Hi, I have a master’s degree in pharmacology and I wrote over a thousand words about fucking Van Helsing.
Years before the Dark Universe was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, Universal Studios smashed together their classic monsters in the notoriously bad Van Helsing. Its badness has endured so strongly that it was likened to toilet paper as recently as April by Saturday Night Live. I saw this sketch within days of watching Hugh Jackman in Bad Education and then stumbling across him in Van Helsing on HBO…and then as fate would have it, the next Year of the Month was for 2004. The year Van Helsing was released. I listened to the signs and chose to subject myself to this legendary failure…and, look, I will not say it’s Good Actually, nor I will declare that it deserves reevaluation as a Misunderstood Masterpiece, but Roger Ebert had it right, folks: “At the outset, we may fear Sommers is simply going for f/x overkill, but by the end, he has somehow succeeded in assembling all his monsters and plot threads into a high-voltage climax. Van Helsing is silly, spectacular and fun.” I didn’t always agree with Ebert, but sometimes he fucking nailed it. Of course, Van Helsing would be a lot better if it actually committed to being silly, spectacular, and fun. It’s unclear what tone Stephen Sommers really wanted, but it’s very clear he did not tell his actors because they all think they’re in different movies.
Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale think they’re in a serious monster movie that attempts to have some modicum of gravitas. Jackman’s Van Helsing has a secret backstory, and he very sincerely delivers lines like…this: “My life, my job is to vanquish evil. I can sense evil. This thing… man…whatever it is, evil may have created it, may have left its mark on it. But evil does not rule it, so I cannot kill it.” That’s right, Jackman said, “I can sense evil,” without a trace of irony. (Funnily enough, Frankenstein’s Monster, whom he is speaking of, is the most emotionally affecting character in the film, somehow succeeding as a serious interpretation.) Jackman has angst about fighting evil, and Kate Beckinsale has angst about her brother the werewolf, but neither one has an actual character or character development. Tell me literally one thing about Anna Valerious that defines who she is besides “badass Kate Beckinsale in a corset,” which…is just her character in Underworld (she is no stranger to fighting vampires and werewolves). Does Van Helsing have an actual personality? Who knows! So if you’re not going to try to make them real people, you should at least give them quips, but this movie does not have nearly enough quips. At least ones that land.
Thankfully, David Wenham provides ample comic relief with a really charming performance as a Q-esque friar who can do things a monk can’t like curse and have sex. This character is never meant to be taken seriously, and he’s a delight. You’d think you’re supposed to take Dracula, the main villain of the film, seriously, but Richard Roxburgh camps (dare I say vamps) it up with a ridiculous accent, as if he’s auditioning for What We Do in the Shadows. His lines could easily be played more sinister to match the sincerity of Jackman’s performance, but he chooses to be super over the top, sinking his teeth into the role in a way that is maybe not meant to be funny.
The Brides of Dracula fall somewhere in the middle, as they all overact terribly, but it’s unclear whether they’re bad at being serious or good at being comical. Then again, if your 19th century vampire vixen is saying, “Too bad. So sad,” you can’t expect the audience not to roll their eyes. But is that supposed to be a…joke? Who can tell with this movie! I did enjoy that the Brides offered the film some structure as they got knocked off one by one, but it’s not like there’s really any distinction between them apart from their hair color.
I also enjoyed the Bride transformation CGI! It’s pretty impressive and seamless when they go from vampire form to human form. The other way around, however, doesn’t look as good because their vampire form looks ridiculous…like all the CGI in this movie. I have no defense of this major criticism because even though it was 2004, Mr. Hyde shouldn’t look as bad as the troll from the first Harry Potter movie in 2001 (which was bad for 1998, let alone 2001). So when most of your villains are CGI, you’re going to lose a lot of points.
But Sommers does create a good action-adventure out of this mishmash of strengths and weaknesses (more the latter than the former, sure) with several exciting setpieces. The initial Bride attack features Van Helsing busting out an automatic crossbow (where is the crossover with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters?) and a cow getting thrown into a building with a distraught “moooooo” (don’t worry, the cow survives). How can you not love that, even if it’s mildly incoherent? I also dug the horse carriage chase that ends in a slick fakeout and an explosion of stakes. But the true highlight is the “high-voltage climax” that Ebert loved so much and I do too! I was legitimately impressed and delighted with how well Sommers pulls together all the major players and subplots into the mayhem as they try to kill Dracula, save Frankenstein’s Monster, stop Dracula’s children, defeat the last Bride, obtain a werewolf cure, Igor is also there, it’s a lot. But it’s Sommers playing with his toys in the best way, and it finally allows Anna a chance to quip!! “I think if you’re going to kill someone, kill them! Don’t stand around talking about it!” Truer words were never spoken, Ms. Valerious.
So, fine. Van Helsing has an overstuffed plot that’s way too convoluted — I didn’t even mention the resolution of Van Helsing’s secret backstory is so anticlimactic I don’t know why they bothered with that subplot at all — and it lacks the effortless sense of fun of Sommers’ The Mummy because it can’t decide what kind of movie it truly is. But even if it doesn’t work as well as it could, it’s a great premise that offers two hours of empty calories, and you could do a lot worse. There’s no reason to compare it to toilet paper, SNL, but if you’re going to, at least show this film some respect. It’s definitely two-ply.