Monster? Who is the monster here?
— Frankenstein (Shuler Hensely), Van Helsing
“What if I put ’em all in the same movie?” Stephen Sommers’ question, born of his affection for classic horror movie monsters, is answered in Van Helsing. More an enthusiastic pile-on of creatures and effects than a developing narrative, Sommers’ follow-up to the Mummys is large, loud, and longer than it needs to be.
It’s also full of monsters — monster lore, monster jokes, and monster trivia, beginning with the first sequence. Shot in allusive, plainly deferential black and white, it opens on a throng of villagers, circa 1887, en route to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, torches aloft and rabble roused. Inside the laboratory, as thunder crashes, the ambitious doctor (Samuel West) thrills to his creation’s electric jumpstart: “It’s alive!!” While it can’t be easy to mimic Colin Clive’s most famous line, this Victor is aided by one Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), whose intervention here is effectively campy. When Victor asserts that he’ll kill himself before he allows his dastardly accomplice to “take control” of the invention, Dracula’s just fine with that idea: “Feel free,” he snarks. “I don’t actually need you anymore.”
With that, the villagers wreak the same destruction they did in James Whale’s 1931 film (the windmill goes up in flames, the monster and his “father” are apparently annihilated, a Maria Ouspenskya-type faints away), and the film jumps ahead one year, when it introduces infamous monster hunter Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), in mid-throwdown with an oversized-and-CGI-ed Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane). Though he’s unmistakably skilled, Van Helsing is less than thrilled with his vocation; its emotional cost is revealed when, upon vanquishing, the monster Hyde transforms back into the wan and vulnerable Dr. Jekyll (Stephen H. Fisher), collapsed on the cobblestone street.
When Van Helsing heads back to Rome to confess his sins, it becomes clear that he often undergoes this sort of emotional tailspin: he agonizes over his lot (“My life, my job, my curse is to vanquish evil”), but no one else is so gifted, so well trained or, frankly, so well equipped in taking out evil. It’s soon revealed that he works under the auspices of The Order, an ancient secret society associated with the Vatican and supported by a basement armory full of monks committed to research and gadget-making; his own Q-like offsider, Friar Carl (David Wenham) accompanies him to Transylvania for his next mission, namely, to exterminate pesky Dracula.
On his arrival in country, Van Helsing encounters the exceptionally spirited Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), last survivor of a family engaged in a centuries-long battle with the Count. She’s currently trying to save her brother Velkan (Will Kemp) from eternal wolfmanhood. Bitten while saving Anna from another werewolf’s attack (werewolves being under the ritual thrall of Dracula, they’re repeatedly sent to ravage Valerious family members), pretty Velkan returns during a full moon, whereupon he begins his “change” — in this version of the lore (as it is different in every film), he literally rips his human skin off to reveal his wolfish essence, all fierce and toothsome. As Anna watches this horrific transformation, she turns rather horror-movie-girly: mouth agape, eyes teary, ability to flee suddenly and utterly diminished.
Aside from this reaction to her brother’s awfulness, however, Anna is rarely incapacitated. She’s a monster fighter from the ground up, with many years of experience and little inclination to accept help from this interloper called Van Helsing. This despite the fact that her first onscreen clash with Dracula’s trio of bloodlusty Brides — Verona (Silvia Colloca), Marishka (Josie Maran), Aleera (Elena Anaya) — suggests that she’s in need of his help, or at least his gizmos. Bat-winged and ghastly pale, the Brides come swooping into Anna’s village, a mode of assault recalling the Wicked Witch’s “Surrender Dorothy” tactic in Oz (in fact, the batty little “progeny” produced by Dracula’s offscreen mating with the Brides resemble the Flying Monkeys, as they hordishly flit past windows and descend on hapless villagers.)
Van Helsing’s eyes light up when he first spots the Brides, as now he can try out his new weapon, an auto-arrow-shooter that dispenses silver shafts like bullets from a gatling gun. Screeching and cackling, he Brides offer a dramatic contrast with Anna, who stands tall as she screams to her people, “Get inside!” (unfortunately, at this point she sounds rather like Austin Powers‘ Frau Farbissina [“Send in the clones!”] as her Transylvanian accent slips into caricature). This few minutes’ worth of fighting the Brides produces enough wireworky adrenalin to initiate Van Helsing and Anna’s inevitable romance (testy, of course, and embellished by their exuberant hair, wildly tousled and gloriously photographed).
The film’s focus on destroying all monsters is intermittently complicated by Van Helsing and Anna’s reconsiderations of just who is monstrous, and who’s not. While she has an obvious investment in her brother’s definition, Van Helsing faces his own identity issues when, during one skirmish, Velkan bites him: not only does he have to find an antidote, but he also must face down his own dark past (like Wolverine, Van Helsing lacks memory of his own origin story, and yes, it involves a difficult familial lineage, because, well, don’t they all?).
The other wrench tossed into the monster definitions mix is Frankenstein, into whose hideout Van Helsing and Anna accidentally and literally tumble. Frightened by the attack, he fights back, and when Anna describes him as a monster, he shoots back: “Monster? Who is the monster here?” It’s a good question, pointing out the ways that perspectives can differ and, in some cases, limit empathy.
Given that both principal actors have recently made movies where their own apparently monstrous characters are endowed with human vulnerabilities and identity “issues” (Jackman as Wolverine and Beckinsale as Selene in Underworld), it also seems a question worth considering, even in a movie so focused on obliterating monsters, with as much spectacular CGI and stunts as possible (reportedly, the film includes some 500 digital effects shots). It’s precisely this excess of action that makes Van Helsing feel overwrought.