Stephen Sommers previously ransacked the old Universal horror archive for material with “The Mummy” (1999) and “The Mummy Returns” (2001), turning the genuinely spooky 1932 original into splashy special effects extravaganzas that seemed like inferior “Indiana Jones” imitations, but making a mint in the process. Those Egypt-based entries were far from good, but they had a genial quality that made them relatively digestible, if brainless, cinematic amusement park rides. In crafting a modernized take on the fabled vampire hunter of “Dracula” fame and folding into the plot a trio of old Universal’s stable of grotesques in the process, however, he’s created a monstrously bad movie. In “Van Helsing” Sommers not only plunders the classic films for material but trashes what he’s cribbed from them: barely a glimmer of the mythology from the early pictures is maintained in this one, and none of their eerie atmosphere. Gloomy and exhausting, this first big “event” picture of the summer is a labored mess, a systematic perversion of the films it pretends to honor that’s so relentless and loud that it’s more an endurance test than a piece of entertainment.
Certainly the old hero, Abraham Van Helsing, is barely recognizable in Sommers’ refashioning. Rechristened Gabriel for no apparent reason (unless he’s supposed to be the archangel), since he reports that he recalls fighting the Romans at Masada back in 73 AD, the character certainly bears little resemblance to the elderly professor played by Edward Von Sloan in the 1931 Bela Lugosi “Dracula,” or Peter Cushing in the Hammer series, or Laurence Olivier in the 1979 Frank Langella version, or Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola’s oddball 1992 retelling. Here Van Helsing is a strapping young adventurer employed by some secretive group within the Vatican to track down and dispose of evil beasties spawned by supernatural forces. As portrayed by Hugh Jackman as a brooding but athletic sort in dark trenchcoat and big, floppy hat, he’s first shown dispatching the hideous Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) in the bell tower of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. This sequence, which tries to insert some grim humor into what’s basically a big, effects-laden set-piece (Mr. Hyde is a nastier version of the same musclebound CGI creature viewers will remember none too fondly from “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which this effort resembles in many other unfortunate ways, too), presages the schizophrenic tone that will follow for two more long hours. After a pit stop in Rome, where we’re shown a nineteenth-century weapons shop akin to the one familiar from James Bond movies and introduced to its “Q,” a kooky friar named Carl (David Wenham), the script follows Van Helsing and the reluctant Carl, appointed to be his assistant, to Transylvania; the assignment is to save the last members of the Valerious family, Prince Velkan (Will Kemp) and his lovely sister Anna (Kate Beckinsale), the last members of the clan that has been fighting Dracula for centuries, from death at the hands of the blood-sucking count and his three harpy-like wives. The count, meanwhile, has hatched an evil scheme that involves kidnapping the monster (Shuler Hensley) created at his behest by the late Dr. Frankenstein (Samuel West) and turning poor Velkan into a werewolf, and it’s up to Van Helsing and Anna, now acting as a duo, to foil him. Carl tags along, of course, and also involved in Dracula’s shenanigans is Frankenstein’s old hunchbacked assistant Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor). For a brief time there’s also on hand a local grave-digger wearing a top hat (Tom Fisher), whose appearance–unless I’m mistaken–is patterned after that of Lon Chaney, Sr. in the lost vampire picture “London After Midnight.”
In truth, Sommers seems so absorbed with the visuals and effects in “Van Helsing,” and with keeping the picture rushing headlong in a mad whirl of action, that he doesn’t seem concerned about whether the narrative has any consistency or coherence. Most of the running-time consists of repetitive fight sequences that replay much the same stuff over and over again and, especially when they’re shot in uniformly dark tones, they quickly grow boring. (Sommers goes for a big finish with a mano-a-mano confrontation between a werewolf and a fully bat-ified Dracula, but since both are CGI figures, it carries about as much punch as the battle between the T-Rex and the brontosaurus in “The Lost World”–and anyway, we saw this kind of thing done with equally poor result in the recent bomb “Underworld”). Even when Sommers goes for something out of the ordinary, moreover, he can’t escape his habit of borrowing from earlier, better pictures. A black-and-white prologue, for instance, sort of recreates the famous “It’s alive!” moment from the original “Frankenstein,” but Mel Brooks actually did it better (on probably a thousandth of the budget) in “Young Frankenstein,” and a moment when a mirror at a lavish vampire ball reveals that Anna is the only human among the huge crowd would be more praiseworthy if it weren’t so obviously lifted from Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” of 1967–a much underrated picture, by the way. For the most part, in any event, the lavish physical production here is more oppressive than impressive, with the massive landscapes and structures shrouded in a dull gloom and interiors similarly dank. (Allan Cameron is the production designer and Allen Daviau the cinematographer, and of course the visual effects crew represents a small army.) Meanwhile the cast is pretty much lost amidst the debris. Jackman makes a surprisingly colorless hero, and Beckinsale, saddled with a terrible accent and mediocre gypsy-cum-dominatrix costume, a dull damsel-in-distress; after “Underworld” and this, she ought to swear off the supernatural stuff. (It doesn’t help that, as written, both Van Helsing and Anna are singularly stupid and ineffective good-guys, in the last analysis blundering into their victory.) Richard Roxburgh, who rather resembles the Mandy Patinkin of “The Princess Bride” (without any of his humor or subtlety), is a tediously one-note Dracula, and neither Wenham’s Carl–half expositor of arcane learning and half comic foil–nor O’Connor’s Igor provides the intended degree of amusement (where’s Marty Feldman when he’s needed?) Kemp, however, is a handsome Velkan, though the character is made to suffer entirely too histrionically, and the heavily made-up Hensley is at least interestingly cultivated as a monster whose sympathetic nature is much closer to the Shelley original than Karloff’s wordless brute was. All the mindless mayhem is staged against the backdrop of an especially bombastic score by Alan Silvestri that at times seems to consist of parts solely for kettledrums.
Toward the close of “Van Helsing,” a shackled Frankenstein’s monster rejects the hero’s help, saying, “I am accustomed to pain.” Watching this travesty, so are we all. If you’re of a mind to see all these old monsters together in a single film, may I suggest the 1944 “House of Frankenstein” and 1945 “House of Dracula”? They’re hardly classics, but they’re still leagues better than this overstuffed debacle.