Did you know Hugh Jackman was born on October 12? Yep, he was, and it just so happened that he turned fifty this year. This man has quite the resume. Wolverine. Leopold, Duke of Albany. Curly (from Oklahoma, not The Three Stooges). Jean Valjean. P.T. Barnum. The Easter Bunny. Just to name a very few. Since it’s October, though. we’re going to look at one of Jackman’s few forays into horror: 2004’s Van Helsing, a film that is both an hilarious and scary new take on a classic character.
To say Van Helsing is a fighter is putting it mildly. This is a guy who can pull Tojo blades out of his coat sleeves and use his opponent as an anchor for his grappling hook. He knows how to use his enemy’s strength against them, and he never loses. After dispatching a wandering Mr. Hyde in the bell tower of Notre Dame, he’s off to the Vatican. They have a confessional at St. Peter’s that’s really a portal to an underground order of people from various faiths who are working to eradicate evil from the world. They want Van Helsing to go to Transylvania, where the last remaining Valerious descendants are in danger. Their family has been slaying monsters for centuries, and there’s a curse on them. Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) wants to kill them both, and unless they can eradicate him first, neither one will make it into heaven.
This is where the movie started to lose me.
Van Helsing’s superior, Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong) helpfully familiarizes our hero with all of the faces he’s going to need to know for his mission via a slideshow, and the first is, of course, Dracula. Only problem is, it’s Richard Roxburgh’s face badly superimposed over an engraving of Vlad Tepes. Seriously. It looks as if they didn’t even try to make it look like an engraving, or even have Roxburgh face the proper direction.
Anyway, before he heads off to Transylvania, Van Helsing needs to get kitted out, and that means holy water, garlic, a stake, a crucifix, and since they’re in Steam Punk Central, a tommy gun-like crossbow, and a gun with extra-heavy duty bullets. Oh, and his trusty gadget man, a friar named Carl (David Wenham) is going along to keep Van Helsing in line.
Once in Transylvania, Van Helsing and Carl find a village in crisis. Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) isn’t hard to spot, either, because she’s the only one striding around in a corset and thigh-high boots like a refugee from Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. Her brother, Velkan (Will Kemp) has fallen into the river fighting a werewolf, and she’s given him up for lost. She and the villagers are naturally suspicious of Van Helsing and Carl, but Dracula’s brides swoop in to wreak havoc, and Van Helsing killing one of them with arrows dipped in holy water prove his credentials.
After this, things happen fast and furiously. Anna is all set to go after Dracula, but Van Helsing douses her with sleeping powder. She wakes up in her bed and goes looking for Van Helsing and Carl when Velkan shows up. He’s now a werewolf. Van Helsing and Anna chase him to Dr. Frankenstein’s old castle, where Dracula is lurking with his two remaining brides and all his creepy little bat offspring, which burst into green goo if they’re hit hard enough or the sun comes out. Walking back, Van Helsing and Anna share some absynthe, when they fall into an old mine, where Frankenstein’s monster’s been hiding out.
It gets more complicated…a lot more. Dracula plans on using Frankenstein’s monster to do his bidding. The monster, who’s very articulate for a guy who’s been shut up most of his life, isn’t interested, so Dracula looks for a werewolf. Like Velkan. Or maybe Van Helsing, because Velkan bit him while they were riding a flaming stagecoach on its way to Rome. He becomes a werewolf, too, and is doomed to spend his human hours wearing only a loincloth.
But never fear, because Dracula has an antidote floating in a viscous fluid, and all Van Helsing has to do is get it out. Or rather, Anna and Carl will. Van Helsing has to go kill Dracula, because, well, just because. And let’s not forget that the mystery of Van Helsing’s backstory and the curse on Anna’s family both need to be solved. Or that there are plenty of trapezes and ropes to swing from. Or that Dracula’s remaining brides are still stalking Anna, and can travel from Transylvania to Hungary and back with remarkable speed.
Anyone seeing a pattern here? Nope. There is no pattern.
Van Helsing sorely lacks plot cohesion. It just keeps adding twist after twist, element after element. It reminds me of overmixed buttercream frosting, all soupy and goopy, except that buttercream usually tastes better. Honestly, if the filmmakers were going to make it a monster-fest, they should have done that. If it was supposed to be more of a National Treasure or Indiana Jones-type of plot, then they should have focused on that instead of adding in gratuitous threads to the story.
It’s not especially long on logic, either, when the original Dracula story is considered. Van Helsing is supposed to be a prequel, but its Dracula isn’t fazed by crucifixes, stakes through the heart, or holy water. He can only be killed by a werewolf for some reason. Meh. It doesn’t line up with the Stoker canon, and it seems like a regression for the characters. How big of a letdown would it be for Van Helsing to go from steampunk coolness to boring old Victorian stakes and garlic necklaces? He’d have to at least keep the Tojo blades, right?
One of the few bright spots is Hugh Jackman, who maintains a remarkably straight face, although his eyes sometimes have a flicker of “What the heck am I doing here,” particularly when he finds himself bearing a remarkable resemblance to Tarzan. He plays strong, steady characters so well, which is one of the things I’ve always liked about him, and his Van Helsing runs true to form.
The problem is that the film doesn’t give him much of a journey beyond throwing all these events at him. He’s already good at killing monsters and pulling gadgets from nowhere like he’s Batman or Mary Poppins. It’s odd for a prequel, because they’re typically focused on younger versions of familiar characters coming into their own. Van Helsing doesn’t seem to grow or change or anything. Static characters have their place, but they can be unsatisfying leads. I have to wonder if it was a very interesting part for Hugh Jackman to play, or maybe he just saw the whole thing as a paycheck.
My husband and I first watched Van Helsing in the theater, and I remember two ten-year old girls sitting next to me laughing their heads off. At the time I thought, “How can these kids be so jaded?” but now I think they had the right idea. On the bright side, it’s yet another example of how even strong actors get stuck with lackluster films now and then.
For more October babies, please visit Nuwan at No Nonsense With Nuwan Sen, whose October Birthdayz Blogathon officially starts tomorrow. Thanks a lot for hosting, Nuwan, and for inviting me to participate! Thanks for reading, all, as usual, and hope to see you next week for Crystal and Robin’s Disability in Film Blogathon. Till then…
This film is available on Amazon.