First of the seasonal blockbusters, Van Helsing updates some of the more venerable Universal Studios horror franchises for the digital-effects age. As he did with The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, writer-director Stephen Sommers stays true to the B-movie spirit of the original films while discarding almost all of their plots. Tied into a revenue-generating machine that includes DVD reissues and theme-park rides, Van Helsing is almost guaranteed success even as it tests anyone's tolerance for computer-generated imagery.
With only a nodding acquaintance to Bram Stoker's novel, Van Helsing starts in Transylvania in 1887, as angry villagers storm the castle of Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West), whose experiments in bringing the dead to life are being funded by Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). The disastrous results draw the attention of Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a monster bounty hunter for the Roman Catholic Church. First seen dispatching Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane) in Paris, Van Helsing is ordered to Transylvania to prevent the death of Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), last of an aristocratic family and the only obstacle to Dracula's plan for world domination. Accompanying him is Carl (David Wenham), a friar and weapons expert.
Antagonists at first, Anna and Van Helsing bond when they realize the extent of Dracula's evil. Why the Count needs Anna's werewolf brother Velkan (Will Kemp) to hatch thousands of vampire eggs isn't quite as clear as the cleavage on the three Brides of Dracula, who pop up whenever the film threatens to flag. Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) also appears, apparently to offer encouragement, drop clues, and reassert Universal's copyright on neck bolts. The final battle challenges Van Helsing's allegiance to Anna, as well as his own shadowy connection to the Count.
In assembling Van Helsing, Sommers cheerfully ransacks everything from The Three Stooges to James Bond--not to mention his own work. His enthusiasm for the genre leads to clever touches, like an eight-minute black-and-white prologue that encapsulates the best elements of 1930s horror. The massive sets, cheap shocks and tongue-in-cheek dialogue are fun at first, but even the best ideas tend to be marred by tacky touches. And after a brisk opening hour, Van Helsing starts to repeat itself, a strategy that will work better in the computer game tie-ins than it does onscreen.
It may be easy to pick apart the screenplay, but it's harder to pinpoint exactly when the effects go from special to tedious. With matching curly coifs, Jackman and Beckinsale are dashing but never for a moment believable as action heroes, in part because they are so overshadowed by their computer-generated surroundings. Impressive in scope, Van Helsing lacks a human core that could give meaning to its set-pieces.