Roger Ebert was right. In amongst the resounding cacophony of negative noise, one man stood strong against the tide engulfing Stephen Sommers’ 2004 film. He simply states at the end of his review, ‘Van Helsing is silly and spectacular, and fun’. Throughout the back catalogue of defences I’ve scribed for films, they all could fall within this three-word spectrum, but the Hugh Jackman-led flick has suffered the worst in the decade of its existence. However, a re-evaluation is in need for this mad, bad, sometimes beautiful, and always bizarre, CGI-infested film.
The gang’s all here for this Monster Mash, with the Wolf Man, Dr. Frankenstein (and his Monster), Dracula, Igor, vampires, Mr. Hyde and Van Helsing present. The notorious monster hunter is sent to Transylvania to stop Count Dracula, who is attempting to bring his countless offspring to life, by unlocking Frankenstein’s Monster’s secret to life.
From the onset, Van Helsing is full of grandiloquence. Fresh from the Mummy franchise, Sommers employs his CG talent/lunacy to its fullest to explore this gothic narrative. Supported by Alan Silvestri’s stirring and bombastic score, Sommers goes hell-for-leather in telling his ridiculous tale. Everything is excessive – the awful accents overwhelming – and the violent mania of this whirlwind often leaves you dizzy and plain befuddled. However, if you let it grab hold of you, the fun and frenzy catches hold.
Van Helsing is fundamentally a blockbuster aimed at teenagers. Updating all the Gothic classics to a new audience, the story is marked by key action pieces while details fall by the wayside. This is not a justification of its failures, but rather an appreciation of what they were initially aiming for. With this in mind, after watching the movie for a second time, there’s something immediately enamoring about the anachronisms and accents abounding. It’s daft, funny, exciting, and there are some stand-out examples of stunts and CGI. The Journey to Transylvania scene, with Van Helsing and Anna Valerious (Beckingsale) avoiding Dracula’s consort of brides, thrills with stunts, effects, production design and a phenomenal lead track by Silvestri. All these little details combine to create a truly memorable scene. Van Helsing is actually littered with gems like this, but their presence is so disparate and disjointed that the final product can appear a mess.
There lies Van Helsing’s great paradox. Sommers and Universal were desperate for another blockbuster success akin to The Mummy, simply copying over the winning formula to an Eastern European setting. The CGI satisfies that aspiration in terms of shock and awe, but beneath the surface, there lies an irresistible and subtle intelligence. You can witness it from the start upon our first encounter with our protagonist in Paris, 1888. How do we know? A wide shot highlights a half-built Eiffel Tower and a gorgeous Gothic scene, exquisitely caught by Allen Daviau, DoP for E.T., Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple. This ridiculously simple shot highlights a flicker of fun,with a neat way of addressing the basics.
This ‘intelligence’ carries on throughout the script. When you take a step back, the whole is ugly, mad and just confused. Under inspection, the quiet touches begin to shine through. Richard Roxburgh’s camp villainy provides wit, soul and depth, as a relic of a bygone era clinging to his concept of life, and his hope of claiming control of it. Roxburgh’s strength – outside his accent – means that if the story was told from his point of view, you would probably root for him. There are also scatter of great human humour from David Wenham’s friar, Carl – constantly reminding us of his non-field agent status, acting as a Roman Catholic version of Q.
Yet the star of the show, noticeably and thankfully accent-free, is Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein’s Monster. Beyond the mind-numbing and dulling CGI, wounded empathy and rage seep from the performance. The Broadway actor impresses throughout from bellowing a prophetic desire to “exist”, to exclaiming the 23rd Psalm when led to imminent torture. Sommers’ fascination with the Monster in the frantic frenzy provides a sense of much-needed calm, with a stage actor’s gravitas. Frankly, he provides the soul to the spectacle.
It falls far behind The Mummy in all measurable ways, specifically when comparing its leads with Frasier/Weisz easily beating Jackman/Beckinsale. However, a Second Chance is not simply a shouting-match to define who sits upon the throne. The whole purpose of this feature is to embrace the unloved and treat it anew. Van Helsing isn’t perfect. Not even close to it, no matter the level of professed love. However, it’s backed by a rambunctious score, enjoyable and impressive action scenes, and gems – production- and script-wise – throughout. It’s exactly as Roger Ebert said back in May 2004: Van Helsing is silly, and spectacular, and fun.