Find out why this 2004 monster mashup is better than you think…
Crossover events have a long, rich history in cinema. Long before Aliens and Predators were duking it out, and far longer than the Avengers were teaming up to kick the snot out of robots and wizards, Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster met up and instead of kicking back and smoking a J like they absolutely should, they tried to kick each other to death. It happened so often that gothic horror monsters and crossover events went together like pigs and Tories.
The trend was picked up again decades later, and for our sins, we got a couple of these monster crossovers in the 21st century. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did no justice to the comic book it was adapted from; a bland, boring slog that failed to highlight any of the strengths of the characters it featured. An MCU-style shared universe of monster films called the ‘Dark Universe’ was planned, starting with the 2017 reboot of The Mummy. Problem was, the first movie in the series was the 2017 reboot of The Mummy. These two films and their exceptional badness have been documented at length, but there is another.
Van Helsing came out in 2004, and follows the titular character as he goes around fighting various classic Universal monsters. That’s pretty much all you need to know about it, because the plot is insane – Dracula is trying to capture Frankenstein’s Monster to use him to revive his undead babies, because the Wolfman couldn’t hack it. That’s as far as I care to go into it. It’s written and directed by Stephen Sommers, the same guy who made The Mummy reboot in 1999 with dreamy, dreamy Brendan Fraser. And honestly, if you love that movie, which I’m pretty sure a hecking lot of you do, then there’s no reason for you not to like Van Helsing.
It was a big budget Hollywood blockbuster so the effects, costumes, set design and makeup are all top of their class. Even the CGI still mostly holds up. Mostly. It was 2004 to be fair, and honestly the times when it slips adds to the weird fun of the film. But the werewolves in particular look genuinely fantastic to this day. Alan Silvestri of all people did the soundtrack and as you might expect from the man, it’s amazing.
OK, let’s face facts: Van Helsing doesn’t hold a candle to any of the properties it’s based on, be that the books, the movies, or the TV shows. Literally all of these characters have appeared in works with greater drama, emotion and terror, and they usually look cooler as well. That being said, I think this movie is a whole lot of fun. The best way I can put it is that it’s trash – not garbage, trash. Van Helsing is McDonald’s breakfasts, it’s pre-mix margaritas at happy hour. You may say you don’t like it, but in the absence of judgemental eyes, you will wallow in it, you happy little pig.
This movie has such a bizarre mishmash of homages to other movie franchises, not just the Universal horror monsters it’s based on. Van Helsing is first introduced like he’s gothic James Bond, getting a stern telling off from his M-like superior, before being given a briefing on his mission. He then gets a bunch of steampunk gadgets from his version of Q, then travels across the world to kill some bad guys and get off with a hot local lady. He even has a dastardly nemesis in Dracula not dissimilar to Blofeld with his grandiosity, world-ending schemes, and vaguely Eastern European accent.
Not only that but it does that Indiana Jones transition with a red line on a map, and seems to harken to a number of Western tropes, with the no-nonsense gunslinger Van Helsing in his duster strolling into town with a big iron on his hip, vanquishing villains, and riding off into the sunset. But derivation is the name of the game here – they probably thought, heck, we’re smushing together every Universal monster, let’s include bits and pieces from every franchise. We even cast Wolverine to play the Wolfman – it’s pretty on the nose.
Speaking of, the two leads – Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman – are relatively plain. They’re essentially playing their signature characters Selene and Wolverine with some minor variations. No doubt that was a deliberate choice, given X-Men and Underworld came out only a few years prior. They turn up and do the job they’re asked to do. I can’t fault them for it, they’re just not what makes this film memorable for me.
It’s the side characters that make this film. This random gravedigger guy literally only cares about making coffins and putting people in them, whether by cleaning up after the deluge of monsters in their parts or attempting to put them there himself. He has no part to play in the movie except to be weird and funny. Likewise, Kevin O’Connor is basically playing his character Benny from The Mummy just with a bunch of makeup on and he’s hilarious.
David Wenham as sheepish techno-monk Carl is a delight, especially given his other defining roles are Dilios in 300 and Faramir in The Lord of the Rings. He’s funny, adorable, his voice cracks are perfect. You know, sidekick crap. For some reason he’s always throwing things. I have no idea what this adds to my assessment on the film, it’s just chucking something seems to be his primary function in the story like the role was originally written for Greg Maddux or something, so I feel I have to bring it up. Whatever, he’s great.
The vampire brides are the definition of extra. I love to watch them vibe in the background. I have no idea what they’re feeling here, but boy are they feeling it. Each and every one of them was clearly given the directive, ‘you cannot overact, you can only underact’. Actors in the 60s Batman TV show used to say that it was a great place to act without giving a crap, to always be too much while everywhere else you had to be less. Van Helsing has the exact same atmosphere, and every one of these actresses revels in their trash like proud racoons.
But all of them pale in comparison to the glorious Count Dracula. He. Is. Incredible. Richard Roxburgh outshines all the rest of them in his overmuchness. He chews on the scenery like it’s a virgin’s neck. Without any cynicism whatsoever, he may be one of my favourite movie villains of all time. He’s badass, he’s got cool lines, he’s hilarious, and most importantly of all, he’s a sex fiend. I’m not just making that up, the whole plot of the movie happens because he keeps wanting to make babies, particularly with Kate Beckinsale. This is actually weirdly accurate to the original character of Dracula, who represented fears of predatory men and sexually forward women. So one point to Van Helsing there, I guess.
But as we all know, subtext is for cowards, and Dracula in this movie is like all of the dreams of Gerard Way made flesh. He’s moody, dramatic, and impulsive. He’s even dressed like he’s a member of the Black Parade. Dracula serves as a microcosm for the whole movie – he’s so solely interested in how cool he thinks he looks, that he really doesn’t give a crap about you or your wants.
Likewise, the movie’s never really trying to scare you. Even when it comes to scenes that could have been skin-crawlingly tense (and have been in other movies) there’s always a sense of goofy fun and any real fear is dispelled by a brash jumpscare. This happens over, and over again.
It’s when the little baby vampires start attacking where it stops being fun and just starts being funny. Don’t get me wrong, this is a funny movie, it’s just not certain how much of the humour in this case is deliberate. They’re not at all threatening or interesting-looking, and you start to resent them for getting so much screentime compared to other, more legendary villains.
The whole thing comes down to a satisfying beatdown between Dracula and the Wolfman. It’s your classic superhero showdown – you know, where each person could probably pull out a super move and take the other out in the blink of an eye? What do you think this is, Undertale? No, they’re gonna punch each other for minutes on end. Really though, I don’t mind, it’s so loud and unapologetic that I can’t be mad at it. Like I said earlier, this is the guy that did the 90s Mummy, and it shows. ‘Fun and cool’ is the name of the game, and I appreciate him for taking that approach. After, why would you try and make a quietly terrifying story about Van Helsing and Dracula? That already exists – it’s called Dracula. Stephen Sommers set out to make a fun, shallow, awesome popcorn flick about Universal movie monsters, and damn it all, he succeeded. Pop it on one evening and thank me later.