While RKO may have had King Kong, Toho spawned Godzilla, and Hammer had a slew of cheapo horror movies in the '50s and '60s, the champion of monster films of old was clearly Universal. From the Mummy to Dracula to Frankenstein and then some, they clearly had a stranglehold on the most popular horror characters.
Like many a monster movie, however, such characters would go dormant only to resurface again, but it was a long while before filmmaker Stephen Summers resurrected the mummy character for the studio in his "original" 1999 film and its 2001 sequel.
While nothing tremendous from an artistic sense, the films contained enough dazzling special effects and cliffhanger type action scenes that they became big hits with the moviegoing masses. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the studio has once again called upon the director to helm their latest monster flick, "Van Helsing."
If that name sounds familiar, it's because the character appeared in Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel. The one here isn't the same, however, as Sommers has refashioned him, just like the classic monsters he trails. The result is quite akin to the "Mummy" movies he previously helmed. With a reported budget well north of $100 million, the film is filled to the brim with CGI special effects, action and a blaring audio track. The one thing it's missing is a good script.
Beyond digging up the old Universal material, Sommers continues on the cinematic plundering that he began with the first "Mummy" film. Whether that's homage or theft is debatable, but the rest of the "original" material is flat when not goofy and ends up being just a poorly constructed platform upon which to hang the film's various action scenes and effects.
Rather than Brendan Fraser battling the mummy and his ilk in those earlier films, we now have Hugh Jackman fresh off battling mutants in those "X-Men" films and ready for the updated Universal parade of monsters. Sommers, of course, needed a reason for the latter to be assembled in one place for Jackman's character to go into full-bore mode.
Alas, his solution -- that Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein are in cahoots about reanimation and the former keeps werewolves around for scientific experiments -- is not only dump, but quite hokey. As is much of the dialogue that's often so bad that you can't help but think the filmmaker purposefully made it that way in an attempt to poke fun at similar material found in those older films.
Considering that some rather funny bits of dialogue -- that put some fresh spins on some of the monster characters -- are present from time to time, that doesn't seem too far-fetched. Since his earlier films had similar dialogue problems, however, I have my doubts that it was entirely intentional. What we're left with is a film that starts out okay with a black and white bit of Frankenstein homage and then a rough and tumble battle between the title character and a CGI version of Dr. Jekyll's more volatile side.
After that and a brief weapons introduction bit that's far too similar to the "Q" moments in the James Bond films, the story takes us to Transylvania. There, Jackman ("Kate & Leopold," "Swordfish"), David Wenham (the last two "Lord of the Rings" films) as his "Q" assistant and the lovely Kate Beckinsale ("Serendipity," "Pearl Harbor") prepare to do battle with the monsters.
The latter, of course, brings her werewolf killing experience from her appearance in "Underworld" where she played a vampire, but neither she nor the others ever manage to whip the viewer into rooting for their success (except by default).
While Jackman and Beckinsale are fine from a physical perspective (when not replaced by CGI rag dolls that go crashing into buildings and the like), they aren't allowed to do much from a personality angle. Wenham is present as the comic relief of sorts and occasionally upstages them.
As does Richard Roxburgh ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Moulin Rouge!") as Dracula and Elena Anaya ("Talk to Her," "Sex and Lucia"), Silvia Colloca (making her feature debut) and Josie Maran ("The Mallory Effect") as his voluptuous, nightmare-inducing (at least for young kids) flying vampire mates. While their characters are even less developed than the heroes are, at least they're a bit more interesting, even if just from the pure horror angle. The most interesting character, Frankenstein's Monster (played by Shuler Hensley ("Someone Like You," "The Bread, My Sweet")), gets shortchanged the most when in comes to character development or screen time.
Instead, Sommers is obviously entirely focused on putting as much action and computer-generated effects on the screen as possible. For the most part, the latter look quite good (although some still look fake), and there's certainly no shortage of the former in making the viewer and producers think they got their money's worth out of the final product.
The problem is that all of that action eventually squeezes the story -- hokey qualities and all - into oblivion. What we end up with is just a collection of impressive and obviously expensive set pieces loosely strung together with barely enough connective tissue to qualify as a plot.
Simply put, lots of fighting occurs, but after a while all of it becomes both routine and redundant. Without any sort of investment in the characters or trace story elements, the effects become just that and don't involve or enhance the proceedings. Instead, they become them. Add in the bad dialogue and you've created a nasty concoction.
While I'm sure there will be plenty of viewers who don't mind that very development, most everyone else will become restless and bored waiting for the overlong production to finally kill its last monster and call it a day (or night).
At least one character appears to be smart enough and got themselves killed to avoid showing up in "Van Helsing II." Knowing horror films and studio enticements, however, I wouldn't count on them staying dead forever. Lots of eye candy but little else, "Van Helsing" starts off okay but quickly unravels like a cheap studio mummy. It rates as a 3.5 out of 10.