You don’t have to adore traditional horror movies—both the American classics and the colorful British remakes—to loathe every second of Stephen Sommers’Van Helsing (Universal). But it helps. It helps to know the movies that this giftless writer-director is ripping off to appreciate how little he brings to the party. We live in an era rich in genre pastiches, but filmmakers like Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow), Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill), and Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) manage both to sample from their inspirations and soulfully transform them. Sommers, whose previous efforts were The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001), is a dim bulb powered by a giant studio trust fund. He makes empty but vulgarly extravagant special-effects fests: Donald Trump horror movies.
The vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is a little old Dutchman—which is more or less how he was played (by Edward Van Sloan) until Peter Cushing reinvented him as a crisp, no-nonsense English academic given to desperate feats of swashbuckling in the marvelous climaxes of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958) and Brides of Dracula (1960). Sommers steals from those movies, along with Hammer’s later CaptainKronos, Vampire Hunter (1973)—a precursor of Buffy and Blade (1998). But he can’t be bothered to give his protagonist any character tics, so the splendid Hugh Jackman—who has a brooding magnetism in roles as various as the Wolverine in X-Men (2000) and Curly in Oklahoma! (1999)—is just a mannequin, acting with his costume.
This Van Helsing, name of Gabriel, is supposed to be some kind of immortal, but he has amnesia (I think), so it’s never too clear where he came from or why the movie’s dullard Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) seems drawn to him. For all we know, he’s the Wolverine. Dracula covets the Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley), who carries some sort of life force that can power scores of little vampirish thingies he has hanging from the ceiling in slimy cocoons … I think they’re like his test-tube babies (with his vampire brides), but the details are murky. He seems to want to rule the world, like a James Bond villain. Dracula also covets werewolf slaves—except that werewolves are the only things that can kill him, which means he either has a death wish or Sommers just ran out of monsters.
Van Helsing is the old Universal House of Frankenstein (1944) plus Horror of Dracula (1958) and Kronos whirled together and supersized. It’s empty calories: There isn’t a single nourishing, non-synthetic sequence in the entire movie. Not a scene. Not a line. Not a look. There are special-effects miracles—swirling female wraiths that whoosh through castle windows and plunge into deep gorges, a sad Frankenstein’s monster who’s a short-circuiting wreck of electrified body parts, a reluctant werewolf who literally shreds his own skin—but nothing leads up to them, and they fade from memory as fast as the next special effect comes at you.
Kate Beckinsale managed to be scrumptious even in the blue-drenched and discordant Underworld (2003), but here she’s saddled with a bum Transylvanian accent and a part that consists largely of fighting off wraithlike Vampiras who hiss things through their elongated fangs like, “You can’t go until I say you can go, and I say you can go when you’re dead!” It’s not even smart enough to be camp; it’s like a 12-year-old’s idea of sophisticated banter. You have to feel for the army of talented FX people who must have spent months on scenes like that—trying to compensate, with their artistry, for the lack of dramatic logic—and having to listen to those lines over and over. By the time they could go, they must have been dead.