When Universal ran out of horror franchises in the 1940s, the studio started combining its monsters, introducing the Wolfman to the Frankenstein monster, pairing up Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation in “House of Frankenstein,” then adding intentional comedy with “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing,” an overblown $138 million mishmash named after Dracula’s nemesis, the vampire hunter Van Helsing, continues this tradition, kicking things off in grand style by transforming the Universal globe into a flaming torch. It turns out to be held by the Frankenstein monster’s persecutors, who don’t realize that Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) has just dispatched Dr. Frankenstein (Sam West), who is being carried by his monster (Shuler Hensley) to the top of the tallest windmill in the world.
The tone of this black-and-white prologue is so uncertain that it suggests Mel Brooks’ parody, “Young Frankenstein”; when the good doctor’s obsequious servant, Igor, is introduced, you may find yourself waiting for a punchline. Alas, you keep waiting, as Sommers throws in a series of narrative non-sequiturs that eventually bring Van Helsing to Transylvania.
Also rather unsteady are an episode in late 19th century Paris, where the Eiffel Tower has been only partially built, and a scene in which Van Helsing is outfitted, James Bond style, with the latest gadgets and weapons. That’s not a bad idea, but Sommers just barely puts it across.
When Van Helsing, played with considerable dash and style by Hugh Jackman, turns up in Transylvania to rid the place of vampires, his reception appears to have been arranged by the cast of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” All that’s missing is Tim Curry’s sweet transvestite.
The country is quite aware of its perils, and its citizens have tried the usual vampire remedies, including holy water and stakes through the heart, all to no avail. It’s hard to say what Van Helsing can hope to bring to the battle, but when he joins forces with local vampire expert Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), at least there’s an opportunity for romance.
Sommers — whose dubious credentials include directing and writing “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns” and writing the script for Disney’s 1996 desecration of Mark Twain, “Tom and Huck” — operates as a kind of pop-culture trash compactor. He condenses classic material to such an extent that there’s little room for characters to breathe or grow or change.
“Van Helsing,” like everything else Sommers has directed, makes no space for reflective moments or visual poetry or genuine surprises. It often seems to be just one special-effects-driven battle scene after another, and because so many of the characters are dead (or undead) already and presumably can’t be killed, it’s a bit of a bore. He doesn’t know the meaning of overkill. This thing runs for an appalling 123 minutes.
Still, “Van Helsing” is probably Sommers’ best picture to date. The prologue and the James Bond parody are clever, even if they haven’t been completely worked out, and there’s a snappy chemistry between Jackman and Beckinsale. If he weren’t quite so in love with mayhem, Sommers might have had something here.