A monster mash on steroids, “Van Helsing” takes Universal’s hallowed horror cycle to a new level. Whether that level is the pinnacle or the nadir will be a matter of distinctly divided opinion, depending very much on viewer age, respect for genre tradition and appetite for being pummeled by nonstop CGI effects and a thunderous soundtrack. Fans of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. will be appalled, but the audience that counts at the B.O., Stephen Sommers’ “Mummy” hordes, will no doubt eat it up, indicating monstrous early returns for the first of the season’s hugely pricey putative blockbusters.
Idea of sending the vampire hunter created by Bram Stoker in his 1897 “Dracula” novel up against not only the count but Frankenstein’s monster and Wolf Man, with Mr. Hyde briefly thrown in for good measure, appears intriguing on paper. Sommers no doubt thought long and hard about how to make a sensible team of these fabled creatures, each of which has its own literary and cinematic mythology but have also been combined before. In the end, the concoction seems far more contrived than plausible, but the sense of evil overkill is entirely representative of the picture itself, which repeatedly looks ready to blow all its fuses due to sensory overload.
Packed with nothing but “big scenes” and breathlessly paced in a way that suggests panic at the idea the audience might get bored if things were slowed and toned down even for a moment, pic opens in voluptuous black-and-white with a nine-minute Transylvanian prologue, set in 1887, in which Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) puts the bite on Dr. Frankenstein in an attempt to adopt the monster for his own private purposes. But this comes just as angry locals are laying siege to the castle, ending in a calamitous windmill fire.
Bleeding into subdued color, prologue No. 2 presents the long-maned, leather-coated, ultra-macho Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) battling it out in Paris with the legendary Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), who here is transformed into an uglier big brother of Fat Bastard. What the point is of disfiguring Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation to such a noxious extent is anyone’s guess, but it does serve notice that this is not going to be your father’s monster movie; after all, the Van Helsing character as written by Stoker was about 60, and considerably older than that as fiercely played by Edward Van Sloane in the original “Dracula.” Paris sequence is notable only for the grace note of one cityscape shot revealing the Eiffel Tower under construction up to the second level.
From there, it’s on to Rome. The Vatican will be pleased to learn that, in the late 19th century, the busiest and most advanced laboratory for weapons of mass destruction was located directly under St. Peter’s, for it is here that Van Helsing, seemingly in the employ of a church-run secret society, is conducted on a James Bond-like tour of a facility explicitly manned by inventors of all religions, colors and creeds and equipped with all the fabulous new gadgets he’ll need on his new assignment, including a rapid-fire crossbow to go along with his twin rotary handsaws.
Accompanied by a comic-relief vampire expert, a chatty friar named Carl (David Wenham), Van Helsing (here rechristened Gabriel, rather than Abraham) sails for Transylvania, where he is to try to prevent the death-by-Dracula of the last two remaining members of a family long devoted to vampire destruction: gypsy princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother, Velkan (Will Kemp).
As soon as Van Helsing arrives, to a reception akin to that of Americans in Fallouja, the village is attacked by Dracula’s brides, who in the manner of three marauding pterodactyls, dive-bomb the central square and take peasants airborne in their talons. While Van Helsing fires away with his fancy arsenal, Anna is tossed hither and yon, executing fancy “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” acrobatics as she goes and otherwise proves that none of the normal rules of gravity, physics, human dexterity or pain apply in this venture.
The same goes for dramatic logic or building of suspense. Sommers knows how to startle an audience — he’s big into suddenly dropping hideous faces into the frame from above — but never develops any sense of creepiness or dread because he won’t take the time to do so. As a result, the vast mythology readily available through these characters never takes hold and these iconic figures carry no resonance.
Pic casts most of the familiar motifs to the wind: Dracula is no longer bothered by light, crucifixes, garlic, holy water and so on, but it’s not explained why not, and the sole remaining way Dracula can be killed is revealed only late in the game.
The interim is filled with more moments of life-or-death jeopardy than an Indiana Jones installment. Any number of times, Dracula or his brides have their toothsome mouths wide open ready for the deep plunge when they are rudely interrupted; the Frankenstein monster and Velkan, who is tragically transformed into a werewolf early on, are repeatedly strapped down and noisily electrified, and characters go through grotesque transformations from human to beast and back so many times that even the outstanding visual effects used to render them become tiresomely routine.
A token attempt is made to link Dracula and Van Helsing in centuries past — the latter at one point mentions without explanation that he was at Masada — but it fails to add any dimension to their enmity, so overwhelmed is the picture by frenzied assaults and attacks, and meaningless sound and fury.
Most eye-catching set piece is a vampire’s ball staged in Prague’s imposing St. Nicholas Church and choreographed by Cirque du Soleil’s Debra Brown with the requisite trapeze stunts and circus acts. At this stage, Dracula has kidnapped Anna to make her his latest bride, and in the film’s most arresting shot, he leads her in front of a large mirror to reveal that she’s the only real human being on the dance floor (at least this one vampire tradition remains intact).
Although he cuts a fine figure as always, Jackman is straitjacketed from creating what could be called a real characterization by the undersupply of dialogue that relates to anything other than the threat at hand and by the overwhelming nature of the physical production.
Equipped with a mittel European accent and coping with a milieu not much different than the one she inhabited in “Underworld,” Beckinsale is a kick-butt-minded heroine who protests too much that she needs no help from Van Helsing; romantic angle between the two is there in principle, but never felt.
Roxburgh comes off as a rock star Dracula, oozing mean-spirited menace when a little charm would have gone a long way. Wenham does OK with thin material as the eager-to-please friar who usefully recounts historical and ancestral details when necessary. Shuler Hensley’s Frankenstein’s monster resembles the prototype more than his colleagues and captures a measure of the character’s poignancy to boot.
Overdone as they are, the effects are superbly rendered, delivering the thrills and shocks the intended audience will pay to see. Same is true of Allan Cameron’s spectacularly dark production design, Allen Daviau’s superbly judged shadowy cinematography (if only he could have shot the whole thing in black-and-white), the coolly inventive costumes by Gabriella Pescucci and Carlo Poggioli and the innumerable visual, special and makeup effects by a team so large the end credits take 10 minutes to unspool.
On the other hand, composer Alan Silvestri hits every music cue at fortissimo, and one might suspect director Sommers of being hard of hearing, so amped up is the sound level at all times.
Vast project is surrounded not only by the expected marketing blitz but by several related ventures, including three “Monster Legacy” DVD sets relating to the three prominent creatures; a “Van Helsing” interactive game; an animated DVD called “Van Helsing: The London Assignment,” which details the hero’s earlier hunt for Mr. Hyde; a new attraction o
n the Universal tour called “Van Helsing: Fortress Dracula”; and an upcoming TV series from Sommers and producing partner Bob Ducsay for Universal and NBC called “Transylvania.”