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So a funny thing happened when I selected Van Helsing to be this year’s hastily thrown together Halloween offering. I watched it for the first time and it was so utterly awful that I realised I could not watch it again for the review. I am dead serious. Faced with sitting through all two hours and twenty five minutes of that monstrosity my brain temporarily paralysed me in my chair and said to me: “You watch that thing again, I am growing a tumour. Don’t try me, fool.”
And I did not go into this expecting to hate it. I was expecting trash. Fun trash. But this movie isn’t trash, it’s sewage. It’s just…God, I hate it. And this got me thinking, why is this movie so bad when it’s got so much in common with another film that I genuinely, unironically love:
Seriously, this flick’s my jam. Maybe not a top twenty film, but it’s a trusty old friend that I’m always happy to see. Now consider this:
Both these films are written by Stephen Sommers
Both these films were directed by Stephen Sommers.
Both these films are edited by Bob Ducsay.
Both are (at least nominally) action-horror-comedy remakes of Golden Age Universal horror flicks.
I guess my question is; what the fuck happened? Why are these two films, which are so similar on paper, on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of enjoyability? So, because I don’t really fancy getting a tumour, instead of doing the standard beat for beat review of Van Helsing, I thought it might be more interesting to compare these two movies in a Bats Versus Bolts style face off. With the understanding that this is less “Which movie is better?” and more “Why is the terrible one so terrible?”
In The Mummy, prim and proper librarian Evie (Rachel Weisz) and her wastrel brother Jonathan (John Hannah) team up with roguish ex-Foreign Legionnaire Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) to uncover a long-hidden Egyptian temple. There, they unwittingly awaken Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), an undead priest cursed and sentenced to an agonising death for schtupping the Pharoah’s best gal. Now awakened, Imphotep becomes obsessed with Evie, who he believes to be his reincarnated love, and our heroes must battle him lest his evil overwhelm the entire Earth.
In Van Helsing, the Vatican’s top monster hunter, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) has to stop Dracula’s plan to overrun the world with his children, who are little green gargoyles that look like happy meal toys. He needs Frankenstein’s monster to do this for some reason. Also. There are werewolves. And Mr Hyde. Why not? I am not kidding about the gargoyles. And it’s all so bad you will long for death.
So let’s compare how these movies set out their respective stalls. The Mummy opens with a flashback to ancient Egypt showing how Imohtehp was captured, has his eyes and tongue torn out and was then buried alive in a coffin with a load of flesh-eating scarabs. It’s creepy and metal as fuck but it’s also something that we haven’t seen in any version of this story before. Contrast this with Van Helsing’s first scene: Shot in black white, the first scene shows a castle on a stormy night where a mob of torch bearing villagers are attacking. Lightning strikes the castle, a hunchback named Igor throws a switch and a mad scientist screams “IT’S ALIVE!”
So first of all, movie?
Secondly, this movie is to horror what Meet the Spartans is to comedy. The movie is saying HERE IS FAMILIAR THING. YOU LIKE FAMILIAR THING. YOU LIKE ME. MOVIE IS FRIEND.
It’s not using old tropes to comment on them, it’s not doing new and interesting things with them. It’s just taking the most clichéd things people remember from the original Frankenstein (or think they remember, Igor was never in Whale’s version) and slapping them down in front of you. And here’s the real tragedy: this utterly uninspired, totally derivative scene is by far the best one in the whole film. So, when I looked up the run-time for The Mummy I almost did a spit take because it’s two hours and 5 minutes, only twenty minutes shorter than Van Helsing. But it feels days shorter. The Mummy feels brisk and light on its feet. It’s always moving forward and it always knows where it’s going. Van Helsing is like a journey in a nightmare. It’s already awful, it lasts forever and wherever it finally arrives is going to be even worse.
IMDB lists almost ninety actors (and actresses) who have played Count Dracula and I can only claim to have seen a fraction of those. So it’d be a pretty reckless claim for me to say that Richard Roxburgh is the worst screen Dracula of all time.
This is a mind-bogglingly bad Dracula. Nothing about this works. Nothing. Let’s start with the obvious.
A pony tail. A pony tail on Dracula. Why not smash a stain glass window? Why not spit on the Pieta? Why not burn a Picasso? Why not any number of artistic desecrations less egregious than putting a damned pony tale on the King of Vampires?
Roxburgh plays Dracula like the Eurotrash villain of a mediocre early 2000s Adam Sandler comedy. And every single acting choice he makes is terrible. He’s not scary. He’s not sexy. He’s not cool. Leslie Nielsen (who I remind you, played the character in a spoof) invested the part with more genuine gravitas and presence. There’s a scene where Dracula’s fighting Van Helsing (who by this point has become a massive shitty CGI werewolf spoilers) and he actually squeals “We could be friends!”.
Not “join me and we shall rule the world of mortal men and feast upon their blood as kings in darkness”.
“We could be friends!”
I…I don’t really know what to add to that.
The movie’s additions to vampire lore are just god-awful too. See, Dracula and his three brides (later two, one of them is put out of her misery and ours early on) reproduce by laying eggs in giant ballsacks that hang from the ceiling. I’m against vampires being fertile as a rule, the ability to create new life should be one of the things that have to be sacrificed to become an undead immortal. Plus, why would any species waste time raising helpless children when they can produce new fully grown adults at will by blood transmission? But it gets even worse. These are Dracula’s children.
I…what did Stoker do to you Somers? What did he do!?
If there is a brief glimmer in the darkness that is Van Helsing‘s take on the Universal monsters it’s Schuler Hensley’s turn as the Monster, a performance that is not merely good by comparison but genuinely strong on its own merits. Hensley plays the monster as an erudite, moral creature and he’s good enough to almost make me forgive the butt-ugly design of the Monster.
Interestingly, Hensley’s made something of a career out of playing the Monster, having appeared as the character in two separate stage versions as well as this film.
There are also werewolves but fuck the werewolves. They’re done in terrible CGI and they all look like they go to the gym.
By contrast, The Mummy only has one monster, The Creature of the Black Lagoon.
So the movie follows the very rough outline of the original 1932 film with an undead Egyptian priest trying to seduce the heroine who he believes is his reincarnated lady love. The 1994 film ups the stakes, however, by making the Mummy a force of evil that could literally end the world. Imhotep doesn’t just shamble around stealing organs, he brings the ten plagues of Egypt with him. Which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense as to how the product of Egyptian magic can wield the punishment of Yahweh but it does make for a terrifyingly powerful villain. However, the movie’s conception of the Mummy does have a weak point in that the monster has to become steadily less frightening as the movie progresses. Imhotep devours organs to return to his human form, meaning that he starts out as the absolutely pant-wettingly terrifying eyeless corpse above, but gets less monstrous the more organs he devours. Fortunately, the movie has an ace up its sleeve.
Having Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep means that even as the movie loses a terrifying monster, it gains a charismatic and compelling villain. And of course, the dude is absolutely gorgeous. That’s a must for this kind of story. There’s no point having a “the monster is after my girlfriend” story if there isn’t at least a chance that…y’know…she might be into it. It’s actually interesting how this movie and Van Helsing parallel the original Universal Dracula and Mummy. The Mummy movie was vastly superior in both eras, and the actor playing the Mummy (Boris Karloff in the thirties, Vosloo here) was actually doing a far better version of what Dracula should be than the actor playing Dracula.
Vampires are supposed to be sexy. Mummies aren’t. And yet, here we are.
The Dashing Young Men
As Van Helsing is an adaptation of Dracula only in the same way that a turd is an adaptation of my breakfast, the movie sidesteps the Too Many Dudes problem in that it only has one dude. But, it’s still one dude too many.
Gabriel (sigh) Van Helsing is the amnesiac badass with the hair-trigger temper played by Hugh Jackman who’s not Wolverine or indeed anything at all remotely worthwhile.
Look, Jackman’s a fantastic actor but my God is he checked out here. I don’t blame him…well, okay I kinda blame him. He could at least have tried to have a little fun here but he seems to actively resent this part and is committed to doing the absolute bare minimum. His Van Helsing has all the character of a player avatar, being pushed through a series of bland, ugly levels to find new things to shoot at. Sommers uses amnesia, the hack’s best friend, to try and give his character some mystery but instead we just get an empty vessel, the most rote kind of action hero slab.
By contrast, in The Mummy we get Rick O’Connell (praise be his name).
Brendan “The Man Who Deserved Better” Fraser should have been one of the greats and the whole awful business of how his career went makes me angry enough to punch a wall. If you don’t know, after a movie career that was steadily building steam, he was sexually assaulted by a producer, spoke out about it and got blacklisted which led to depression, divorce and the collapse of his movie career. He’s bounced back somewhat with TV roles in recent years but I honestly believe this guy should have been A-List. Looks, drama, comedy. Dude was the full package. In this movie he plays the classic Harrison Ford role with more charm and lightness than Ford ever managed. At various points he’s noble, sleazy, badass, goofy and heroic and he manages to make it all true to the character. And while he’s definitely working with a stronger script than Jackman (seriously, the biggest mystery in all this is what happened to Sommers as a writer) he gets some real clunkers and he manages to make them work. There’s one scene where he’s about to lead his party back into Hamunaptra, where his entire company was massacred previously. The script gifts him the hackiest of all hack lines: “Here we go again.”
But Fraser actually manages to invest the line with a real weary dread, the sense of a man whose seen some shit and fully expects to see some more.
Oh, sidenote, Brendan Fraser is a member of FilmAid International, a charity that travels the globe bringing films and music to disadvantaged children all over the world.
Hollywood did not deserve this man.
The Perpetually Imperilled Ladies
Alright, so this one isn’t even a little bit fair. I mean, Brendan Fraser versus Hugh Jackman is at least a fair fight on paper. But whereas The Mummy has two-time Academy Award nominee and one-time winner Rachel Weisz as its leading lady, Van Helsing has Kate Beckinsale doing to a Romanian accent what Ceaușescu did to Romania.
She plays Anna Valerious, a gypsy princess who has to kill Dracula or else all her family will be damned for all eternity. She’s a tough, no-nonsense vampire slayer who fights vampires in high heels and a corset. Sorry, that’s not no-nonsense. That’s all-nonsense. She’s a tough all-nonsense vampire slayer. Also, her brother’s a werewolf but we’re not getting into that because fuck the werewolves. Fuck ’em.
And, in theory, she is our love interest.
I say “in theory” because Valerious and Van Helsing have all the white-hot sexual chemistry of a GI Joe and a Barbie being smushed together in a trash compactor.
Contrast that with Weisz and Fraser who are pulling out some legit, Grant-and-Hepburn level comedic and romantic chemistry. You know how in these movies you sometimes think the girl would be better off with the monster than the bland human lead? Nah son, Vosloo is great and all but there is never any doubt that Evie and Rick belong together. You might argue that Evie is a less progressive character than Anna. She’s not a capable combatant. She frequently has to be rescued. But she’s also brilliant and witty and actually feels like a real human being with goals and aspirations. Plus, she’s got the greatest eye-brows ever committed to film.
The only other female character of note in the Mummy is Anck-su-namun (Patrica Velasquez), the Egyptian princess who appears in the opening flashback and spends her time walking around dressed only in bodypaint and her own hair which is entirely justified artistically.
As for Van Helsing, it has one point in its favour in that it actually gives Dracula’s brides more to do than any other Dracula story I can remember seeing. Honestly, I think they get more screentime than Dracula himself. Unfortunately, what the movie decides to do with these fascinating and often under-explored characters is to have them flapping around as really bad CGI flying Marilyn Mansons.
Do ladies still love playing vampires? Meh. Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca and Josie Moran definitely seem to be having more fun than pretty much anyone else in this. But once you’ve said that, you’ve said everything.
The Mummy brings a deep bench of fun supporting characters played by game character actors. Are they rich, deep and nuanced portrayals? Fuck no. Archetypes all, but played by actors who understand what makes archetypes fun. Kevin J. O’Connor plays Beni, O’Connell’s cowardly and reflexively treacherous fellow Legionary who ends up being the Mummy’s Renfield. Bernard Fox plays Winston, a WW1 RAF Veteran pining for his glory days. And, while the movie definitely belongs in the genre of “Whitey Goes to Johnny Foreigner Land and gives the local Hoodoo a good seeing to”, to the movie’s credit it does have several Middle Eastern actors in prominent roles. Omid Djalili is an absolute hoot as the Cairo jailer running the prison O’Connell ends up in and as for Oded Fehr as Ardeth Bey…
Sorry. Lost my train of thought there. More like Ardeth BAE, amirite?
As for Van Helsing, this is actually one area where it’s better than The Mummy I am of course joking. Kevin J. O’Connor appears again as Igor, encased in so much makeup you’d think he was playing a different kind of monster instead of just a dude with bad posture. Maybe he is. Maybe this is like in Discworld’s Ubervald where the Igors are a seperate race of supernatural creatures. That actually makes a lot of sense. Van Helsing is like a movie set in Ubervald where the creators don’t know it’s supposed to be a joke. And David Wenham shows up as Van Helsing’s idiot sidekick Carl to piss away all the good will he had with me from the Lord of the Rings movies. There’s a scene where he rescues a peasant girl from Dracula’s hideous goblin spawn and then asks her for sex as a reward and it’s portrayed as cute and romantic. Also, when she brings up the fact that he’s a monk and therefore has taken a vow of chastity, he responds that he’s “only a friar”.
Yeah, so, in case you were wondering, friars aren’t monks that are allowed to fuck. The only clerics that are allowed to fuck are deacons and the various orders of sexy nuns.
Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?
Van Helsing is absolutely terrifying because it opened at Number 1 and grossed over $300 million dollars and that should make us all fear for humanity.
But the weird thing is, despite being far lighter and more comedic in tone, The Mummy also works so much better as horror. There are moments here that I find genuinely unsettling, like the scene where a blinded Bernard Burns (Tuc Watkins) realises that the man whose paid him a visit is the same creature who took his eyes and is now coming for the rest of him. Or Beni’s last moments trapped in the tomb with his torch sputtering and the swarm of scarabs closing in…
So what happened? Well, the first thing that jumps out at me is the quality of the respective scripts. There’s only a six year gap between Mummy and Van Helsing but something happened to Sommers as a writer. Personal stuff maybe, or he just got lazy, or The Mummy had an uncredited re-write or maybe a producer was giving bad notes on Van Helsing. Don’t know, but there is a serious quality dip. And look, I’m not claiming the script for The Mummy is Citizen Kane or anything. But I don’t always want to watch Citizen Kane, sometimes I just want to watch a fun B movie and as a fun B movie The Mummy is damn near close to perfect. Van Helsing almost seems like it thinks it’s too cool to be fun. While Rick O’Connell makes quips and jokes that manage to make him look both goofy and badass, Van Helsing grunts macho one-liners that make him look like a tool. If Rick O’Connell is John McClane in Die Hard, the loveable world-weary everyman, then Van Helsing is John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard, the utterly boring, indestructible cypher.
But I think another problem may have been the eras in which both movies were made. I realise that’s weird when you consider that, again, there was only a six year gap. But movie-making in 2004 was very different from movie-making in 1999. I think Stephen Sommers, like any director, has strengths and weaknesses but that in the years after 1999 the process changed in a way that exacerbated his worst instincts, namely a weakness for staging big, visual set-pieces regardless of whether the special effects were there to actually make it look good. When you look at The Mummy’s sequels you see a lot of the same problems as Van Helsing, especially an over-reliance on absolutely terrible CGI.
The reason why CGI from movies made in the nineties tends to look so much better than CGI from movies made in the early two-thousands is that for most of the former decade the technology was only available from a few top-tier effects houses, most notably Industrial Light and Magic, who did the effects work on the first Mummy . ILM understood the limitations of CGI and what it could and could not do and how to use it effectively. That first scene in Jurassic Park where they see the brachiosaurs? They look so convincing because they’re far off in the distance, to give a sense of scale sure, but also so you can’t see that the textures of the CGI models. That scene with the T-Rex? At night, in pouring rain. And anything that involved the dinosaurs getting up close and personal with the human characters was done with animatronics. There are only four minutes of CGI in all of Jurassic Park because it was only used when it was deemed that it could be done effectively and convincingly. And, like The Mummy, Jurassic Park fills its moments when there isn’t CGI onscreen with practical effects or character moments that flesh out the protagonists. The limitations of the effects technology challenged the film-makers to make better, more human films. To give another example from Spielberg’s filmography, imagine if, when he’d been making Jaws in 1975, Spielberg had not had to rely on a single crappy shark robot, but had modern CGI technology at his disposal. Most likely we wouldn’t have got all those wonderfully tense scenes with nothing but the still water and John Williams iconic theme. We wouldn’t have gotten all those fantastic scenes between Quint, Brody and Hooper. We wouldn’t have gotten the Indianapolis monologue. Most likely, we would have gotten a load of scenes of a CGI shark eating people, because if you’re making a movie about a killer shark, and you can do that, why wouldn’t you?
And no, I’m not saying “CGI ruined movies”, obviously that’s ridiculous. I’m saying “Shitty CGI by bad effects companies ruined Stephen Sommers’ movies and enabled his worst impulses as both a writer and a director” which is less catchy, I’ll grant you.
Why bother developing a believable relationship between your male and female lead when you’re building up to a big climactic battle between a giant werewolf and a demonic vampire bat? Won’t that look so cool?
The effects in The Mummy don’t always hold up great but they hold up well enough. And because the script and the characters are solid it doesn’t really matter if the CGI looks fake here and there because you’re invested in the story. Van Helsing bets the farm on its big CGI setpieces and even if they were absolutely flawless that would be a risky bet. The fact that the CGI is so laughably bad is what pushes it from dumb and boring to truly, appallingly bad. And it’s a kind of awful that spread like a virus through the blockbusters of the first decade of the 21st century, when CGI became cheaper (in all senses of the word) and more ubiquitous.
Sommers made The Mummy in those last few years when CG special effects were still limited enough that he couldn’t indulge his worst impulses. Luck with a great cast and a rare bolt of inspiration with the script carried the day. The Mummy is a great film, but it’s more importantly a great nineties film. Van Helsing is shitty. But it’s a very, very specifically mid-aughties kind of shittiness.
If this movie was a smell, it’d be Axe body spray.
If it was a drink, it’d be X-Treme mountain dew.
If it was a musical genre, it would be Nu Metal.
If it was a political ideology, it’d be neo-conservatism.
If it was a series of Star Trek, it’d be Enterprise.
If it was a cancer, it’d be ball cancer.
And if it was a movie, it would SUCK.
NEXT UPDATE: 14 November 2019
NEXT TIME: It’s Tangled month on Unshaved Mouse where we…
They made a sequel series to Tangled?
Well OBVIOUSLY. The story had so many places to go!