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WTF? On Film 3: Van Helsing

I can just imagine the Execs who commissioned VAN HELSING: “Get me a screenwriter who can deliver a script based on the Dracula myth… but make it new and make sure there’s some like, ninja stars/mini buzz saws in it. Oh: and Frankenstein. And Jekyll & Hyde. And monks. And hell! Let’s shove some werewolves in too, why not? But make sure there’s a reason FOR ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING IN IT – except maybe the ninja star/buzz saws, we’ll let them off that one. And call Hugh Jackman, he looks good with his shirt off, maybe he carry long hair and a really bad wax jacket too. And isn’t the director from THE MUMMY free? Nice one, kill two birds with one stone: he can write the script an’ all. Oh and what about Kate Beckinsale who only ever appears to play vampires when not in Pearl Harbour? That would be fantastic irony then, casting her as a vampire HUNTER — do it!”

Everybody, all together now: WTF?????

I think, had I been hired to pen the screenplay of Van Helsing, I might have had a heart attack: Dracula meets Frankenstein meets the Wolfman is bad enough without having to shove all the rest in there too. Somewhat inevitably then, VH is absolutely DROWNING in set up, with not one or two but THREE lengthy introductions to the characters and the situations they’ve found themselves in. Interestingly, we start the movie not with Van Helsing himself, but Dracula and his dealings with Dr. Frankenstein; then we see how cool and prepared Van Helsing is when he deals with Mr. Hyde (now that really is WTF? Why Mr. Hyde? Why not another vampire?? Why not, I suppose) and then we deal with Princess Anna dealing with a werewolf – only shock! horror! her brother is killed doing so (don’t worry, he’ll be back).

There’s no denying Van Helsing is pure bilge – but I have to admit, it’s enjoyable bilge. What’s particularly interesting about Van Helsing is that, even though it *has* to be one of the most convoluted and plain mental films I have ever seen, in comparison to something like Doomsday, there is actually a consistency in tone and a (sort of) coherence that I think is totally missing in the previous film. In fact, Van Helsing is so off its rocker, one can’t help but go with the flow – or be deemed one of those nasty grannies who should be confined to the attic for having no sense of humour. Think I’ve gone completely mad? Let me explain.

Two stories = too much: three has purpose? Shoving three stories into one might seem like pure insanity, but there is a twisted genius to it: after all, Van Helsing never takes itself too seriously and end of the day, it’s kids who will predominantly be interested in this film. Kids who may never have heard of Frankenstein – and whose only experience of the werewolf myth might have been Halloween masks and *that* Dr. Who episode when Billie Piper was still in it. They’re too young to have watched Teenwolf because they weren’t born and the Buffy episodes with Seth Green as a werewolf would be too scary. There’s child-like logic throughout the whole of Van Helsing (Dracula needs Frankenstein to power the machine to make his babies come alive; a werewolf bite is the only thing to stop Dracula) that appeals, to, well – children. OF COURSE Dracula’s babies would be born dead if he’s undead! (Er, excuse me – how did Dracula’s Brides get pregnant in the first place then??) OF COURSE a werewolf stops Dracula!!! (Er, excuse me – if that;’s the case, then why does Dracula keep werewolves in his castle??) BUT WHO CARES – we can gloss over those bits because the REST makes sense – if only within the context of a mad, totally insane, concept. In its twisted way, it all adds up and Van Helsing starts as it means to go: mad and insane. And consistency goes a long way.

Join us or die. When it comes to the insane and high concept, Hollywood has a long track record of highly implausible, sweep-you-along, kid-orientated tales like Van Helsing. Whether you actually like those tales or not, it cannot be argued that Hollywood doesn’t do it *well enough* to bring audiences back, year after year, decade after decade, even if their stories are as schizophrenic as Van Helsing’s. So whilst the likes of Doomsday had Brit audiences scratching their heads, Hollywood has the ultimate in “get out of jail free cards”: they’ve done this malarkey before and got away with it – and they will do it again. What’s more, they know where their currency is: they don’t disenfranchise kids, but make it risque “enough” with a 12A certificate. As a result, kids will drag parents to hours and hours of this stuff. The choice is clear: you can give up and get swept along by this crap and find in it what’s enjoyable – or you can be dragged out of the Odeon, screaming, by the men in white coats.

Dracula, revamped?
I obviously read A LOT of vampire films – in fact, I worked out recently I average ONE A WEEK. That’s right; that’s how popular vampires actually are. And guess what? Nearly all of them adhere to what I call The School of Buffy – in other words, the undead are uber-cool, wise crackers who dress well and are dead sexy. Yawn! The few that don’t are still very much on the “low budget” radar – they’re men and women who will suck your blood, end of. I have seen two versions of Vampires in the last two years I have deemed truly “original” in specs – TWO. In comparison then, Van Helsing’s Vampires were a refreshing change, if only for the fact Dracula himself owes more to the Hammer Horror style Draculas of the 60s. Cheesy as hell, hamming it up big style whilst walking on the ceiling, Richard Roxburgh’s Transylvanian accent was on the Russian side of Barking, but by God, thanks for something different!!! His Brides too in their human form seemed quite Hammer Horror – until they TAKE TO THE SKIES. Vampires flying! Yay! Why not? It appears vampires in most films have forgotten their bat roots, but here they are soaring above us – and not only that they have WINGS LIKE FALLEN ANGELS AND FEET LIKE EAGLES. What’s more, even the werewolf myth got a workover: unlike your average werewolf which is stuck in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON writhing around around on the foor, Van Helsing’s werewolves get magnified somehow to the wall and PICK OFF THEIR OWN SKIN. As my son shouted in the cinema at the time: “ACE!”As an aside, Van Helsing was responsible for my son’s very sudden interest in horror fiction. The same week we saw Van Helsing at the cinema, he had me take him to the library in order to take out not only a junior version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t shove all those previous stories in the mix in a philanthropic bid to get our kids reading, but it is an impressive side bonus; so perhaps the impact of such crazy films which draw on “old” tales is not to be underestimated, if only on that basis.

But for me, whilst Van Helsing is essentially a screenwriting nightmare, I think it’s also important to remember it never purports to be anything but what it is – a pantomime. And we all love pantomimes, right…. Or not? Over to you…
Van Helsing on IMDB

Van Helsing Trailer

Van Helsing on Wikipedia

Van Helsing Reviews

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15 thoughts on “WTF? On Film 3: Van Helsing”

  1. I actually really liked…no, I can’t even joke about this one. I liked the sentiment at the beginning and the idea of reviving the Universal horror cycle, but being inspired by the later monster-mash Universal films rather than the earlier genuinely scary classics was not a good move.

    I think the biggest problem though is the CGI – the whole thing may as well be animated. I hate to bring it up again, but at least the action in Doomsday was for the most part practical.

  2. It’s behind you! There I had to say it. I thought I better get in early on this one, only because I had to research and write a piece yesterday about the fag end of Hammer Horror’s reign in the early to mid 1970s. Spooky that.

    For Van Helsing you have to go way back before Hammer to Universal Pictures in the 1930s when Bela Lugosi appeared in Dracula, James Whale made Frankenstein and the stone cold classic Bride of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr was, some years later, The Wolf Man. They were great movies, especially with the German expressionist influences courtesy of the émigrés from UFA Studios in Babelsberg who had led to America to escape Nazisim.

    Of course the most important movie hasn’t been mentioned and that was The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Karloff. Important because if we jump forward sixty-odd years we have The Mummy, directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Brendan Fraser and the gang. I think it’s a great movie, filled with just the right amount of dumb fun that the Indiana Jones sequels failed to recapture. The thing is, if I remember rightly, it wasn’t expected to be the big summer movie that it became.

    Suddenly, with over $400m in the bank Sommers, who had only directed a handful of movies beforehand, finally had some clout in Hollywood. He made the sequel – The Mummy Returns – which made even more money than its predecessor and suddenly he was the golden boy of Universal. The execs were obviously happy to pander to his every desire. Van Helsing must have sounded like a good idea because for one thing they owned the rights to the films.

    Hammer had to grant Universal distribution rights when they made Dracula in 1958 just years before the source material entered the public domain. The Curse of Frankenstein, made by Hammer the year before went ahead only after it was understood that they could not use any elements that were unique to the movie, in particular Jack Pierce’s copyrighted monster make-up.

    Van Helsing was also a good idea for Universal because it meant that they could release on DVD the original 1930s movies to a whole new audience. Where was the downside?

    Well, The Mummy Returns already pretty much indicated what the downside would be. Like any sequel it lacked the freshness of the original and therefore tried to make up for it by being bigger and better by stuffing too much into the running time. Shame really, because The Mummy was an entertaining little romp that told its story well without having to go over the top.

    The budget of Van Helsing was almost twice that of The Mummy. Since Sommers had already laid a couple of golden eggs he was obviously allowed much more freedom than if he had been a neophyte director. The various characters had already crossed paths in the past, like in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man made in 1943. (Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is one I think we can safely ignore).

    Back in the mid-1970s Brian Clemens wrote and directed Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter for Hammer in an attempt to take the vampire mythology in a different direction. The thing is, with a Dracula flick you know he’s going to get staked in the heart or dissolved by sunlight. The Frankenstein Monster usually ended up frozen in ice or burned alive. Every werewolf had a silver bullet coming his way. So I guess Sommers too wanted to change people’s expectations.

    Combining the different mythologies, there is the basis if a good adventure movie bringing Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man together. Van Helsing isn’t it because it tries to stuff too much in. Rather than end up going over the top, it starts over the top and just balloons from there. The titular character is basically a supernatural James Bond of the Vatican.

    (Before I forget, if you get hold of a copy of Sabine Baring-Gould’ The Book of Werewolves, first published in 1865, I think the werewolf tearing through human skin to be released is in there).

    Dracula needing the science of Frankenstein for his own nefarious ends is a good idea. Especially when the Doctor is killed at the beginning and he goes on to use the monster, who isn’t exactly happy with the arrangement. The problem is the Wolf Man/werewolf seems to be a character too far, shoehorned in because Sommers wants him there whether it works or not.

    There are some nice little bits in the movie but I find they feature David Wenham’s cowardly assistant Carl and Kevin J. O’Connor’s Igor rather than the main cast. (O’Conner of course did a similarly fine job as the weaselly Beni in The Mummy). Everything else is just too much so instead of a taut horror movie Van Helsing is brought down by its own bloated weight. Shame really.

  3. Chris! For the love of God salvage what’s left of your self respect and get outta here! ; )

    GD – I’ve had the dubious honour of watching VH three million times on DVD since my son loves it to death and even did the Universal horror (with a focus on Lugosi) as a project on horror at sixth form college back in the day, yet I NEVER made a connection to those films until looking at links for this post. which pretty much says it all. But yes: Dracula NEEDING Frankenstein was a fab idea, even though it makes no sense in *reality* – but given there are no such things as vampires or Frankenstein in *reality*, then I agree: tI could go with that. But the Wolfman went way overboard, though unlike Chris I liked the CGI.

  4. GD – excellent write up. Disappointed you didn’t mention the CGI job at the end of Mummy Returns that ILM obviously phoned in but apart from that, I disappointingly can’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Although I’d debate whether Van Helsing had any redeeming features whatsoever. Even Kate Beckinsale in a tight corset wasn’t enough to lift this out of the gutter.

    re: Werewolves – if I recall, didn’t The Company of Wolves pretty much feature every type of werewolf transformation going?

  5. Now, now boys – let’s not go to war here or I will go Underworld on both your asses and stake ya!

    Funny story: I have never seen the end of Mummy Returns. Something always happens to prevent me– I manage to get to the bit where the kid gets ‘napped off the bus, then whammo! A kid needs hospitalising for eating shoe polish or whatever.

    Company of Wolves – good point: I even have that on the DVD shelf right in front of me. God I loved that scene when Stephen Rea turns… But now it looks horribly dated, even more so than American Werewolf in London I reckon. Though yes, it did have the peeling skin thing. But the werewolf wasn’t stuck to the wall!!!! That counts for so much

    ; )

  6. I should have mentioned that I didn’t see Van Helsing in the cinema because I was a busy bastard at the time so instead rented the DVD when it eventually appeared. And I was angry as anything that it had been ballsed up so badly. But given the failings of The Mummy Returns I suppose I expected it.

    That said, I eventually bought the 2-disc for little more than a few quid, hoping that the extras would give some indication of where it went wrong. Even the menus were bloody annoying if I remember correctly. I’ve probably watched it a few times. Going into it knowing that it’s so bad it’s (almost) good in places is just enough sugar to swallow the bitter pill.

    There are so many things that make no sense in reality let alone in cinema’s idea of reality. It’s another case of, if you get the audience to come so far, chances are they’ll go a little bit further.

    When it comes to the grand finale with the syringe they have to save and all of Dracula’s little science project minions scurrying about (as funny) as they are, it becomes too much and makes absolutely no sense. Once Igor cops it I pretty much give up. The fact that the girl doesn’t make it is quite good until the bit with the clouds. Dear God, no!!

    As good as the rendering of the werewolf is, I think one particular downfall of this film is the availability of CGI. When you can do virtually anything you have to know when to rein it in. And a lot of directors don’t. And, being reminded of the end of The Mummy Returns with The Scorpion King (and just thinking about it makes me want to claw my eyes out) there are times when time and money still sticks it to us.

    Not to whore for my own blog, but I’ve posted a piece about the recently deceased producer Charles H. Schneer who collaborated on many of the great fantasy movies of the 1950s and 60s with Ray Harryhausen. What nowadays compares to the epic swordfight with the skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts? That sequence alone took Harryhausen four months to carefully animate by himself. The Mummy paid lip service to it, with Brendan Fraser fighting the skeleton guards during the film’s but it was never as good.

    One of the best touches in the final fisticuffs between Van Hesling and Dracula, when they transform into monsters and start slugging it out, is the homage to the dual between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in Michael Curtiz’ The Adventures of Robin Hood where you see the shadows projected on the castle’s stone wall.

    Oh, and I like how all the Vatican’s special weapons, like the “gattling gun” crossbow don’t work as well as expected and it comes down to ingenuity and cunning rather than who has the best toys at their disposal.

    And of course one of the things you could level at Buffy is how come vampires who don’t have blood pumping through their veins manage to obtain an erection. They still manage to bang her senseless. Maybe they had to rely on a mail order catalogue.

    While you’re mulling that one over try and get hold of a copy of Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. If it had been successful at the box office, Clemens wanted to make a series featuring the character, which is pretty much what Sommers had in mind with Van Helsing.

    PS. Please don’t mention Underworld.

  7. I can’t believe no one, myself included, has brought up Monster Squad yet! Essentially the same idea but a much better film. And they got the mummy and creature from the black lagoon in there as well.

  8. Holy crap, of course, The Monster Squad!!

    The Monster Squad is just ace and skill. Co-written by Shane Black, it’s like The Goonies with the great horror characters. Which instantly means it;s way better than The Goonies.

    Available on a great R1 2-disc DVD. Lucy, your lad would probably love it.

  9. I hated The Goonies, even as a kid. Does that make me a bad person??

    But Monster Squad sounds interesting, will check it out. Tell you what I did love:



    Oh and while we’re on the subject, HOODWINKED too. Not that it had any monsters in — though there was a wolf, so it’s vaguely on-topic.

  10. Mosnter Squad is way better than Goonies. I liked Monster House too – Monster Squad has a similar tone, although it’s quite gory.

  11. Well, I would have previously written, “Which instantly means it;s way better than The Goonies, which was utter [expletive deleted] pants” (as well as correcting the apostrophe) but didn’t want to upset anyone. Yeah, I know… Luckily that feeling only lasted for a split-second.

    It was mentioned because it’s a film that you Top Gun-generation kids will have some knowledge of.

    The Monster Squad is dumb fun in the best way. There are no airs or pretentions. It’s just an enjoyable bit of fluff guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

    Should see Monster House because it has already been recommended. As for Hoodwinked, I caught the trailer and the animal was so goodawful it made me want to choke on someone else’s vomit.

    (Still, thanks for not mentioning Being Human. And I’m not talking about the Bill Forsythe film).

  12. I loved Van Helsing at first and then when it stopped making sense I hated it.

    I love Monster House, great animation and very good script.

    The Hoodwinked people had much less money but while it’s cheapo animation it has a witty script and off-beat story and you don’t miss the high-end CGI work once you get used to it.

  13. Van Helsing was a fun film and the superb Hugh Jackman was in it and really did magnificantly – he had no script. It is always a shame to waste excellent talent on such rubbish really he is worthy of so much more

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