Van Helsing (2004), Review/Lookback

We've got a little theory here, that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is, at least spiritually, a follow up to 2004's Van Helsing.

Oh Hollywood, you’re having a phase. In case you haven’t noticed, ever since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) cleared $1 billion worldwide, every studio has jumped on the fairy tale bandwagon. We’ve seen them throw a little twilight on Red Riding Hood in 2011 and stuff apples down our throats with TWO Snow White movies last year. Even television is getting into it nowadways with Grimm, Once Upon a Time and Beauty and the Beast taking hold of the networks. It is in this vein that we are getting Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters on Friday.

In anticipation of this strangely concocted Hansel and Gretel, especially with its WITCH HUNTERS subtitle, we at Den of Geek are having a lookback at one of its spiritual forbearers: Van Helsing (2004). Why Van Helsing?  Because while Hansel and Gretel is clearly tapping into the fairy tale zeitgeist of the moment, it seems to be following an even older fad. One in which it was trendy to dress your protagonists in all leather as they quipped it out with supernatural monsters. So, let’s turn the clocks back nine years and see how much bite is left in the Hugh Jackman vehicle.

At the beginning of the last decade, Stephen Sommers was on top of the world. The classic supernatural horror that dominated cinema in the early 20th century had come back in vogue. Francis Ford Coppola and Neil Jordan were exploring the complex eroticism of the vampire in movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview with the Vampire (1994), respectively. Kenneth Branagh was putting an emphasis on ACTING with his 1994 version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. There was even a little-remembered reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that featured Julia Roberts doing a hilarious Irish accent. All these movies have two things in common. The first is that they were all very artistic and high intentioned. The second is that they were essentially remakes of classic horror films from Universal. These were Universal’s bread and butter for the whole of the 1930s and 1940s. So why was everyone else doing them? And why were they so damn artsy?!

Universal reversed both trends when they released The Mummy (1999). As a remake of a 1932 studio original, The Mummy allowed exclusive branding for the studio. It also intentionally went as big and commercial as it could get with its Indiana Jones-styled plotting and its Indiana Jones-modeled hero played by Brendan Fraser. With a relatively limited budget of $80 million, The Mummy was a mega-success that practically doubled its number domestically and totaled $415 million worldwide. Sommers became an instant A-list director and would bring even bigger returns to the studio with his 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns

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Yep, Sommers was sitting pretty atop the Universal logo. It is in this context that he wisely chose to opt out of doing a Mummy 3 and instead focus on a new project entitled…Van Helsing. For our literary Geeks out there, you may recall Van Helsing as the name of the short in stature, but large in moral righteousness character from Bram Stoker’s original “Dracula” novel. Published in 1897, the book is about the war between good and evil; new and old; technology and superstition. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a middle-aged Dutch metaphysician, is an eccentric genius with his hands in everything from biology and psychology to English law. It is his intellectual curiosity that allows him to believe in the vampire and thereby destroy it by combining Old World dogma with Victorian technological (and apparently moral) superiority. He has been played in other films by the likes of Edward Van Sloan, Peter Cushing, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins. So who does Sommers cast in the role when the good doctor finally gets to take center stage? Hugh Jackman.

Thus, we can instantly throw out Stoker’s novel and know upfront that this will have absolutely nothing to do with the literary incarnation. Indeed, Sommers’s Van Helsing is not even a doctor nor has the name Abraham. Sommers changed the name to Gabriel supposedly because he couldn’t take a lead character with the name “Abraham” seriously. Gabriel Van Helsing is a dashing Indiana Jones-like figure (huh) with a strong dose of lauded Japanese anime Vampire Hunter D thrown in. He even has a black trench coat like the heroes in that other surprise hit movie from 1999. Sommers cast Wolverine fresh off of X2 (2003) in the lead role and set a release date for the first weekend in May (the same one that Spider-Man shattered in 2002). Sommers’s monster hunting bad boy was ready to kick ass!

Van Helsing opens in black and white with a very in-your-face homage to the ending of the James Whale masterpiece, Frankenstein (1931). The good doctor has just created his monster (Shuler Hensley) while under the patronage of Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). What does the Count want him for? It’s unclear, but when the monster and doctor seemingly perish in a burning windmill, his three brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Coloca and Josie Maran) seem genuinely distraught.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Van Helsing (Jackman) cuts a swashbuckling figure as he throws a CGI-gorilla called Mr. Hyde from the towers of Notre Dame. Apparently hunted across Europe for being a murderer, Van Helsing is really just a super-secret assassin for the Vatican. He may also be the Archangel Gabriel from the Books of Daniel and Luke. That’s never really clear because Jackman’s hero has lost his memory (huh) but apparently has a long-term history with the main villain of the movie (double huh). Indeed, Van Helsing and Dracula’s backstory in this seems to go back centuries, but like much else with the plot, it’s never really explained how. 

Anyway, Van Helsing is sent with his private monk-Q, Brother Carl (David Wenham), to Transylvania to help an endangered prince (Will Kemp) and the Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale) avoid being eaten by monsters. Sure enough, in the next scene a werewolf working for Dracula tries to kill Anna, but instead is put out of its misery by her brother who is then bitten and cursed to become the next cartoon Wolf Man. By the time Van Helsing rolls into town, Anna seems weary of sheepish wolves of any kind and tries to have him run out on a rail. Fortunately, Dracula’s brides massacre half the town, thereby letting Van Helsing prove his monster-killing credentials. After some romantic “I can’t stand you” banter between Gabe and Anna, they go bust up Dracula’s castle. In the process they uncover that the Frankenstein monster is still alive and that Dracula wants him to power a machine that will bring the hundreds of dead babies he and his wives bred (one guy and three gorgeous women alone for centuries will do that) back to life. Chaos and bloody awful CGI ensue. By the third act, Van Helsing carries the Wolf Man curse and only has three days to stop it with Anna’s help before he turns into a monster just as deadly as the rest of this movie’s plot.

Despite attempting to be a throwback to the glory days of Universal horror (roughly 1931-1941), Van Helsing (2004) feels more like the monster mash-ups from the mid-40s. It’s like the ones where Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster kept meeting up with new faces and slaughtering the same character actors who populated the Universal Studios back lot during the World War II years. I would like to think that was Sommers’s original intention, but that is probably giving him too much credit. More likely, this movie feels overstuffed because it was terribly executed by a filmmaker who has never seen a CGI model he didn’t like. Unlike those amusingly wacky ‘40s flicks, Van Helsing is a lumbering hulk of a movie that is more ungraceful than Boris Karloff in a pound of make-up after an 18-hour shoot. Aspects that should be fun, such as a gothic would-be Harrison Ford battling a werewolf, are merely draining.

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The characters in this movie are more archetypal stand-ins from better films than actual people. Jackman is a terrific actor and attempts to cross his existentially tormented Wolverine persona with the square jawed charisma of a matinee idol. But when the screenplay will not even give him the dignity of a complete arc (Is he an angel? Does he care that Dracula knows who he once was?), there is no reason for the audience to get invested in his journey. Beckinsale is likewise left adrift in the movie. The vastly underrated actress took this part due to director Michael Bay saying he cast her in Pearl Harbor (2001) because she was “not very attractive.” She more than proves the oblivious CGI-explosion savant wrong here, particularly in a ballroom scene where Dracula keeps trying to put his fangs in her. Unfortunately, all she has to do in Van Helsing is look beautiful, which anyone with eyes and common sense could have already seen. Her character doesn’t fit all the clichés of the hero’s love interest, but it’s a shame mediocrity like this hurt her brand far more than the insensitivities of a man who has cast his other leading ladies by making them wash his car. 

The rest of the cast cannot be fairly judged by their performances here. I have seen Roxburgh, Wenham and Anaya show strong work in other, smaller films. However, they all play the same garish notes in this monstrous headache. I can imagine Sommers standing with them in front of walls of blue screen and saying, “Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin…but without the subtlety or nuance.” 

That is not to say that there is nothing of quality in Van Helsing. The score by Alan Silvestri is rousing Saturday serial fare. The production team also went into overdrive to marry the gothic and expressionist sets of the classic Universal monster movies with the blockbuster aesthetic that dominated films in the post-Phantom Menace and post-Matrix world. Unfortunately, that means all their hard work is buried under oceans of subpar CGI. There is hardly a frame in this movie that is not mutated by cartoon graphics that wouldn’t pass muster for a PS2 game. Much like Sommers’s previous Mummy Returns, every scene looks like a video game. At the picture’s end, there is a massive set-piece of hunchback Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor) battling Wenham’s monk on an ice-bridge behind a CGI-lightning storm while Beckinsale and the monster swing like Tobey Maguires above them on tower chains. It is so ludicrously over-the-top and horrendously computer-rendered, I did not know if I should cringe or applaud the filmmakers’ cojones to think this would play well with an audience. 

The concept of making an action movie about Dr. Van Helsing battling Dracula and his brood is a tantalizing one. This could have been a good movie. However, everything about Sommers’s finished film, right down to the dippy jokes, is so hackneyed and tone-deaf to the material that it is a true wonder how it came to be. Something this mindlessly awful is not made by mere accident. After the marketing is included, hundreds of millions of dollars and years of talent are sunk into movies like this and nobody seems to stop and go, “You know guys…this is REALLY bad.” 

Which brings us back to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arteton star vehicle is meant to marry this fairy tale craze with the leather-garbed badassery of modern action movies. It was also meant to come out in March 2012 and got pushed back/dumped into January. So, will it be every bit as awful as Sommers’s legendarily bad Van Helsing? Come back this weekend to find out! In the meantime, leave a comment below and share your own horror stories about the 2004 disaster that was.