Universal’s last big foray into their vast monsters library was the 2004 monster mash “Van Helsing”, starring Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster. Despite a cast being headlined by Hugh Jackman and a box office gross over $300 million, “Van Helsing” failed to relaunch audiences and fans interest in the Classic Monsters.
May 7, 2004 proved to be a disappointing weekend for most of us that loved the Universal Monsters. We had a film that was promising us three of the biggest classic monster icons and a movie done by the same people behind The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. While many devoted fans didn’t like the ’99 installment starring Brendan Fraser, the film was fun and a great way to reintroduce one of Universal’s most enduring of characters to a new generation of fans. This is what should of happened with 2004’s Van Helsing – it should have been enjoyed by many, turned off the die-hards, and excited interest in these properties to a new generation of theater goers. Yet it didn’t and Van Helsing proved to be a major setback to Universal’s plans for nearly six years until Joe Johnston’s The Wolf Man released.
I’ve been a fan of Universal’s classic monsters since I was a child. I was well aware of the Universal Monsters like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein during the 90’s when they made their second comeback after popularity quieted during the 70’s and early 80’s. The Mummy was my favorite growing up, with Gill-Man a close second. When The Mummy released in May of 1999, my family and friends celebrated this film with me as an event that was (for myself) bigger than Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. When word came out that writer/director Stephen Sommers of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns would be revisiting the world of monsters with Van Helsing, I was thoroughly excited. Not only would we be getting a major Hugh Jackman movie following up his turn as Wolverine in two great X-Men films, but we’d be getting a monster mash of the remaining main Universal Monsters in a film that would surely be as good as 99’s The Mummy. Right?
Walking out of the first showing of Van Helsing was disappointing as the Stephen Sommers film was a missed opportunity. In order to understand why, we need to look at a few of the core reasons why audiences were disappointed. When The Mummy released in May 1999, it was essentially an Indiana Jones movie with Universal Monster concepts. Fulfilling the gap of not having Indy on the big screen since 1989, audiences that grew up with or enjoyed the first three movies would have had an already formed relationship with the Harrison Ford matinee hero. Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’ Connell, minus the fedora and leather jacket, was pretty much as close to Indiana Jones that fans of the Spielberg series were going to get as Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull was not even a rumor at the time. For movie fans that missed Indiana Jones movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, seeing a movie like The Mummy would, more or less, have filled that void.
Movies likes the Indiana Jones series, or Star Wars for that matter, are classics and will always be around. They’re a part of cinema history and culture and no matter where your entry point is into film, chances are highly likely that you know of these movies. The same could be said for the Universal Classic Monsters. We all have a basic idea of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Wolf Man and, chances are, there’s a familiarity with the Jack Pierce presentation of said monsters.
For fans of the Universal Monsters that grew up during the “Baby Boomers” era, seeing Stephen Sommers presentation of the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Wolf Man may have been fun, but certainly weren’t the monsters that they grew up with. Van Helsing would ultimately be the epitome of every cliche that summer blockbusters were made out to be during this time in movie history.
Younger audiences whose entry point into the Universal Monsters was through 2004’s Van Helsing would surely enjoy the high adventure, special effects, and monster mash aspects of the movie. But in a society that would give way to the “Snapchat,” “Twitter,” and “Instagram” mentality of immediate entertainment with little to no lasting value, the movie would ultimately be forgettable as better movies would be released. Van Helsing would not lead to a sequel, nor would it be spun off into a series of “Monsters Universe” films that would re-introduce us to Creature from the Black Lagoon or The Bride of Frankenstein. It would appear as if the Universal Monsters era of movies would go by way of “The Westerns”.
After re-watching Van Helsing over the weekend, I would find that the movie presented entertaining concepts but not much else. Cursed missed opportunities , a line from a Coldplay song would play through my head as I’d nod off periodically or contemplate the existence of the film. Questions of relevance would overtake me and about a half hour to 40 minutes left, I’d shut the film off. This would be my goodbye to Van Helsing.
I liked Van Helsing when I first saw it and there are several really fun moments in the movie. I’m also, personally, not all that turned off by the re-imagining of Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster. The opening in black and white was a fun nod to the original movies and pulls any self-respecting Universal Monsters fan right in. But the movie starts to come undone when every scene nearly all but bows down to CGI and the film relies more on story in service of special effects as opposed to special effects in service of story. Story should always come first and the concepts listed below were very intriguing:
- Dr. Frankenstein is in league with Dracula, who has provided the scientist with all he needs to create the Monster. Ultimately, it’s Dracula’s plans to use the Monster for his own purposes that leads Dr. Frankenstein to his death and the burning of the windmill.
- Van Helsing has a mysterious past and is working for a sect of The Vatican to vanquish monsters that exist in our world. He battles Mr. Hyde and is tasked with helping the last of The Valerious bloodline from Count Dracula.
- Van Helsing and Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) discover that Dracula is using The Wolf Man to power a device to create him and his Brides offspring, but needs Frankenstein’s Monster.
The ideas that Stephen Sommers had for Van Helsing were pretty intriguing and provided a fun way to connect the Universal Monsters together in a way not all too different than SHOWTIME’s Penny Dreadful. However, the script, direction, and overall film failed to come together. It’s hard to say where exactly it didn’t work, but some of the performances border more on camp than actual drama and while the film is supposed to serve as an homage and tribute to the Universal Monsters films, it becomes more of a Batman & Robin than of a Batman Begins.
Here are a few parting ideas that I had while watching:
- Dracula’s henchmen were totally minions. They were small, Jawa like, and even spoke a similar kind of gibberish. It now seems like what Universal added to Van Helsing was more of a studio choice as opposed to Stephen Sommers as we got Despicable Me which heavily featured similar creatures.
- The Masquerade Ball & Devil’s Waltz was a perfect scene that captured the beauty of the film, set design, and music. The production work was excellent, yet the sequence seemed like a perfect moment to possibly allude to Lon Chaney Sr’s Phantom of the Opera. After the famous lines from The Wolf Man are recited in an earlier scene, this particular sequence could have been a really fun place to insert an Easter Egg. The sequence is also quite haunting and makes one wonder what the film could have been if they went for a more spooky take as opposed to straight adventure with horror elements.
- I go between loving Richard Roxburgh and Kate Beckinsale’s performances and then growing highly annoyed by them. There are sincere moments that Roxburgh works as Dracula yet other moments that go wildly off the rails.
- Kate Beckinsale as Anna Valerious! At times she’s borderline Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s pretty, full of spunk, and a great partner to Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing. There could have been so much more with this character and yet she’s ultimately killed off by the end and it’s more so that Van Helsing relies more on “Oh hey, here’s something cool” and then jumps to something else. Also, that Transylvanian accent!
When was the last time you watched Van Helsing and what were your thoughts on the movie? Are you looking forward to the eventual reboot of the character set to follow sometime after 2017’s The Mummy? Please make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)