By John DeFore
Back in the golden days of monster movies, one monster was enough. The actors playing them were more than capable of holding our attention, and the people telling the stories, like Dracula director Tod Browning, knew a thing or two about mood and style. Only after each creature had an outing or three on his own did studio chiefs decide to mix-and-match, producing increasingly desperate crossover adventures.
But that was then. These days, writer/director Stephen Sommers - who in interviews actually seems proud of his shallowness - is happy to start from a point of desperation, throwing horror's Big Three characters into a Transylvanian pot and stirring up some McGhoulash.
Lest moviegoers get the wrong idea about Sommers' approach to the monster characters at his disposal, the filmmaker has declared to Newsweek, "I don't like scary movies." He needn't worry. The innocent bystanders who buy Van Helsing tickets this weekend are more likely to view it as a failed comedy than as a failed horror flick.
It has all the makings of a camp classic, and some of the first half almost works in that vein. Our hero, Dracula's nemesis Van Helsing from the Bram Stoker novel, is employed by a secret, evil-hunting branch of the Vatican, whose offices are entered via a specially rigged confessional stall. Inside we find a 19th-century incarnation of James Bond's gadget-supplier Q, a friar who outfits Van Helsing (Jackman) with Gatling gun-style crossbows and spring-loaded crucifix-daggers.
Van Helsing is sent from Rome to Transylvania, and there meets a vampire hunter clad in traditional garb: black leather corset worn over a blouse with strategically placed red embroidery; bolero jacket; stretch pants; and lipsticked pout. Her name is Anna Valerious (Beckinsale), and she bought both the name and her Eastern European accent from Ed Wood's estate.
Sommers has a peculiar gift for, as they say in the newspaper business, burying his lead. Dracula stays in his castle for most of the tale, while his wives turn into giant bats and taunt the heroes with witty banter like (no kidding) "Too bad, so sad." A stopwatch might contradict this, but it seems that the harpies have more screen time than any of the film's more famous creatures.
There's a whole category of devices in Van Helsing that are so ridiculous it's almost pointless to talk about them: the endless supply of strong ropes that hang from nowhere but always carry our protagonists where they need to go, for instance, or the clouds that rush across the moon or sun, transforming monsters into mortals whenever Sommers has painted himself into a corner.
The movie is below such nitpicking, so contemptuous of both logic and romantic myths that you can see it sneer when horror fans decry its bastardization of iconic characters. This movie isn't for people who love Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. It's not for people who have strong feelings about anything, in fact. It is almost for people who go to movies to mock what's onscreen - more derisive giggling was heard at the film's preview than at any in recent memory - but even in that respect it fizzles in the end. It's as cynical and soulless a movie as Hollywood can make, but since when is that an obstacle to box-office success? •
By John DeFore