Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it's the nature of vampires, being that they are creatures of evil, that they must be hunted by warriors of God, so it's not at all surprising that Priest doesn't turn out to be the first effects-driven movie of recent vintage to posit a extraordinarily gifted monster-killer working under the auspices of the Church. That both Priest and its most recent predecessor are also incredibly awful I take to be a coincidence.
The Mummy, with the original idea for a low-budget, atmospheric horror movie eventually giving way to a huge tentpole action-adventure, a knock-off of the Indiana Jones trilogy that used, as flavoring, elements of the stodgy old classic. This film was a huge hit, leading to a sequel, The Mummy Returns, and turning director Stephen Sommers (whose idea it had been to gin up the works with all the best CGI money could buy in those days and amp up the matinee thrills at the expense of scares) into one of the big effects-movie directors of the turn of the decade.
The first thing Sommers did with his newfound clout was to return to the Universal well, this time dusting off the studio's Holy Trinity of monsters: Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the wolf man. Once again, horror would take a back-seat to action and CGI-driven setpieces the likes of which the workaday craftsmen toiling in Universal's B-movie arm in the '40s could only have seen in their wildest daydreams. The result was Van Helsing.
Put it another way: it's the already-lousy House of Frankenstein as done up by a filmmaker whose idea of style is to make things as loud and busy as possible, whose absolutely best work ever is that same 1999 The Mummy, a movie whose saving grace is that its dumbness is soothing rather than grating, and whose next film after this, by some five years, would be the indescribably horrid G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It's only the existence of that later film that keeps Van Helsing from being the absolute nadir of his career, but that's not saying much; it's kind of like how The Village is right in the middle of M. Night Shyamalan's filmography, quality-wise.
The film opens in 1887 with a black-and-white sequence that neatly summarises the entire history of the Universal monster movie from 1931 to 1945. A particularly sallow grave digger (Tom Fisher) leads a huge army of pitchforks n' torches villagers against the cliffside castle of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West), just at that very instant bringing to life an especially gruesome version of his monster (Shuler Hensley). That the castle, done in dodgy CGI that is brought to special relief by the artificially hard contrast in the black-and-white, I suppose we are not meant to notice. As it happens, Frankenstein's experiments have been underwritten by a prim, ineffably sleazy nobleman who stands on the edges, watching with intense interest; this is Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), whose purpose in funding this mad science will become clear in due course; for this opening sequence, let us instead attend to the film's depiction of the count, which is much more "trash East European clubber in an opera cape" than "villainous demon" or "elegant, but unmistakably threatening nobleman". And that's before Roxburgh opens his mouth, and lets forth with a remarkably unfortunate accent. It's sort of like the actor was trying to decided between more fey version of the voice he sported in Moulin Rouge! or the corniest "I vant to zuhk your blahd!" cod-Hungarian he could, so he just split the difference. At this point, Van Helsing couldn't be going well enough that I would be able to overlook the crippling campiness of it.
Aye, but it's not going well enough, not by a longshot. Already, in a movie that is not yet 8 minutes old when this sequence ends, we have been introduced to embryonic versions of nearly everything that will make Van Helsing a thoroughgoing piece of horse shit: lots of CGI that almost, but not quite, looks like it exists in the same reality as the actors, whirlwind cutting that refuses to achieve in one shot that which can just as readily be shown across sixteen separate edits, fight choreography that looks uncommonly like a video game, and Alan Silvestri's brutalising score that suggests the composer was rolling the dice and hoping that "Mars, the Bringer of War" from Holst's The Planets was in the public domain and there'd be nobody to sue him for ripping it off.
I'd heard that the opening scene was the best part of the movie, largely on account of its loving tribute to Universal horror of yore. It speaks to the quality of Van Helsing that I am tempted to agree with that assessment; at least it doesn't have any of the eardrum-rending dialogue that's found in nearly every other moment of the film.
So it's a year later, in Paris; a shadowy figure in a bitchin' hat is chasing a burly giant through the streets. The giant is none other than Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane's voice behind a superlatively unconvincing special effect), the hat-wearing hunter is Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), and the idea that Hyde is hiding in Paris is an unimaginative lift from the Alan Moore/Kevin O'Neill comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen*. As for that "Gabriel" Van Helsing business, it's something to do with rights, or because Stephen Sommers thought that "Abraham" was a bad name for a hero (probably because there are no Americans named Abraham other than presidents), or perhaps because the movie rapes the soul of enough classic figures of literature and cinema that they decided to just let us pretend that this Van Helsing was a totally different character.
By "totally different", I of course mean that Gabriel Van Helsing is an amnesiac super-soldier in the employ of the Knights of the Holy Order, a super-secret black ops group deep within the Catholic Church, and in the fashion of movie badasses throughout time, his higher-ups (embodied by Cardinal Prissypants, or some such, played by an unusually bug-eyed Alun Armstrong) are irritated by his efficient but too-violent ways. This gets dropped the second it's raised, for now Van Helsing and his unstoppable monster-killing powers are to be sent to the Carpathian mountains, where the vampire-hunting Valerious family is down to its last legs, and because of a vow that no member of that bloodline will enter heaven until Dracula is destroyed by a Valerious, the church is deeply concerned about the potential for nine generations of brave, faithful warriors stuck forever in Purgatory. Off Van Helsing goes, then, along with Friar Carl (David Wenham), a sort of steampunk Q, who invents any number of awesome bullshit weapons, the most important of which is a gas-powered crossbow that shoots silver rounds. It is at this point we learn two things: that Stephen Sommers believes friars to be something like monks-in-training, the Cub Scouts of the monastic system, and that Carl is going to be our designated Odious Comic Relief for the movie. And it's nice to see that the filmmaker's love of classic Universal horror extends to recreating the exact kind of bumbling, wacky, criminally unfunny moron who so often got in the hero's way.
The pair finally gets to the little Transylvanian village, there is lots of forced exposition (Carl asks Van Helsing about his missing memory as they wander through the town square, to which the vampire hunter curtly replies that it's not the time. No, the time was during the weeks the two of you spent alone traveling through the wilderness, as we just saw in montage), and we meet the last of the Valerious clan, who is for obvious reasons a gorgeous woman in a leather halter top, Anna (Kate Beckinsale). We also meet Dracula's three brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, and Josie Maran), who look rather more like harpies than vampires when they get to attacking the town, but no matter. At this point the movie descends into nothing more than a string of setpieces all in a row, with something in the way of a plot connecting them all, though frankly it's not worth my time or yours for me to explain what it is in other than the broadest strokes: Dracula wants to take over the world, he needs the life-force of the Frankenstein monster to do it, Van Helsing is grim and surly and shoots things with his steampunk megacrossbow.
"Descends" into a string of setpieces, did I say? Nay, the film has been a string of setpieces from the second it opens, with only the occasional vomiting forth of crudely functional dialogue interrupting what Sommers apparently believed in good faith was exciting movie action. It is not. There are certain elements of the film that are appealing: the design, of both sets and monsters, is certainly imaginative if at times overworked (the Frankenstein creature is a particularly thoughtful labor of love); and it's nice to see a monster mash-up that assembles the components with a bit more thought for how to incorporate them all into a single narrative than Universal's classic efforts ever managed. Then again, House of Frankenstein, for all its flaws, managed to get in and out in 71 minutes, while Van Helsing takes a wholly unjustified 2 hours and 12 minutes to finish cranking out its ludicrously epic tale.
And what fills that hugely indulgent time? A little bit of asinine or clumsy dialogue here (too many examples to mention, though I will point out that one of the vampire brides at one point taunts Anna with "too bad, so sad"), the giggle-worthy spectacle of Beckinsale's idea of a Transylvanian accent; the jaw-dropping sight of not one, but two horse-drawn carriages exploding like the wood was soaked in napalm; people falling from great heights and shaking it off; and CGI. Lots and lots of weightless, shiny CGI. It's far too easy to joke that the film boils down to Castlevania: The Movie, and the movie does itself no favors by looking so damn much like a video game. By the tenth or fifteenth time we see one character or another swinging down to land in the middle of a setpiece, the movie has completely ceased to resemble anything but a chain of cutscenes - cutscenes from an absolutely kick-ass game, mind you, but we're not playing Van Helsing, we're watching it. And not having remotely as much fun.
It's a screaming, noisy, overedited mess of a movie that has virtually no merits I can think of, and a running time that no movie in this genre could possibly justify; so of course it was a big hit and as of 2011 holds the record for having the largest gross of any vampire movie that's not a Twilight picture. Sometimes, I just don't feel very good about the moviegoing public.