Directed by Stephen Sommers (The Mummy film series), featuring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in the X-Men film series), and Kate Beckinsale (Underworld film series), Van Helsing is actually quite good, but still not as great as other later superhero films.
According to The Guardian review:
With the coming of sound each of the major Hollywood studios sought to corner certain kinds of entertainment. MGM, for instance, became famous for musical and polished society dramas. Warner Brothers specialised in crime and social-conscience pictures. Paramount went in for comedy. Universal’s big thing was horror and in 1931 Bela Lugosi gave iconic form to Bram Stoker’s Transylvanian count in Tod Browning’s Dracula and Boris Karloff did the same for Mary Shelley’s monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein. To this pantheon of Gothic anti-heroes the studio added the Mummy and the Wolf Man.
In the 1940s RKO challenged Universal’s supremacy with Val Lewton’s series of subtle low-budget films of the supernatural, and in the 1950s Britain’s Hammer Films became the semi-official home of horror for a decade or more. But it was Universal that created the moulds, the templates, the archetypes and it is to these that Stephen Sommers has returned, first with The Mummy and The Mummy Returns a couple of years back, and now with Van Helsing he brings together Frankenstein, his Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man.
The movie begins excitingly and affectionately by turning the spinning globe of Universal’s logo into a blazing torch brandished by an angry peasant. He’s marching with a mob in a black-and-white recreation of the final sequence of Frankenstein where the overreaching scientist is about to die and his creature will be buried beneath a windmill. The difference, however, is that here Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) has taken over Frankenstein’s castle and seeks the power to create life for his own ends. The film then moves on a year to Paris in 1887. Against a cityscape dominated by a half-built Eiffel Tower, the vampire-slayer and scourge of evil Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is battling on the top of Notre Dame with Dr Jekyll in his Hyde mode. In a nice touch, Hyde smashes through the cathedral’s rose window. This man is not quite Bram Stoker’s middle-aged professor from Amsterdam whose notepaper is headed ‘Abraham Van Helsing, MD, DPh, DLitt, etc, etc.’ He’s Gabriel Van Helsing, a strapping young man dressed like Indiana Jones, who works for a secret Catholic organisation that conducts an eternal war from its HQ in the Vatican cellars against Satan in all his earthly forms.
All this is rather good. The movie begins to get a little shaky, however, when a pawkily humorous young monk is assigned to accompany Van Helsing on a vital vampire-destroying mission to Transylvania. In addition to being a pale version of Polanski’s role in The Fearless Vampire Killers, this chap is also a version of ‘Q’ from the Bond movies and he equips Van Helsing with a variety of state-of-the-art and stake-of-the-heart gear from his laboratory, including a semi-automatic crossbow.
From then on special effects take over as Van Helsing is joined in his fight against Dracula and his flying harpies by the aristocratic Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale). Her family has been challenging the count for four centuries and her brother has become a werewolf.
There are exciting moments – especially a carriage chase while Van Helsing and Anna are attempting to transport Frankenstein’s sweet-natured monster back to Rome for his safety. But the yawning gaps in the landscape down which characters plunge are accompanied by yawning gaps when the audience (though not the restless film) pauses in an attempt to make sense of what is going on. The movie has no soul, no magic, no feeling for character, nothing for us to care about. At the end, when the director makes a stab at elegiac pathos, we realise how far short of the often deeply moving 1930s Universal classics his film falls.