Hundreds of years ago, a Transylvanian nobleman swore an oath that he and his descendants would not rest until they had killed Dracula. Unfortunately, that oath also means that no member of his family can enter Heaven until the promise has been fulfilled. Generation after generation got themselves killed in trying to rid the world of Dracula, presumably all sitting in purgatory as a result. And now, this dynasty is running out of members. Since the Vatican feels that it would be rather unfair if all those martyrs should forever remain in purgatory, its secret demon-battling branch decides to send their best man, Van Helsing, to Transylvania. He is to assist the last two descendants of the dynasty – Anna Valerious and her brother Velkan – in their quest to kill Dracula, thus ensuring their place in Heaven and at the same time releasing all their ancestors from purgatory as well.
In trying to create an updated adaptation of the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing, this film shows a number of modern influences. It is a steampunk film, full of gadgets; and in the relationship between the demon hunter and the man who supplies him with these gadgets, you can easily see the influence of both the Blade franchise as well as James Bond. The secret organisation Van Helsing works for could also be seen as an homage to Bond – or to Buffy, if you like. There also seem to be some distant echoes of the Buffy TV show in the way the characters interact with each other, and in certain attempts at humour in the dialogue. However, the dialogue in this film is not nearly as clever as writer/director Stephen Sommers (1999’s The Mummy) seems to have aimed for. And considering that Buffy was a 1990s TV show, it is a bit of a sad indictment that this film’s subpar CG-work turns out to be a much closer connection to Buffy than the humour or the writing.
The film’s pacing is off in general; and it takes a long time to get into gear. It opens with an introductory scene set one year before the film’s plot – a scene that might have been better introduced as a flashback later on, or even reduced to a few lines of dialogue in the second act. This scene is followed by a second cold open, in which we see Van Helsing (in true Bond style) engaged in another case entirely unconnected to the plot of the film. After this, we see Van Helsing talk to his bosses in a scene which contains a lot of exposition that is handled in a way that one might politely describe as “less than elegant”. The film then jumps to Transylvania where we are treated to another scene which chiefly serves as an introduction – this time for the Transylvanian characters. It is a full 23 minutes before the film’s actual plot finally begins – 23 minutes that feel much longer. The filmmakers may have been aware of this – maybe this is why this film has no opening credits at all. Every bit of information, including the title card with the name of the film, is crammed into the 9-minute-long (and rather well-made) end credits.
After this 23-minute mark, the action comes fast and hard, in what you might call a late and short first act. However, the attempt to give the relationship between Van Helsing and Anna an arc fails at this stage of the film.
It seems to me that the second half of the film is better than the first half. All the introduction and most of the exposition is out of the way by now. And we know enough about the characters by now in order to care for them and their relationship. Even the relationship between Van Helsing and Anna feels more organic and convincing in the film’s second half.
It is also to the film’s benefit that it has a good core cast in Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing), Kate Beckinsale (Anna), and David Wenham as Van Helsing’s assistant Frank.
The film’s plot works, in my opinion, but certain elements of it are far too convoluted. There are a number of minor weak spots in the writing, such as characters not passing on information quickly enough, or the simple fact that Van Helsing seems too unfamiliar with that wretched new electricity fad to know how and when to cut or unplug a cord.
The film suffers from a somewhat weak villain, mostly because Richard Roxburgh (as Dracula) is guilty of severe overacting in many scenes. He is outdone in this by his “brides”, played by Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, and Josie Maran, who give hammy performances topped off by silly accents. Four actors overacting is not bad luck, but clearly a director’s choice – and in my opinion, Sommers clearly made the wrong call here.
The film’s many action scenes are rather enjoyable, even if most of them are nothing new. The CG-work that went into creating the vampires was okayish, but many of the other effects employed, including the dusting of vampires, was really awful.
The partially convoluted plot contributes to a bloating of the film, as does Sommers’s decision to throw in as many classic creatures as possible – vampires, werewolves, Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, and in addition to that an Igor-character, Van Helsing, as well as Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. According to some rumours, there were even initial plans to also include a Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon type of character.
Stuffed full with all these elements, Van Helsing ended up being rather long. Even if you don’t count the end-credits, this is still a 2-hour film. I would say the film is too long for its own good; but since the second half of the film is more entertaining than the first half it does not drag on too badly.
I would rate this film roughly at 6 out of 10. There are undoubtedly better films than this one, but if you enjoy steampunk and/or Hugh Jackman, there is no reason why you shouldn’t watch Van Helsing.