The year is 1887. In Transylvania, Dr Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) is making scientific history as he brings a collection of sewn together body parts to life through the use of lightning. However, outside his castle the local villagers are not happy, and storm the building, meaning to destroy the monster the doctor has created. And the doctor is not alone, as a figure steps out of the shadows: Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who means to put Frankenstein's new methods to his own nefarious use. And so it is that Frankenstein ends up dead, carried by his creation to an abandoned windmill as the villagers chase them, as Dracula escapes to draw his plans together. Only one man can stop him now, a certain Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman)...
Written by the director Stephen Sommers, this flashy, horror-themed adventure was his homage to the classic series of Universal chillers of the thirties and forties which featured Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolfman, among others. The Van Helsing here is not the Van Helsing of Bram Stoker's novel, he's more of a nineteenth century James Bond for the supernatural, a rugged man of action with an array of gadgets and a neat line in ingenuity, but without much in the way of womanising tendencies as he keeps his mind on his work for the most part. There are echoes of Sommers' Mummy movies too, with a male and female duo of monster beaters and a British sidekick providing comic relief, but the formula isn't quite as breezy this time around.
When we first see our hero it is one year after the events of the opening sequence (which was rather quaintly filmed in black and white), and he's in Paris, hunting down a villain. Some strange figure is glimpsed on the Notre Dame cathedral - could it be the hunchback? Nope, it's Mr Hyde of "Dr Jekyll and" fame (it's not explained what exactly he's doing there), and a battle to the death ensues with Van Helsing gaining the upper hand. After that confrontation, he makes his way to the Vatican, where his bosses are, to learn of his latest assignment, which is that he must travel to Transylvania and destroy Dracula before he wipes out a valuable gypsy bloodline. Pausing only to recruit friar Carl (David Wenham) as a right hand man, he is soon on his way.
Although supposedly respecting his sources, Sommers is not afraid to make up his own rules instead of relying on the traditional laws of the genre. So our introduction to the brides of Dracula is in broad daylight, with no explanation of why bright light kills a whole host of vampires later on when it does nothing to kill these deadly ladies, whose whole act consists of picking people up, flying off and dropping them from a great height - this happens about fifty times. Luckily, Van Helsing arrives to foil their scheme to carry off feisty gypsy leader Anna (Kate Beckinsale), and they forge a wary alliance as her brother has been bitten by a wolfman and is now being used by Dracula to animate his gargoyle-like offspring with Frankenstein's equipment. And that's not to mention a sympathetic Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who has emerged from the ruins of the windmill. Or Dracula's Oompa-Loompas.
In the best of the classic Universal horrors, the weight of tragedy was never far away, but in this incarnation any attempt at depth comes across as superficial, a means to get the plot from A to B as smoothly as possible. There are a few nice moments of humour, as when a wolfman falls from a great height, Wile E. Coyote-style, into a river, but usually it's the cheesiness that makes you chuckle indulgently. Dracula is rather camp, with a habit of walking up walls, and when it is revealed that the only way to kill him isn't with a stake but with a werewolf, you can't help but groan. Everything in Van Helsing is driven by the special effects artists, whose plentiful supply of computer animation makes the thing resemble a frenetic arcade game. Fair enough, Sommers wanted to make a rollercoaster ride of an event movie, but on this evidence he lacks the imagination to spruce up these venerable characters. What this film really needs is personality, and you can't design that on a computer. Music by Alan Silvestri.