monsters (Dracula, Wolfman, Frankenstein), and an ample CGI budget, and yet the film is little more than a moderately attractive clunker with a pretty decent score by Alan Silvestri.
Why did it fail?
The most obvious problem with VAN HELSING is that it reeks of derivativeness. Right off the top there’s Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing, who’s been crafted as a Victorian Wolverine. Van Helsing is an anti-hero, a killer working on the side of good with a mysterious past, troubled memories, and (once he gets bitten by a werewolf) an inner beast that he struggles to contain.
How’s Van Helsing different? Well, he’s got long hair. And he wears a coat. And a really stupid hat. Honestly, I’m so tired of the black duster/leather jacket look anywhere outside of a western. Hugh Jackman can’t pull it off. Nic Cage can’t pull it off. That dude on the cover of the Jim Butcher books can’t pull it off.
So we’ve got Victorian Wolverine running around, working for some secret religious organization housed at the Vatican and called the Knights of the Holy Been Here Seen This Already. Van Helsing walks into a confessional and a James Bond Q sequence breaks out as we watch Carl (David Wenham) show off a bunch of new weapons that makes jokes about using. It’s such a tired and played out sequence that your finger starts itching for the remote control.
Then there’s Kate Beckinsale’s Anna, who comes off as the lesbian love child of her own Selene from Underworld and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle. She talks with such a ridiculous accent that Kevin Costner is jealous. “I vill talk like dis for de entire picture show, Van HELLLLsing.” Honestly, why bother with accents in a movie like this? Is anyone going to go home from watching this in the theater going, “Man, VAN HELSING was the f*cking bomb, but, geez, Kate Beckinsale couldn’t even do a Transylvanian accent? What a joke.” Dumb. Just dumb. Like so many decisions in this movie it’s just a dumb decision. No one is going to care. And if you’re worried they will? Easy. She’s part of a family that Dracula wants to eradicate. Send her to boarding school in England, for heavens-to-backstory’s sake.
I’m sure someone with money at Universal saw a team-up of Wolverine and Selene running around in a movie done by the Mummy guy as a Can’t Miss. But it misses badly.
And I think the biggest problem is Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing.
Now, I’m not hating on the dude. I like him as an actor just fine and he’s perfect for a movie like this, but the mix of Sommers and Jackman creates a very character with a conflicted tone. At times, Van Helsing is quick with a quip, but at others he’s so overwrought and serious that you wonder if he’s embarrassed to be in a popcorn flick.
Maybe the problem lies with Sommer’s creation of the character. Maybe he didn’t want to do Brendan Fraser Redux with his main star but removing an overblown character with a somber one hurts the unbelievability of the movie. Fraser is having such a good time in The Mummy that his energy and charm propels you through the ridiculousness of certain situations. Because he’s got his tongue-planted-firmly and all that, you like him and because you like him you want to like the movie.
Jackman’s Van Helsing could offer the same charm because Jackman shows in the random scene here or there in VAN HELSING that he can bring that same lightheartedness, but the film fronts the dark and mysterious aspect of Jackman’s character in a nod towards realism and that, in turn, makes the unbelievable seem hokey as opposed to fun. Because Van Helsing isn’t having fun or taking note of the absurdity of what’s happening, when the absurd happens (such as during the horse carriage chase sequence) I just roll my eyes. (Figuratively, not literally – who actually rolls their eyes anymore? It’s a lost gesture.).
Van Helsing doesn’t look like he’s having fun. He doesn’t look like he wants to be here and if he doesn’t, then why should we care?
Thirty-four minutes into the film it’s obvious this film is not going to please. Through the first 34 minutes we’ve had four action sequences and a totally unnecessary infodump sequence (the aforementioned James Bond Q sequence). The movie opens with a nice idea – a black and white storming the castle sequence with angry villagers raiding Castle Frankenstein as the good Doctor is trying to bring his creation to life – but it never really comes together because there’s too much going on. We’ve got Dr. Frankenstein doing his thing but then Dracula shows up and Igor betrays Frankenstein and I started to instantly get the feeling that the film was just tossing anything familiar it could get its hands on up on the screen. It’s like no one involved in the production had a “2 AM Cool Idea Filter” to stop those ideas that seem good as a concept but fail in execution.
Just talk out that last paragraph. You’ve got Frankenstein doing his most famous bit but then Dracula shows up and Igor switches sides as the villagers are rioting outside … sounds perfectly cool but it doesn’t come together. It’s all played too seriously. When the scene is over we shift to color and get the title card, “One Year Later.”
It took one year to go from black and white to color?
We get our intro to Van Helsing as he chases down Mister Hyde through a big fight sequence. Then it’s on to the Vatican for the Q sequence, then we jump to Transylvania where we’re introduced to Anna and her brother Velkan, and then we get a big action sequence where Anna and Van Helsing team up to fight lady vampires. It just doesn’t work.
Action, action, infodump, action, action.
Serious, quipster, quipster, serious, serious with a dash of quipster.
It’s not fun and that’s VAN HELSING’s biggest crime. Even when Jackman is quipping, he does it in a droll manner that might make you smile thin but not smile broad. There’s so much thought put into elaborate CGI action sequences and so little into what the end result of their work is going to look like on the screen that it just frustrates you. I don’t ever feel like they really know who Van Helsing is and so we get this disconnected, disjointed character that has no appeal. He’s not cool, he’s not dangerous, he’s not really tortured, and he’s simply not engaging. I don’t care what happens to him.
Richard Roxburgh is fantastic as Dracula and he actually seems to be having a good time, so we’ve got the inverse of the Mummy formula here, where the bad guy has the mega personality and the hero has the flat personality. When asked by one of his brides if he has a heart about them, he responds gleefully that, “Of course not. I have no heart. I am hollow,” in a wonderfully campy manner. Maybe if Kate Beckinsale’s Anna wasn’t also so damn dour and glum and tortured it wouldn’t seem like such a disconnect between the fun Dracula and the boring Van Helsing, but they’ve overloaded her character with such a heavy backstory that she can’t offer anything but dourness.
Is this done purposely to mirror Selene? Was there enough time between the two movies for this to be done on purpose?
The same disjointed conception of character affects Anna, too. On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe she’s this sword-wielding bad ass who can take care of herself, and yet every time she gets in danger, she starts quivering and shaking and being all afraid. Why? The most egregious affront to her character comes during the big final battle when she’s squaring off against the last remaining lady vampire (she has a name but you’ll remember her as “the redheaded one”) and she gets saved by … wait for it … Frankenstein’s creature crashing through the window.
Circumstance. F*cking circumstance.
It’s such garbage.
Even the key to victory is achieved through circumstance. People have been trying to kill Dracula for 400 years and no one can do it. Silver doesn’t work, crosses don’t work, fire doesn’t work, terminal boredom doesn’t work. So what’s the key to killing him?
You’ve got to be a werewolf to do it. And, oh, lookee there, Van Helsing got himself bit by Anna’s werewolf brother. How lame is that? How about having them figure it out and Van Helsing allowing himself to get bit?
Further showing that the film doesn’t want you to have a good time, they deliver a limp ending that sees Anna getting killed by the Van Werewolf and then a sad hero gets to literally see Anna being reunited with her family in Heaven. And by “in Heaven,” I mean the clouds in the sky.
VAN HELSING is an attractive enough looking film that it’s not a horrible watch, but it’s certainly not a very good movie. Poorly conceived characters in a poorly executed story with a decent visual look makes for an forgettable film.