Van Helsing (2004): A Less-Than-Classic Take on a Classic Character
In terms of characters from the Dracula mythos, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is second to the titular count in terms of recognizability. A brilliant and well-educated man with an iron resolve and kind heart, he is the perfect foil to the vampiric nobleman. He appears in nearly every adaptation of the Gothic horror novel and…this movie is not about him. Meet Gabriel Van Helsing, played by Hugh Jackman, who is not a doctor, but a vampire hunter! This movie also isn’t content with just being about vampires, as it also includes Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and, of course, werewolves. Welcome to Bad Film Friday!
Ok, before this review really gets going I should say that I think Gabriel Van Helsing is kinda hot. Something about Hugh Jackman with long, luscious locks and a badass crossbow does it for me. I suppose I’m a man of simple tastes. However, just as good performances can be in bad movies, so can hot characters be in bad movies.
The movie opens with a flashback to 1887 in Transylvania, where Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creation are on the run from a religious mob. Apparently, Count Dracula (played by Richard Roxburgh) was also involved in the creation of the monster. Go figure. Dr. Frankenstein is killed by the mob, and presumably, the monster is as well. Cut to one year later, where we are introduced to Van Helsing, who is fighting an atrocious CGI Mr. Hyde on the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris. Van Helsing works for the mysterious Holy Order, which protects humanity from the various evils of the world. He works for the Order because he has no memories of his past life and wishes to atone for his unknown past sins. He defeats Mr. Hyde and returns to the Order’s headquarters in the Vatican. Van Helsing is given a new mission: go to Transylvania and destroy Dracula, as well as protect the last members of a Romanian family who vowed to kill Dracula or else spend the rest of eternity in Purgatory. Given that eternity in Purgatory doesn’t sound that great, the two Valerious siblings, Anna (played by Kate Beckinsale) and Velkan (played by Will Kemp), are understandably motivated. Anna, of course, serves as the love interest for Van Helsing.
In addition to Anna Valerious, Van Helsing is helped by a tech-savvy friar named…Carl (played by David Wenham). Not exactly a medieval name to me, but it’s unintentionally hilarious. Carl shows Van Helsing some new tech he’s devised that could help him fight vampires, while the Valerious siblings fight a werewolf, after which Velkan is presumed dead after falling off a cliff (spoiler alert: he’s not). Anna and Van Helsing reach a village where they fight Dracula's three brides, killing one of them.
Velkan returns to tell his sister some important information, but before he can, the full moon emerges and he turns into a werewolf. It’s revealed that Dracula’s plan is to use Dr. Frankenstein’s discoveries through his experiments to bring all of his undead children to life, to take over the world or whatever. The two of them fight Velkan and the two remaining brides of Dracula. One of the brides dies, but Velkan perishes as well, meaning that the fate of the entire Valerious family now rests solely on Anna’s shoulders. Van Helsing is bitten by Velkan, meaning that he will become a werewolf. They meet Frankenstein's Monster. More happens after this, of course, but I’m not gonna recount the entire movie.
It’s a good thing that Hugh Jackman looks good in this movie because there’s not much else to look at here. The CGI and monster special effects are painfully average, and Van Helsing’s werewolf form is very bland-looking, which is a shame, given that it’s part of the climax of the entire movie. As a character, Gabriel Van Helsing is also very average, a generic monster hunter haunted by his own demons that we’ve seen played out dozens of times over, with none of the originality or charm of his namesake.
Similarly, Anna is a tired archetype— the female monster fighter who fights for vengeance and family honor— though, I will say, her death was somewhat original and I wasn’t expecting it. So, kudos for that, I guess. The crossover nature of the project was rather ambitious, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the two novels it chooses to adapt. The Gothic is all about excess and intensity, and those are two traits that this movie sorely lacks. Though, credit where credit is due, the film’s interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster is much closer to how he is in Shelley’s novel compared to most other pop culture adaptations of the Gothic classic.
Overall, this film has a lot of promise but squanders it in favor of special effects and fight scenes over its story. But it also made a lot of money at the box office, so maybe, like all critics, I am hopelessly out of touch with what the people want. Wouldn’t be the first time.