One of the very first genres to take hold upon the American public was the horror film, they where popular faire in the silent and early talkies and remain, today, a staple of the studios. The down side of this is most of the good monsters have already been used by now. For a studio like Universal they invented most of them. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. With the release of Van Helsing Universal, known for combinations of various creatures, has a home coming party for these perennial monsters favorites. The character of Van Helsing has an interesting history. First introduced in Dracula as the elderly fearless vampire hunter, Van Helsing has varied in age, national origins and temperament but one thing has always remained the same, he hates these villainous creatures with an all consuming passion. In this, the latest incarnation of the myths, Abraham Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is far from the fatherly old man, he is a dashingly rugged man in the prime of his creature killing capacity. He is once again out to kill Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) who, in his drive to have living children, is after Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) in order to discover the forbidden secret of reanimating dead tissue. Val Helsing has a cleric sidekick, Carl (David Wenham), who is something of a 19th century ‘Q’, the inventor of numerous gadgets and weapons to aide our hero on his noble quest. Naturally, in a film of this type we need a beautiful damsel, presented here in the character of Anna (Kate Beckinsale). While horror films normally present a young woman in constant need of rescue, this is a far more liberated, buff and deadly maiden. She is also the sister of the Wolf Man (Will Kemp).
While the film did have its moments for the most part it seemed to be as stitched together as Frankenstein’s creature. Even in the classic Universal combination flicks of the forties there was a more believable reason to gather the creatures together. Here, the premise is more like a Jerry Springer episode, ‘Vampires that want children and the werewolf siblings that want to prevent it’. The dialogue is more a rest point between fantastic computer generated action sequences than serving any other purpose. Sure, films such as this are traditionally not heavy on exposition but it would be nice to contain the action in the framework of a less soap opera like plot. Normally, there is nothing wrong with a film that depends on CGI for action but success is in the context, something that just fell short here. This movie is like sitting in the middle of the roller coaster, sure it’s fun but it could be better.
Hugh Jackman is an incredibly talent actor capable of a lot better than he was handed here. In his defining role as Wolverine in the X-Men flicks he manages to convey an emotional depth to an action character. Here, unfortunately, little is given for him to work with. His Van Helsing is a mélange of James Bond and Indiana Jones without the subtle, finer points of either classic character. He faces constant danger with zippy one liners only to miraculously save himself at the last minute. There is no argument that Kate Beckinsale is an incredibly beautiful actress. She can even act; I witnessed this myself in her portrayal of a young woman accused of drug trafficking in Brokedown Palace. Here, once again the script fails her. Between this film and the lamentable Underworld, Ms Beckinsale seems to be getting type cast as the female action star also dressed in the tightest of costumes, a little anachronistic for a film set in the 1880s. While it is possible to make a case that her role here is empowering for women it remains cloaked far too much in melodrama to really be successful. David Wenham does do a reasonably good job in his quirky role as the inventive friar. It provides the required comic relief although much of the story is unintentionally comic in itself.
Considering his previous works that resurrected Universal monsters I was a bit disappointed with Stephen Sommers’ direction here. In the Mummy and The Mummy’s Return there was a solid story to surround the action. Since he served as both writer and director in both of those works as well as this I can only surmise that even talented people fail short now and again. I can only hope his up coming remake of Flash Gordon finds him back to true form once again. Normally, Sommers paces his actions films better than was achieved here. The action was too contrived and seems to have been inserted almost at random. The use of computer generated sequences was too noticeable; then again, perhaps I was spoiled after seeing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The lighting could also have been set to provide more of a gothic look consistent with the genre. As mentioned previously it seemed that Mr. Sommers was writing a television soap opera here instead of a horror film. If he chose to make this an outright satire of the genre it could have held up better but as a feature for fantastic computer effects it worked.
Say what you will about the film itself, Universal is rapidly becoming my favorite studio for DVDs. The initial theatrical release of this film coincided with the DVD release of the box sets of the original Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man films, a really nice ploy. Here, the DVD release helps kick off the second round of Universal ‘Legacy’ monster film sets. The DVD itself is fantastically mastered. The Dolby 5.1 audio is rich and robust, creating a realistic and well balanced sound field. The anamorphic video is vibrant; the colors true to the theatrical release and free of any flaw or defect. The extras include two commentary tracks, one featuring the director and producer, the other with the ancillary cast. There is also an interactive 360 degree tour of Dracula’s lair that is fun. While this film didn’t quite do it for me as a horror flick it was good as a Saturday afternoon beer and pizza action flick, so get it, invite some friends over and order a pie to go.