If you don't think mythology should evolve; if you think CGI should never have replaced stop-motion animation; and if you prefer exposition over action in your horror films… then Van Helsing may not be for you.
Rated PG-13 in part for "nonstop creature action violence", they aren't kidding: The battles are indeed nonstop and fairly violent, but there's enough explanation between the action to sustain it. There isn't quite enough reason to sustain the film for two hours and twenty five minutes, but with so many monsters demanding their due it must have been hard to decide where to cut. Even though the running time is a bit excessive, there's never a dull moment.
Set in the late 19th century, monster hunter Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is sent to Transylvania by a secret sect of monks to annihilate evil forces... evil forces with names like Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), the Wolf Man (Will Kemp), and Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley). Gabriel soon meets the corseted and gutsy Anna (Kate Beckinsale), who is the heir of a family committed for centuries to overcome Dracula's reign of terror.
Two early reviews have compared Van Helsing to such critical and commercial disasters as Howard the Duck and Battlefield Earth. All I can think is, these bitter critics must have some personal ax to grind with writer/director Stephen Sommers (who also helmed The Mummy, and The Mummy Returns – genre flicks panned by film snobs, but loved by paying audiences). Yes, Van Helsing plays fast and loose with "the rules" and some purists may pooh-pooh that, but as far as I'm concerned it's actually truer to the original Universal monster flicks than it's being given credit for. Yes, many of the scenes are acted overwrought; corn spews in the dialogue on occasion; and there is silly comic relief in between the intensity — but all these tactics were employed in movies such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941).
After the silvery and shadowy black-and-white homage prologue, the movie takes an 'Indiana Jones meets James Bond' turn, even introducing a very Q-like character, the gadget-doting Carl (David Wenham), a friend and friar who accompanies Gabriel to Transylvania. (In fact, Van Helsing could almost be an audition tape for Jackman to vie for either of those title action roles.) When the movie hits its stride, it's action and horror all the way.
As the Dr. Van Helsing we all know from Stoker's immortal novel, he is the character in name only. Much of the mythology has been mooked, but it serves the purpose of Sommers' plot and as such, Jackman is the best man in an already very well-cast film. He brings panache, intensity, and a sense of irony to the larger-than-life fighter for right, and if the movie does well Jackman could very well have another franchise (ala X-Men) with a fits-like-a-glove character to play in the years to come.
Another thing that fits like a glove is Becksale's costume, but she is more than just a leather-clad Eastern European Victorian babe — Anna has an agenda, and she is not afraid to run with the big dogs. The biggest dog of all is her brother Velkan who’s been transformed into the Wolf Man and is being manipulated by Dracula to do his evil bidding.
As Dracula, Roxburgh is workmanlike and certainly adequate, but from the POV of this female he does lack the smoldering sensuality of others who've embodied the role – Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and especially Gary Oldman – and that flattens the character a bit. On the other hand (or batwing as the case may be), Dracula's trio of brides are certainly among the best ever depicted on film. Marishka (model Josie Maran), Verona (Silvia Colloca, who really got into her role and is set to be Roxburgh's real-life bride), and Aleera (Spanish actress Elena Anaya), are beautiful, horrible, emotional, and cold all at once. They wear flowing chiffon in pastels reminiscent of the vampire vixens in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992); that is, when they're not buck-naked bats (with smooth, Barbie-like bodies… could the aggressive airbrush be due to the Janet Jackson "nipple effect"?) The luscious ladies fight for their undead man with ferocity, making Gabriel and Anna run for their lives more than once. The Brides are certainly one of the best things in the movie.
Another great addition is Frankenstein's Monster, not much changed from his original design but certainly updated with blazing electricity always running through his noggin. The Wolf Man makes abrupt transitions from Velkan to a CGI canine that reminded me very much of the classic illustrations and depictions of The Big Bad Wolf. The toothy monster is fierce and ferocious, but since he's mostly a digital creation he gives the actor very little to do when so briefly in his human guise. Kevin J. O'Connor (a Sommers fave) plays an overly made-up Igor and offers much of the comic relief with his usual ease. Finally, there are the diminutive henchman of The Count, known collectively as the Dwergie, who look like they belong in a movie that's a cross between Star Wars and Willow. But they're wisely used sparingly, therefore making them a fun and quirky supplement to the monster mash.
Despite a sappy ending that almost ruins the film (think: the cheesiest scene in The Perfect Storm… then take a Tums), Van Helsing actually exceeded my expectations and entertained me most of the time. It's an entertaining fiend-fest with excellent actors and some new twists on old stories and in my book, there's nothing wrong with that. Break out the popcorn and crucifixes and enjoy!
Review by Staci Layne Wilson for Horror.com