Ebert got it. In his three star review of the mostly-reviled 2004 Stephen Sommers film, Van Helsing, the late critic wrote, “At the outset, we may fear Sommers is simply going for f/x overkill, but by the end, he has somehow succeeded in assembling all his monsters and plot threads into a high-voltage climax.” While mostly everyone else trashed the Mummy director’s ludicrously ambitious attempt at lassoing not two but four movie monster franchises together in one fell swoop, Ebert insisted, “Van Helsing is silly and spectacular, and fun.”
And he’s right, dammit. The movie was just about 10 years too early.
I had the pleasure of revisiting Van Helsing in early February as part of my podcast‘s exploration of Winter Horror movies and, sure, the former childhood obsession of mine does not by any means measure up to other chiller classics like The Shining or Let the Right One In. But Sommers’s vision for an action-adventure monster mash feels just as exciting and distinctive now as it did almost two decades ago, when I was but a frumpy little boy, confused and aroused by leathery corsets, hairless werewolf chests, and Dracula’s three terrifyingly randy wives. Like Frankenstein’s monster, I guess, I had become alive.
Before we go further: Van Helsing is not a great movie. Perhaps not even a good one. But by god is it a fucking a thrill to experience. Especially in 2022, when the biggest movie franchises in the world are sexless, sanitary, and so uninterested in visual originality that they tend to fly to resemble those car commercials that take place in gigantic hangars. Like the more successful but absolutely equally batshit Mummy movies, Van Helsing is belligerent, as well as completely free from all the confining fence posts of reality and thematic consistency that for some reason seems required today to sustain a multi-movie franchise. And it’s better for it.
Somers aren’t concerned with rules. Not when it comes to the movie’s overtly Christian, demon-laden world, which somehow takes place during both the industrial revolution and, from the looks of some sequences, in the 18th century. The narrative, if you can find one between the glorious bedlam of flaming set pieces and screaming, makes so little sense that if you try to decipher it, you’re left with whatever the pleasurable equivalent of a concussion is. For a movie like this, though, we’re not looking for plot. We’re looking for marvelous chaos. In Van Helsingchaos reigns.
Dracula, you see, has been defiling maidens all around Romania for centuries, amassing a gigantic nest of vampire eggs that resemble throbbing scrotums. Since his hell-spawn are (un)dead, they require a certain form of electricity to be brought to life. Count Vlad, portrayed here by a horny and howling Richard Roxborough, has been employing werewolves for this cause to no avail. He needs a better battery, something that, like his fetal bat children, was previously dead. That’s where Frankenstein’s monster comes in: it’s revealed in the opening minutes that the Criss Angel-looking Dracula was funding the monster’s creation all along. Have you disassociated yet?
Van Helsing, here named Gabriel–not the totally unsexy Abraham of past incarnations–is tasked by a Da Vinci Code-esque Vatican society to trek to Transylvania to kill the Count. Not just because Dracula is quite literally the son of Satan, but because, due to a blood oath (or something), a family of vampire hunters cannot go to heaven unless the Transylvanian Prince of Darkness is slain. Kate Beckinsale’s Anna (like the rest of the cast, doing a vague Eastern European accent, What We Do in The Shadows-style) and her brother Velkan (hot) are the last living descendants of the Valerious lineage. Their ancestors are stuck in purgatory. And Velkan has just become the new Wolfman. So they’ll need all the help they can get. I should also mention that Van Helsing has a crossbow machine gun in this movie.
From there I can’t quite tell you exactly what happens. My memories of the film are like scattered images from a terrific dream: Van Helsing says something about how he fought the Romans in 72 AD, Frankenstein swings from a rope like Tarzan, Dracula has group sex with his wives inside a block of ice, demon bats pop like zits with wings, Kate Beckinsale’s face appears in the clouds as if she’s Simba’s long dead father. What more could you ask?
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In Van Helsing, you get what you pay for. The movie is loud and proud, free from any of the crushing expectations of today’s mega studios. It has none of the self-loathing nonsense of the Zack Snyder DC movies, and is totally uninterested in the sort of sycophantic hero worship for which Marvel has become so well known. Since it’s not the first movie to mash together these great Universal monsters (and certainly not the last–even if the “Dark Universe” never comes to light), Van Helsing wastes no time explaining to you why, or how, these characters all live in the same world. We get it. Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein are friends. We don’t need 12 movies to establish this. Cut to the monster slaying.
Films like this always leave me wondering, what even is a movie? What must a movie accomplish to be considered good? Does a movie have to contain a moving narrative, great performances, believable characters, or address some deep part of the human experience to achieve goodness? Or can it just be 131 senseless minutes of monsters ripping each other’s necks out while a friar played by David Henham tries to get laid?
I love a giant, operational mess. The Star Wars prequels were the lifeblood of my childhood–which may explain my love of similarly uninhibited disasters like Prometheus–so of course I’m speaking from a place of bias. But there is an uncommon delight that comes from getting hit by a movie like a wrecking ball.
I want to live in the timeline where Van Helsingnot Iron Man, kicked off the first full-fledged cinematic universe. I want to see the Transylvania television series that Sommers (allegedly) planned, which would have expanded on the horrors that live within this dry Romanian village. I want more steam punk Frankenstein, more hunky Wolfmen, a crossover with the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies, the Creature from the Black Lagoon storyline we never got, and above all, more of Hugh Jackman’s big, stupid, leathery cowboy(?) hat.
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