Why Van Helsing is Awesome

It’s Halloween, you looking for something to watch. Maybe you have kids and want to have a fun movie night to get into the Halloween season. You’re wanting a change of pace from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Hocus Pocus, maybe something with a little more edge but not quite scary (since they might be too young for a slasher film or spooky haunted house movie). How about something with the Universal Monsters and a lot of action for the whole family, with both a great looking leading man and lady? Then I suggest you go back and revisit Van Helsing, and see maybe there was something to this movie we missed before.

It feels like this is a controversial take, since Van Helsing is seen as anything but awesome. A lot of people hate it and treat it as a garbage fire of a film. Which is frankly a little harsh. Is it “good” in the traditional sense? No. But it does have a lot in common with, say, the 1999 Mummy movie, and that film is looked back on with nostalgic fondness (particularly after that disaster 2017 version).

2004 was the year of horror/action/monster movie hybrids. Hellboy, Blade: Trinity, Alien VS Predator, and most importantly Van Helsing. Van Helsing kicked off the 2004 summer movie season and was positioned as a big blockbuster for Universal. They created a direct-to-DVD animated prequel titled Van Helsing: The London Assignment (which more blockbusters should do!), a tie-in video game, and a big marketing push. They had planned sequels, a television spin-off, and even a year-round haunted house at Universal Studios. Yet sadly, the film underperformed at the box office and was drowned out by other summer films like Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Spider-Man 2.

It has been 14 years since Van Helsing hit theaters so it’s time to look back, and for once talk about what is good about it and what really works. Why this movie clicked for a certain section of the audience that saw it, and how it introduced the Universal Monsters to a generation the way the new films keep seeming to fail at.

Van Helsing takes characters and a genre originally realized in charming low budget filmmaking, and uses (then) modern-day special effects to pump it up to visually look and sound as one’s imagined the genre always could. All doing this in the context of a heroic action adventure movie, mixing Indiana Jones pulpy serial adventure with the framework and set up of a steampunk-inspired James Bond film.

Sommers’ filmography can be summed up as expensive pulp. Now, pulp novels were always meant to be cheap and disposable, typically categorized by high concept sci-fi/horror/fantasy storytelling elements. In The Mummy, The Mummy ReturnsG.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and most importantly Van Helsing, Sommers takes those ideas that filled children’s imaginations and with the biggest budgets makes them seem big. He is combining everything he loves and playing with it, like a kid with the biggest toy set. That imaginative-kid take on the characters works as a lens to view the film.

Sommers realizes that kids don’t see the Universal Monsters as frightening. Instead of trying to make them scary, he zeroes in on the idea that kids tend to relate to/want to see the monsters, so he makes them exciting. The monsters are almost like 1800’s superheroes. The Universal Monsters can fit so many forms and incarnations; they are adaptable. They can be in horror movies or action movies.

Dracula is positioned as the big bad of this universe, the ultimate evil, and his status in popular culture as one of the first true Universal Monsters lends credence to this development. Richard Roxburgh plays him with a sense of high camp makes this the rock opera version of Dracula. Paying respect to Bela Lugosi, but allowing him to be his own distinct incarnation of the character.

Since Frankenstein isn’t the sole monster in this film, he is able to be played as the straightforward sympathetic character from the beginning. While the 1931 version of Frankenstein’s monster is given his fair share of sympathy, his status as a Universal Monster does always cast him with a shadow of danger. Not in this film. He is never framed as a threat and is a victim of circumstance.

The Wolfman may be one of the most controversial ones here, and one I will defend the most adamantly. While the CGI is a little dated and you can never top a makeup transformation and practical man in a suit like in American Werewolf in London or The Howling, Van Helsing is able to realize the Wolfman in a way never before seen. He is able to move with such strength and speed that was never shown on film before. They took the popular concept of The Wolfman and married it with pop culture’s visual look of a werewolf. The clear distinct color palette for each werewolf keeps things visually exciting, and the transformation of tearing one’s skin off to reveal the beast within is one of the all-time great Werewolf transformations.

The three monsters, with their own unique mythologies, are also woven together quite beautifully. They all fit a narrative and thematic purpose. Dracula as the main villain needs Frankenstein’s Monster, putting those two in opposition. The Wolfman starts out as Dracula’s servant but is revealed to be his own fatal weakness. Dracula’s being a creature of death, the Wolfman a creature of pure untamed life, and Frankenstein’s Monster in the middle between the two, the bridge between life and death. It finds an organic reason for the three to exist in this particular story.

Visually Van Helsing stands out as a great Halloween action movie. While many have cried foul at the overuse of CGI, the practical sets are gorgeous. Cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) knows just how to shoot and light the gorgeous production design work by Allan Cameron (Starship Troopers). Capturing that sense of gothic atmosphere being realized to exaggerated proportions. It harkens back to the classic Universal Monsters in black and white, and playing with shadows and melodrama, recreating some of Frankenstein’s most iconic moments. Then when the main storyline kicks in you get a scope to Transylvania, Castle Frankenstein, and Castle Dracula. The shot of the Wolfman howling at the moon holding Kate Beckinsale is the perfect encapsulation of the Universal Monsters: classic melodrama, the big bombastic scale of the picture coming into play.

Even the casting of Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale is a narrative shorthand. While Van Helsing and Princess Anna may not have had much written on paper, the two bring with them such personality and the audience’s preconceived notions to fill in the blanks. Hugh Jackman gives Van Helsing the same no-nonsense mysterious warrior vibe that defined Wolverine, but mixes it with a sense of world-weary charm that is kin to Indiana Jones. Audiences already know Kate Beckinsale can play werewolf/monster hunter from the Underworld series, so she is able to convincingly sell the warrior aspect of her character. But she is able to give her enough vulnerability that when she breaks down at seeing her brother as a monster, you get a sense of her pain. Both deliver on being action heroes: they say cool stuff before doing cool stuff. When the townspeople approach Van Helsing to disarm him, he puts his hand on his pistols and says with such bravado: “you can try.” It’s one of the coolest things ever.

Van Helsing is by no means a great movie, but it sure is a damn fun action ride, which was always its intention. A fun adventure film that might be a great way to introduce the concepts of the Universal Monsters to a generation of kids. Universal has tried many times to reignite their Universal Monsters brand. In 2010 the remake of The Wolfman arrived and disappointed. In 2014 they released Dracula: Untold, which was supposed to be the start of their newly planned cinematic universe, but they discarded it after critics and audiences rejected it. Then in 2017 they released The Mummy, which was supposed to launch a Dark Universe of Universal Monsters remakes. The Mummy bombed and for the meantime killed those plans. Yet one could make an argument that Van Helsing did a better job of getting a younger generation into the Universal Monsters than these recent films did, because it played them with a sense of excitement. It allowed an audience to truly have fun, and presented the classic monsters in their most recognizable incarnations in a modern type of film.

Van Helsing is a weird movie, one that could only have happened when it did. I’m sure a generation who saw it as kids look backs fondly, and wonders why they never got a sequel. Maybe one day a long-awaited sequel will come along. Until that day, pop some popcorn, open some candy, grab a soda, and kick back with an old-school throwback to the old-school.