There’s a time for art, depth and resonance in the movies of the cinema. In the summer, though, one can develop a peculiar fondness for loud, messy, retarded popcorn movies. “Van Helsing” serves no purpose beside giving work to special effects technicians and entertaining undiscerning audiences, and it’s not even particularly good at that. Yet there’s something about seeing hundreds of millions of dollars being wasted on screen that is pleasantly overwhelming.
Writer-director Stephen Sommers is no genius, but he has the enthusiasm of a kid given the keys to the toy store. In this case, Universal let Sommers into its vault of legendary movie monsters and allowed him to juggle them all together into one big-ass creature feature. The resulting distorted mythology doesn’t make a lick of sense, at least to the extent that I understand it, but I’ll try to sum it up anyway.
Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a legendary monster hunter on the Vatican payroll who’s sent to Transylvania to help a local aristocrat (Kate Beckinsale) vanquish Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), the granddaddy of all vampires. It’s about time, too, because Ole Drac is getting ready to zap life into the thousands of dead-born bat-babies of his undead wives by using Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) as an electrical transformer. Oh, and Dracula can control werewolves, so Van Helsing’s got that to look forward to as well.
The plot keeps twisting and turning in increasingly preposterous ways, mostly as an excuse to have each of the monsters get a go at every of the others. The ensuing CGI-heavy supernatural mayhem is uneven but some of it is pretty impressive. I liked the set design work on the various castles, even though I sometimes wished it wasn’t always dark and we could see them more clearly. Alan Silvestri’s score is effective, interestingly mixing chants and strings with almost-techno beats.
The acting is mediocre at best through the film, then again the cast doesn’t have much to work with. I dig Hugh Jackman, but Van Helsing is a dull character, little more than an action figure with cool weapons. Kate Beckinsale is damn pokable in her 19th century outfits, but the Transylvanian accent she struggles with is distracting and the emotional side of her character never pans out. Many have criticized Richard Roxburgh’s very mannered performance, but I’m a big fan of his work in Moulin Rouge! and I was amused by his over the top Dracula. The “actresses” playing his brides, though, are indeed rather obnoxious. As for Shuler Hensley, he brings some pathos to the Frankenstein monster, but he still has nothing on Boris Karloff.
Likewise, “Van Helsing” as a whole is never as memorable as the classic Universal monster movies that inspired it. Neither is it as goofily enjoyable as Sommers’ The Mummy (or even its inferior sequel). This isn’t a good film, really. I’ll have forgotten most of it by tomorrow. I couldn’t recommend it, right? Yet… I can’t deny that I had a good time watching it, warts and all. That’s still not a recommendation, but if you feel like seeing a big stupid monster mash…