There comes a point in a director’s career, particularly when that director is both writer and director of his movie projects, when the blame for his failures must be levelled squarely in his direction. No letting him off the hook by placing the blame on studio meddling or unmeetable deadlines. The peculiar situation of Stephen Sommers is one in which, as his autonomy grew, so uncontrollable budgets usurped any aesthetic, stylistic or narrative coherence. And Van Helsing is the overblown disaster, all of his own doing it should be emphasised, that lay in wait as a natural result of this.
The warning signs were there well beforehand. Sommers had found success through adaptations of a couple of classics of children’s literature; The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book. They were reasonably popular, and the latter in particular was a money-earner for Disney. So, he went on to steer a film that remains the highlight of his career; monster movie with a capital “B”, Deep Rising. It’s a movie where he manages to judge the knowing tone just right, helped considerably by the unlikely return to leading man duties from Treat Williams. It should be noted that he wrote all of these, as he did the two Mummy outings that followed. It was these two films that gave him the clout to make anything he wanted with Universal.
The first Mummy is an agreeable-enough, sub-Indiana Jones popcorn flick, but with none of the love and care Spielberg brought to the daring archeologist (the first few adventures, at least). Rather, the story, tone and pace lurch with wild abandon from scene to scene. Sommers’ hyperactive approach has little time for character-building or plot nuance. In that sense, he is very much the churn’em out successor to the ‘30s serials that Spielberg and Lucas were bringing far more acumen to. The Mummy Returns, which came two years after the first installment, is an overblown, CGI-mess even by Sommers’ half-baked standards. The effects frequently looked half-finished and, worse, seem to have resisted all attempts by the plot to keep them under control. It was a big hit at the box office, of course, but Sommers seemed to be exactly the kind of high-energy, low-quality director that was gaining an unfortunate foothold at the beginning of the millennium (see also Brett Ratner).
And so, he was handed the keys to Universal’s kingdom. He had revitalised one of their monsters. Why not let him take on all of them? Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman… We should probably be grateful that the film was his undoing (he has had only one film released since). Van Helsing wasn’t an outright flop, but it was a production that had so much money thrown at it, it would have to have made double it’s gross worldwide to be considered a success (the budget was reported at $160m, the gross was $300m). The proposed sequel and planned spin-off TV series (Transylvania) both floundered and, over-night, Sommers was persona non grata (when many of us were just surprised it had taken studios so long to recognise the obvious).
And yet, it’s not like Sommers hadn’t seized upon a decent premise. Or even a strong choice of leading man (even if picking Hugh Jackman was based purely on post-Wolverine cachet). And it isn’t as if he has no idea of how to direct; it’s that his choices are so hyperbolic that they become anti-dramatic. As a writer, his work is rudimentary at best; perhaps he realises this deep down and consequently feels the need to douse his failings in that department under a bombardment of visual effects and semi-comprehensible action. His cinematographer, Allen Daviau, worked with Spielberg a number of times during the ‘80s, but Van Helsing’s uniform sheen of colour-corrected greens and blues is as uninviting as the cartoonish CGI that erupts from every frame.
For Sommers, only excess will suffice. And so, appropriately, the script reflects this attitude. Van Helsing isn’t just a vampire hunter, he’s a Vatican-sponsored monster masher who has been alive for centuries and suffers from convenient amnesia concerning his distant past (as crassly as one would expect, this isn’t Abraham, but younger brother Gabriel; purely for reasons of Sommers’ production company retaining the rights to the character… that no one is interested in exploring further). Because heroes these days need to have a mysterious past and superhuman qualities. And he is equipped with James Bond gadgetry and even a Q-figure to tell him what they do. So too, Dracula doesn’t just want to haunt Transylvania; he wants to take over the world with his progeny, given life through the experimentation of Baron Frankenstein. And, er, something to do with a pet werewolf.
You can see Sommers with all the Universal monsters to play with, trying to connect the dots between them in as extreme and ludicrous a fashion as possible. It’s just a shame there’s no sign of Gill Man (but we do see Mr Hyde, who was not one of Universal’s pantheon). Every element is introduced at the level of “shouting” and builds from there to a crescendo. It’s a wearying script, so one-note that the freneticism becomes banal.
This is, if possible, even more true of the camerawork and editing. Sommers’ CGI-enhanced visuals require a perpetually airborne camera, be it crashing towards grounded characters are following flying harpies. Or just trailing falling monsters as they show little regard for gravity, geography or physics. There’s no weight to the scenes, reflecting the absence of weight within the drama. After a while, it becomes quite confounding that the director seems so clueless about straightforward drama. Yet he also seems to have scant understanding of pacing, tension and simple dynamics between figures within the frame. I said that he appears to understand the basic requirements of direction, and he does, but his choices are willfully destructive to engaging an audience. He continually positions and moves the camera for maximum impact, but he is rarely serving the drama by doing so. And it is always used that way. The result is simultaneously both lifeless and frenziedly steroidal.
The design on the film is similarly slapdash, with anything half decent usually buried under a mess of lazily fake-looking CGI. The werewolf rips off his human skin to transform but there’s no impact; it’s just CGI gloss. The nude harpy/vampires of Dracula’s harem lack any hint of eroticism (even though the choice was clearly intended to be suggestive) because they are so CG-crappy. And the less said about Mr Hyde, the better. The connecting sections of the head of Frankenstein’s Monster are quite nifty, but the overall design is lacklustre. Igor looks like no one got beyond sticking a bit of putty on Kevin J O’Connor’s face. And the less said about the vampire spawn, the better. The costumes of Van Helsing and Anna are ridiculously sumptuous leather ensembles, over-designed costumes that only fit with the film because every aspect is so predictably attention-seeking in its artifice. The sets are likewise all about flashy grandiosity, invested with zero atmosphere.
Hugh Jackman is always dependable, but completely lost within this mess, particularly when saddled with a character this rudimentary. Kate Beckinsale is virtually indistinguishable from her role in Underworld. Richard Roxburgh delivers his usual scenery-chewing assault on dignity and good taste as Dracula, just as he did playing Moriarty in the previous years The League Extraordinary of Gentlemen. Only David Wenham’s comic relief friar escapes with any credibility, somehow able to inject a lightness of touch when the dialogue (uniformly awful) provides no such opportunity (it’s a consistent disappointment that a film so perpetually inane is also so bereft of an engaging sense of humour; Sommers attempts to write gags, but they are crashingly obvious and flounder as badly as every other aspect of the film). The relentless colloquialism of the dialogue becomes annoying very quickly.
Van Helsing is a relentlessly hyperactive, gaudy ADD monstrosity. Characters fly about the screen as dismissive of the laws of physics as Sommers’ script is of dramatic integrity. The tiresomely excessive result feels every one of its 131 minutes. Sommers returned with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in 2009, replete with the same kind of car-crash direction. The film was a big enough hit to ensure a sequel, so Sommers is now free to inflict continued retina damage upon audiences across the globe. The director returns this year with Dean R Koontz adaptation Odd Thomas. He’s also attached to a remake of When Worlds Collide. Just imagine the incomprehensible results that will yield.