VAN HELSING is a film that does not do things by halves. One might, in principle, admire the way it pulls out all the stops early on, but the results, a hemorrhaging husk that eventually dissolves into the same sort of dust as the staked vampires that people its running time, prevents admiring it in actual fact. Writer/director Stephen Sommers (THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY RETURNS) seems not to have heard of the concept of pacing. Things start at a gallop with no pause for character development or good dialogue, until we arrive at the final climactic battle between good and evil, by which time we are so worn out that the only reaction is a polite yawn.
It starts out well enough, with an homage to the Universal horror flicks of the 1930s, right down to the black-and-white cinematography, the stormy night shots, and the looming castle on which the simple village folk are marching, torches and sickles in hand. What’s got them all riled up is Dr. Frankenstein, who in this incarnation is being mentored by Dracula. It’s 1885 and the uber-vampire is planning on destroying the world with Frankenstein’s monster as the key. Things go downhill very quickly once we switch to color and 1886. Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is in Paris tracking down the bad half of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the process, he takes out some of the more attractive parts of Notre Dame Cathedral, which explains why he’s on so many wanted posters, wanted dead or alive, that is. Van Helsing is the monster hunter of choice for a secret society operating within the Vatican, and though he’s effective, he’s a bit messy. Never mind. The secret order has a new mission for him, track down Dracula with extreme prejudice.
Accompanying him is Friar Carl (David Wenham), a sort of nineteenth-century Q from the Bond series who comes up with all sorts of nifty weapons that run the gamut from strings of garlic to a sort of machine gun crossbow. He’s the comic relief and, if only he remained such, I’d have better things to say about this movie. Alas, he becomes irksome as Sommers burdens him with increasingly silly costumes, situations, and quips. The mission involves helping Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), the last hope of a long line of vampire would-be killers. She and her brother are the last of the line because, as we see when we first meet them, the family doesn’t seem to have a knack for setting very good traps.
There are vampire attacks, wolfman attacks, fire, rain, lighting strikes, things that go glop with a splash of green goo, some odd little Dracula minions that are like nothing so much as evil Ewoks, and, of course, a servant named Igor. If Sommers had kept the tongue-in-cheek tone of the first sequence, he might have been onto something, but as it is, he wanders precipitously between a sardonic weltschmerz and a hammy, scene-chewing melodrama that effectively drives a stake into the heart of the audience’s patience. No one better exemplifies that split personality than Richard Roxburgh as Dracula himself, tossing one-liners and laughable excesses with the air of someone who would like this all to be over with as soon as possible. As for Beckinsale, she’s certainly fetching in her monster hunter outfit consisting of a snug corset, tight pants, and high-heel boots, but not even she looks terribly interested in the proceedings as she wields a variety of intriguing and sharp weapons, all to no avail.
There are so many plot lines and none given more than the shortest of shrifts, so that it’s really not worth paying any attention to them. Couple that with a certain and persistant inanity, such as terrorized Transylvanian villagers hearing something go bump in the night and than all running out into the village square, casting to the winds a thousand years of object lessons about what comes next. Then there’s the whole falling thing. I’m talking people, not monsters, not immortals of some sort, but human beings who tend to fall from dizzying heights in this flick. A lot. And when they do, they don’t break bones when they hit the ground, they don’t so much as limp when they get up again. No, at worst, there’s a bloody lip and a look of grim determination. This I buy on Buffy if it’s Buffy or one of the other slayers. This is not Buffy. Not even close.
There are only two things that come out of VAN HELSING looking good. The first would be the special effects, which are enthusiastic, particularly the unwholesomely fleshily winged gargoyles that Dracula’s three brides morph into when in hunting mode. The second is Jackman, who is such a charismatic beacon that it’s almost as if he, too, is a special effect. Leather clad, long thick locks blowing in the breeze, leaping manfully into any dangerous breach that presents itself, he has the golden glow of an old-time movie star, albeit one trapped in B-movie material that is further cheapened by being a misguided attempt to have fun with that genre. He deserves better and so do we.