When Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising) re-imagined The Mummy as a mix of flashy CGI horror and swashbuckling Indiana Jones–esque adventure, it became a surprising box office smash. Anyone who saw Tom Cruise’s Mummy knows Sommers’ approach wasn’t a sure thing in 1999. Following a successful sequel, Sommers opted to take on a handful of Universal Monsters’ properties. This time Sommers re-imagined Bram Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing as a Gothic mix of James Bond and Indiana Jones. Throw in Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and a werewolf and Van Helsing should have been a no-brainer. And while it made decent money, critics absolutely hated it. Though it became something of a cautionary blockbuster tale, time heals many wounds. Nearly 20 years later, is Van Helsing ready for a critical re-appraisal? Or is it still just a bad movie?
In the late 19th century, Count Dracula terrorizes the Transylvanian countryside as he seeks to end the bloodline of his rivals. To put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror, The Vatican sends monster hunter Gabriel Van Helsing. Along with Friar Carl, an inventor of monster-fighting weapon, Van Helsing joins forces with Anna Valerious to fight Dracula and his brides.
Van Helsing Weighted Down by Overstuffed Storytelling
Despite some stylistic similarities, Sommers’ The Mummy and Van Helsing differed in one key respect. On the one hand, The Mummy mostly updates its source material to a 90s adventure mold. Comparatively, Van Helsing crams bits of Stoker, Mary Shelley, some Robert Louis Stevenson, The Wolf Man, and stuff Sommers just made up. Clearly, Sommers wanted to do his own monster mash like original Universal Monster flicks like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and House of Dracula. And if three monsters wasn’t enough, Van Helsing saw fit to include Mr Hyde, Dracula’s Brides, and Igor. Of course, this doesn’t include Van Helsing himself, his own Q-like sidekick, or Kate Beckinsale’s Romanian heroine.
…Van Helsing’s story takes on more weight as it chugs along.
Alongside this bursting at the seams cast is an overstuffed storyline. If The Mummy was a focused action-adventure, Van Helsing’s story takes on more weight as it chugs along. Not satisfied with a simple story of Van Helsing hunting the most infamous vampire, Sommers gives Dracula extra villainous motivation. There’s a plot about bringing Dracula’s children to life that initially requires The Wolf Man, but later needs an unwilling Monster. Beckinsale’s Anna Valerious has a brother cursed by a werewolf’s bite. And Van Helsing has no memory of his past, which Sommers later reveals involves a connection to Dracula. Oh, and there’s a surprise secret werewolf cure. Don’t feel bad if you’re confused. Simply put, Van Helsing requires a scorecard to follow its story.
Van Helsing Subscribes to Kitchen-Sink Approach To Blockbuster Filmmaking
Like its story, Van Helsing’s visual are an overstuffed barrage of CGI monsters. Wasting little time, Sommers dives into a prologue wherein Van Helsing battles Mr Hyde in the Notre-Dame de Paris. Not surprisingly, the battle shrugs off any suspense or horror sensibilities. It’s a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in any superhero movie. And Van Helsing’s Mr Hyde has more in common with Marvel’s Hulk than his own source material. Most of the movies plays out in this manner – loud, elaborate, and busy action scenes that quickly become repetitive. This isn’t to say that some of these scenes aren’t exciting or impressive. Van Helsing is never boring. But the poorly-aged CGI and relentlessness of the action eventually exhaust more than they entertain.
… loud, elaborate, and busy action scenes that quickly become repetitive.
Somewhere amidst all this CGI mayhem are actual human characters. Fortunately, Hugh Jackman has enough charisma and talent to still stand out in such a busy movie. In fact, one wishes Sommers hadn’t tried to include every Universal Monster possible into one movie. If Van Helsing isn’t a great movie, you’d still likely sign up for more of the title character’s adventures. Fresh off her first stint in Underworld, Kate Beckinsale (Vacancy) had more than enough action hero bona fides for her role here. Though he’s a talented actor, Richard Roxburgh can’t avoid the inevitable comparisons to past actors who have played Dracula. And it’s never a bad thing to have Kevin J O’Connor (Lord of Illusions) in a movie.
Van Helsing Remains a Cautionary Tale for Rebooting University Monster Properties
After nearly 20 years, not much has changed to improve Van Helsing’s critical standing. Both its overreliance on CGI and the diminishing returns of a still-developing technology instantly date it. Its loud, kitchen-sink approach has been the source of criticism for subsequent Hollywood blockbusters. Most importantly, Sommers’ insistence on trying to do too much in one movie is a complaint that still haunts hopeful franchises. It was this very problem that ultimately sank the most recent attempt to reboot The Mummy. And Leigh Whannell’s (Upgrade) taught us anything, it’s that a focused, scaled-back approach can work even when transplanting old source material to contemporary time period. As Universal Studios still aspires to a monster-themed shared cinematic universe, Van Helsing remains a cautionary tale.