The 00’s were full of horror films that weren’t exactly horror films, but were instead a valiant effort at pretending to be horror films because of the inclusion of characters based in horror mythology. Van Helsing is a painful addition to this group; I say painful here due to that fact that it really tried to be amazing, managed to pull together a fantastic cast, but still somehow failed on almost every level. Interestingly enough, Van Helsing crossed some similar story lines as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but more on that later.
The story: Altered from his professorial roots and re-imagined as Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), the titular character is now a notorious monster hunter sent to Transylvania to stop Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who is using research stolen from Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments to achieve an almost impossible goal. The addition of a werewolf complicates matters just a bit.
Writer/director Stephen Sommers turned the scholarly character of Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula into Gabriel Van Helsing, a Vatican foundling who is a sort of James Bond of the clergy… stay with me. His very own Q is a long-suffering friar named Carl (David Wenham), dragged along on Van Helsing’s most recent adventure into the wilds of Romania, where Van Helsing’s mission is to save the last tattered remnants of a “Warriors for Christ” family – the Valerious clan, from extinction. The Valerious family has pledged their souls to damnation until they can defeat heir ancient enemy, Count Dracula.
The film opens on the capture/accidental death of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in Saint Michel, Paris, and Van Helsing’s subsequent flight from justice. Vatican enforcers are above the law, and Gabriel has bigger things on his mind. Van Helsing is a complicated soul and he’s not exactly a fan of his current monster-busting lifestyle.
Against his will, Van Helsing and Carl are sent to Romania on one final mission for the church: Rescue the last remaining members of the Valerious family from extinction, and maybe find a way to kill Count Dracula while he’s at it. Over in Romania, in a small village that is stereotypically small, Anna and Velkan Valerious protect the people of the village from the random attacks of Count Dracula, his vicious wives and a werewolf; a new addition to the “don’t move here” brochure. Above the attacks of the Valerious clan, Dracula has other problems to deal with, namely his three wives who are desperate to have children. Sadly for them, through some convenient quirk of mythology, they are unable to breed – but Dracula has learned that by harnessing the power of the research and science of Dr. Frankenstein that their precious offspring will survive their monstrous (and they are) births.
One avenue where Van Helsing and LoEG meet, is the re-awakening of literary characters and characters from cinematic history to create a backdrop for the film. Van Helsing features Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Monster, Igor, Dracula and his wives, and a Werewolf – all existing in the same timeline. However, in the vein of Steampunk films, I would actually hesitate to grade Van Helsing as such. Timeline wise, it’s correct enough, but only because of the characters utilized within the story. The weapons used by Van Helsing are a very basic form of Steampunk, in that they use elaborate metallic gear and pulley systems with wooden components, but are otherwise unworthy of note. The wardrobe of Anna Valerious, most notable for the corset that Beckinsale has stated she despised, could only be considered vaguely Steampunk for its shining of traditional female dress norms of the period, in that she wears leather breeches. Shocking Personally, I see Van Helsing as more of a Gothic tale than anything, as it utilizes scenery, wardrobe, and literature befitting that genre more closely.
The most notably Steampunk element of the film is a visual one, and it’s encapsulated within the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster. Powered by the uncontrollable forces of electricity, the lab is a beautiful mess of antique equipment (purchased on eBay by the set dec team) and snapping Tesla coils. The Monster himself is a study in Steampunk elements as he is not only an amalgamation of man, but also of man and machine – a proto-Borg if you will. With a brainpan churning with visible electricity to a steam-powered leg, Frankenstein’s Monster, while acting as the key to unlock all of Dracula’s desires, is the most unique element of the entire film.
From the outset, Van Helsing is a misguided mess, however, with closer scrutiny, its plain that the intentions of a film such as this are noble enough. Uniting the Universal monsters in their first “serious” ensemble film since the later 1930s, Van Helsing is an honest attempt at refreshing modern interest in this almost forgotten arm of Hollywood filmmaking.
Coming off of a disappointing experience in LoEG, Roxburgh is an exceptional leading man, and his Dracula is charming, threatening, and highly entertaining despite the forced accent. Beckinsale plays Anna Valerious the same way she plays Seline in Underworld, which was filming at the same time, but it works well here. Jackman’s world-weary hunter, Van Helsing, is wise cracking and very similar to his Wolverine – a franchise which was also in production during the filming of Van Helsing. Where Van Helsing ultimately falls flat is in the execution of its lofty CGI goals. The blatant use of CGI at every available opportunity is a slap in the face to its noble attempts at honoring the golden age of Universal Monsters.
The verdict: 2.5 coffins measured to fit out of 5. While an entertaining film, Van Helsing’s shortcomings as it races to a predictable conclusion are painfully obvious. Also clear as are its issues with blending too many distinct story lines, which collide and leave the viewer confused, or at best, blissfully unaware as to what they’ve actually just watched.