WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Famous monster-hunter Gabriel Van Helsing is dispatched to Transylvania to rid the world of Count Dracula, in order to save the world from his Frankenstein-inspired creations, and the descendants of a noble family from a life in Hell. However, one of the descendants has issues of his own, leaving Van Helsing, aided only by callow friar Carl, to look after the beautiful Princess Anna.
You can almost see the scene. An office in Los Angeles, key movie ingredients pasted on the wall: ‘opening/backstory,’ ‘lead characters,’ action sequence 2,’ ‘love interest,’ ‘sidekick’ and so on. From a large bucket, passages torn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, together with leftover bits of Indiana Jones scripts, are drawn out at random and stuck to the wall. Over an hour or two, a sort of story – a disconnected and nonsensical story, but a story all the same – begins to appear, and an executive in a suit says ‘Hey guys! I think we’ve got a movie here!’
It’s tempting to think that Sommers’ film, a lumbering monster stitched together from the corpses of much better movies, was brought to life in this way, but the credits indicate that Van Helsing was written by Sommers alone, so presumably it is his copies of 19th century novels that are mutilated or at least heavily annotated. The plot is so complicated as to make further explanation of it very wearisome, but essentially has Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) shacked up with Victor Frankenstein as part of the Count’s devious plot to create an army of minions (is the ‘biting people’ method too slow? We’re not told); when Frankenstein refuses to assist, he is killed but the monster escapes, taking with him the key to creating life.
Meanwhile, the all-action amnesiac Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is summoned to the Vatican after slaying Mr Hyde at Notre Dame (oh yes!) and given a new assignment, to protect the last descendants of the Valerious family, Velkan and Anna. He is given Carl (David Wenham), a naive friar who happens to be a 19th Century Q-like gadgets expert, as company on his journey to darkest Transylvania.
Once arrived, Van Helsing, broad and imposing in his frock coat and hat, is immediately called into action to fend off Dracula’s brides with his semi-automatic crossbow, bringing him into the company of lovely Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale); they are unable to rescue Velkan, who has become a part-time werewolf in Dracula’s service, but they do stumble upon Frankenstein’s monster.
When Anna herself is captured, a plan to get her back without trading her for the monster goes wrong – and Van Helsing himself is bitten by the werewolf – but luckily Dracula has a cure, so the rescued Anna, Carl and Van Helsing (now with super strength and agility) can mount an assault on Dracula’s secret lair, free the monster and kill the Count, thereby neutralising the thousands of vampire bat-things he has just brought to life and setting lots of demonic oompa-loompas on fire in the process.
If all that sounds complicated, it is, and whilst watching the film is not a particularly confusing experience, it is not a particularly fun one either. Van Helsing, the bit-part vampire-hunter from Dracula, does not make a natural hero, and lumbering him with amnesia, a significant past, gadgets like circular saws and lycanthropy is really too much, especially when Jackman is clearly thinking only of his paycheque.
It’s hard to blame him, though, when he’s asked to believe in a story that throws in every conceivable horror cliché bar the Mummy (that being Sommers’ big franchise and reserved to Brendan Fraser, presumably) and fails to reconcile them into a satisfactory whole. Carl is a typically annoying sidekick and Beckinsale, though undeniably comely in her corset and tight trousers, fails to generate much chemistry as a barely-explored love interest. In this company Roxburgh appears to be overacting like mad, and for all his bluster is actually defeated fairly easily in an unsatisfying CGI-dominated climax. In fact, CGI is overused throughout, the emphasis in action sequences taken off stuntwork and placed on computer modelling, resulting in the characters jumping and moving about in the obviously fake, jerky style that marred Spider-Man.
You can see the intention behind Van Helsing, a destroyer of evil who is morally ambiguous himself, like Hellboy or Constantine. However, Jackman is never bothered enough about the role to make us feel anything for him, and in several moments of execution – when he bends some metal bars apart, the bars move before he exerts any pressure on them – the film shows a real lack of attention to detail that matches the careless way the plot throws ideas around. Hokum can be really entertaining, but by and large this is badly-made hokum without any convictions to have courage in. Almost any horror film which gives its sole attention to Dracula, werewolves or Frankenstein is preferable to this ghastly goulash.