"In Defense Of" is a look back at films that have been relegated to the dustbin of time - victims of critical thrashing, commercial failure, etc. - that attempts to sort through their perceived failures and bring their merits to light in an effort to conclude whether or not they deserve a better reputation.
After resurrecting one of Universal's famous horror icons with The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, director Stephen Sommers turned his sights on reimagining not one but three more. 2004's Van Helsing served as the studio's attempt at launching a whole new franchise with Sommers at the helm, with Hugh Jackman in the titular role of a Victorian era monster hunter whose job sucks him into a grand plot involving such familiar faces as Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and the Wolf Man.
On the surface, it was a sound idea: The monsters are undeniably iconic, Hugh Jackman was riding high on his popularity as Wolverine, Sommers was coming off of his two financially successful Mummy films, and everything was wrapped up in a slick steampunk package. Even the very premise seemed tailor-made for countless sequels that could've seen Van Helsing tackling other icons like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Invisible Man. Ahead of its release, everything was in place for Van Helsing to take the world by storm.
Instead, the film came and went in the summer of 2004, crushed by an immensely negative critical response and less-than-stellar box office returns, leaving the franchise dead on arrival. 12 years later, the film still stands as an exercise in excess, one that took The Mummy Returns' issues - which I detailed in my last In Defense Of - and repeats them tenfold, desperately chasing style over substance to its own detriment, resigning it to a forgettable fate even less people will remember another decade down the line.
It is, in many ways, a mess, an amazing idea executed poorly that might as well be a stone's throw away from SyFy Channel Original status, and it really isn't a surprise that it got savaged by critics upon release and shunned by moviegoers who clearly expected something more. And yet here we are, the film the focus of my In Defense Of against everything stacked against it, and for good reason.
Before I get into what I feel is worth defending, I can't help but lay out on the table what simply can't be defended, the first of which is that the movie's effects haven't aged too gracefully. Like The Mummy Returns before it, there's a massive reliance on CGI here, and as a result huge chunks of the film look incredibly dated. Nothing here is quite as shockingly terrible as the Scorpion King's big appearance, but when entire characters - the Wolf Man, Dracula's "real" form, etc. - are CGI, it holds the film back. What may have once been impressive back in 2004 had already begun to feel dated by 2005, let alone 2016, and it's unfortunate but important to note right off the bat simply because Van Helsing prides itself on being a film of spectacle first and foremost. And when the luster of that spectacle has long worn off, it makes every fault all the more glaring.
That's not to say that all the effects remain terrible, though. Some of the designs still look cool, and there are creative aspects at play - like the visuals of a human tearing off their skin to reveal the werewolf being unleashed within - that are inherently neat. Unfortunately, there's just so much CGI that it's constantly overloading the film, which ultimately devolves into a big effects-laden climax that sees characters swinging on ropes against a green screen background as CGI characters battle to the death elsewhere. If The Mummy used CGI as a tool and The Mummy Returns used it as a crutch, then Van Helsing uses it as its lifeblood, and it's easy to see how that's a turnoff for people when these characters' most famous cinematic incarnations are iconic for their simplicity.
In many ways, the film is less bothered with trying to capture, say, a Gothic horror tone as it is with attempting to be a comic book brought to life. Every action sequence is over the top, and while the entire film is laced with CGI, there's still some incredible production design at work that truly does pop when one takes a moment to appreciate it. The dark hallways of various castles and the snow-covered town of Transylvania look fantastic, packed with detail in every corner that suggests those responsible had a lot of fun bringing the physical aspects of this world to life, especially in an opening black and white sequence that harkens back in a fun way to the classic horror films that allowed it to exist in the first place. It's easy to overlook thanks to the green screen work and so on, but it's one aspect of the film that deserves a little respect.
Going further, another thing working against the film is that the acting is all over the place. Hugh Jackman essentially plays Wolverine Lite here, while Kate Beckinsale's Anna - a crucial player in the fight against Dracula - does little more than be constantly kidnapped and get her ass kicked, wasting the otherwise game actress. They're mainly stand-ins for The Mummy's Rick and Evie, only less likable in comparison, and a shoehorned, late-game romance only serves to undercut their individuality and highlight the fact that Jackman and Beckinsale don't have that kind of chemistry.
As Dracula, Richard Roxburgh doesn't just chew the scenery, he utterly devours it, the performance practically demanding viewers to either be on board with it or not. Will Kemp, Shuler Hensley, David Wenham, and Kevin J. O'Connor otherwise blend into the film to varying degrees as the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster, Van Helsing's Q-like sidekick Carl, and Igor, respectively, complimenting the film in a way thoroughly removed from the three actresses who play Dracula's brides. They are far and away one of the worst parts of the film, saddling it with terrible performances that drag down every scene they're in as they spout dialogue as brilliant as "Too bad, so sad." By comparison, everyone else in the cast may as well have won an Oscar for their work here, it's that bad, and the only thing that truly makes me cringe when I revisit the film, particularly as it seems hell-bent on spending more time with them than it does with Frankenstein's monster.
The brides are also emblematic of the idea that the film is needlessly obsessed with one-liners. Every character has them, and I can't deny that the film is quotable - there are a handful of lines my friends and I still love to repeat - but its constant desire to spice up the proceedings with humor isn't as natural as it was in The Mummy, where the characters felt at least somewhat like real people. Here, they might as well all be cartoon characters, which could've still worked for the more lighthearted dialogue had it not been forced in some very awkward places.
Beyond the dialogue, the story itself has a handful of plot holes upon inspection; it's not something for those looking for accuracy or logic, and honestly, it makes no bones about that fact. It cleverly lays down seeds for a sequel - teases of Van Helsing's murky past, an open ending, etc. - but otherwise it's still a very streamlined film, a rollercoaster ride made for those looking for a thrill and nothing more designed by people who clearly enjoyed making it.
Say what you will about Sommers as a director, but one thing he knows is how to shoot an action scene. Even if they tend to get exhausting, either for going on too long or because of CGI overload, it's nice to see an action film where a director knows where to place the camera in order to let its audience soak everything in. There's nothing shaky about it, no tight close-ups that make everything incoherent, and no dizzying, rapid-fire editing tricks intended to spice things up, and there's something to be said for a film that avoids all those cheap tricks.
Lastly, I of course have to touch upon the film's score. Alan Silvestri reunited with Sommers after the two worked together for The Mummy Returns and gifted Van Helsing with a rousing score that's almost better than the film deserves. Like his work on Returns, it's propulsive and infectious, with a number of standout themes; if anything, the most unfortunate result of this film not getting a sequel is that we never got to hear what Silvestri could come up with building off his work here in all its orchestral glory.
Sommers dedicated the film to the memory of his father during the end credits, and I can appreciate that. Obviously, I can't comment on their relationship, but I can look back on this film and see where he's coming from in trying to make something that's just plain fun, pure and simple, the type of movie a father and son could enjoy on a lazy summer day at the theater. I'll always cherish those types of moments with my own dad, where we'd see movies together when I was young - like The Mummy, conveniently enough - and come out of the theater chatting away about it. Even though Van Helsing wasn't that type of memorable movie for us, it's easy to see where Sommers' heart is at with it anyway, regardless of its numerous faults, and I can admire that.
If I were to compare Sommers' three Universal monsters projects one last time, The Mummy is the clear winner in quality, with Van Helsing on the opposite end demonstrating how much he slid into bombast. On the surface, it's not great, with too many cracks caused by everything from terrible acting to dated CGI work. It's a mess of a film, but one that I can thoroughly enjoy anyway for what does work: Often amazing production design, an excellent score, some quotable dialogue, and a sense of fun that's infectious because those who made it were clearly having it. Even as these characters continue to get reimagined and the film itself grows less and less relevant with each passing year, I'd rather have it around than not, and it's something I'll gladly continue to dust off and revisit for years to come.
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