Van Helsing (2004): Sommers Misfire, Starring Hugh Jackman

Watching Van Helsing is like taking a walk on the Universal theme park. Stephen Sommers, who conceived and executed this concoction, is not much of a filmmaker, if making films means staging scenes, directing actors, or giving a story the proper look, style, and pace.

As was evident in his previous outings (The Mummy and its sequel, The Mummy Returns), Sommers is a creator of big, noisy set pieces. But he knows a good ride when he sees one. His “philosophy” is based on the notion that audiences should have no time at all to reflect on what nonsense they’re watching while they’re watching his movie.

Constructed rather than written, Van Helsing is an unimaginative compilation of all the great creatures of the classic horror genre–Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man–all cinematic hallmarks that turned Universal Studio into a Hollywood leader of the horror genre in the 1930s. Sommers’ gimmick is to throw these iconic monsters into one locale and one time frame, and then see what happens.

Van Helsing uproots the characters from any recognizable reality. Sommers bends all the rules of the genre–“customizing,” in his worlds, “the characters for the larger-than-life canvas.” The only way to relate to the film is as campy trip down Horror Memory Lane.

In the opening sequence, set in 1888, Frankenstein is seen in the castle of Count Dracula; never mind that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818. It’s not a coincidence that the settings for almost all classic horror films is the creepy atmospheric Eastern Europe of the nineteenth century, though Sommers doesn’t take advantage of it.

Cut to Paris, a year later, and Notre Dame where we meet our hero, Gabriel Van Helsing. I wonder how come Sommers resisted the temptation of introducing another classic creature, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, into his epos.

To breathe life into the tale, Sommers resorts to expensive, superficially eye-popping production values, the latest in special effect technology, and breathless pacing. He aggressively piles clich upon clich, beast upon beast, and special effect upon special effect. At the end, rather than give the film cumulative impact, the creatures cancel each other–and the movie–out.

The linking figure in the new puzzle is Van Helsing, a secondary character from Bram Stoker’s 1897 masterpiece, Dracula. Sommers shifts Van Helsing from the periphery to center stage, and also gives him sex appeal, making him much younger and cooler. In this incarnation, Van Helsing is working for an ancient secret society as a bounty hunter. He’s a gun-for-hire, a mercenary out to vanquish evil, including evil incarnate, Count Dracula.

Van Helsing has been a character in countless movies, played by such British dignitaries as Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Anthony Hopkins, among others. Aussie actor Jackman is not intimidated by his Brit predecessors. He takes Van Helsing seriously, playing him as a reluctant hero in the mold of Clint Eastwood (he even looks like Eastwood in his Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns). Jackman sees his character like James Bond, the outsider who carries out “solitary missions” for a secret organization.

For romantic purposes, Sommers has arranged for Van Helsing to have a companion, Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, reprising her tight black leather pants from Underworld), a gypsy princess and monster hunter. One of the last living members of an ancient family obsessed with the destruction of Dracula, she’s eager to lift a curse that’s hung over her family for generations.

The horror genre has always contained an erotic charge (both implicit and explicit), and gifted modern directors like Coppola in his stylishly seductive Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) knew how to exploit it. Nonetheless, this Van Helsing has no eroticism whatsoever. Not in the beavy of sexy women who hang around Dracula, despite good measure of flesh. Not even when Van Helsing and Anna finally bring their lips together in a typically big Hollywood kiss.

Despite many creatures and distractions, Van Helsing is virtually plotless. The film is a failure in every respect, as a modernist reinvention of a horror tale and as keen appreciation of film history. Sommers might have meant it as homage to the masters of the horror genre, James Whale or Tod Browning, but his film trivializes their achievements.

The young audience who’ll see the movie may or may not be familiar with the 1930s classics starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. And it’s doubtful that this clich confection would arouse their curiosity to check out the classic horror tales that have continued to haunt us for decades.

The big-budget (rumored to be over $150 million) Van Helsing, the first big summer movie, is a commercial disappointment, grossing only $115 million domestically. Hopefully, star Hugh Jackman, who’s gifted and handsome, would not be held responsible.