Running Time: 132 minutes.
Van Helsing is a classic matinee battle of good versus evil, a "popcorn movie' in the trade vernacular. The story is straightforward. At the end of the 19th century, Bram Stoker's notorious monster-hunter, Van Helsing (Jackman), and his friar sidekick, Carl (Wenham), work for a very secret, Vatican-based, society devoted to building new and more powerful weapons and battling the forces of supernatural evil. Van Helsing and Carl are dispatched to Transylvania to help the virtuous Anna (Beckinsale) and Velkan Valerious destroy Dracula. The Count, in turn, has enlisted his vampire Brides, a Werewolf (sadly, the once virtuous Velkan) and a reluctant Frankenstein to his cause. Both sides are spoiling for a really big show-down.
Popcorn movies are supposed to be fun. Van Helsing just isn't. Writer/director Stephen Sommers is responsible for the highly entertaining resurrection of another big screen scary, The Mummy (and The Mummy Returns), but apparently his formula is not foolproof. Or perhaps wilts when fed on too large a budget? The film's budget was more than $150 million dollars, most of which was clearly spent on a dizzying array of video-game style special effects.
All that money seems to have been spent trapping a very talented cast within the shortcomings of a dull and inconsistent script. In his overt borrowings from the Indiana Jones films, Sommers apparently stopped short of giving his Van Helsing any of the mischievous mirth that made Indiana an entertaining hero. Instead, Jackman must plod along in a character who (like the entire film) is guilty of taking himself (itself) a little too seriously.
There are a few bright spots in this tale of studio greed. Sommers black and white opening homage to horror-flicks of days' past is sensational. The roller-coaster pace of the action. And I personally enjoyed some of the twists and wrinkles of the traditional monster mythology (Vampires can attack during the day, if there's cloud cover). But these remained shadowed by bad accents (Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons might have served as Beckinsale's dialogue coach), cartoonish special effects and script deficiencies.
The most perplexing example of this last problem visits upon the Jackman's lead character. Dr. Van Helsing has no memory, and so no idea why he fights the good fight. Dracula apparently knows. But he dies having offered us only the hint that Van Helsing killed his human form 400 years back. In several places, there is a vague suggestion that Van Helsing might be an amnesiac Archangel Gabriel. Developing this idea would have proved more interesting than another computer-generated man changing into werewolf scene (there are at least 5 of these).
If you decide to ignore these shortcomings, you should keep in mind that the film's monsters are actually pretty scary and, when mixed with an adrenaline-inducing pace, Van Helsing warrants its PG-13 rating. Also, some may be offended by Wenham's portrayal of the friar Carl. He often excuses sinful and sacrilegious behavior with the explanation, "I'm a friar, not a monk.' In truth, the offense is not the ignorance of a friar's ordination, but that the line isn't funny.
Harden Grace is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.