In a lot of the old horror movies, the money-shot moment was the scene of transformation, when ordinary men would sprout hair and grow fangs, their faces taking on the cast of the devil within. But how much transformation is too much? Van Helsing, a $148 million pixel-overload monster mash written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who made ”The Mummy” and ”The Mummy Returns,” is a movie in which men stretch into saber-toothed werewolves, then claw off their own fur and even their skin, as if they couldn’t wait to mutate some more. A team of yowling, cadaverous winged furies morph into toned-midriff babes, only to turn back again, and their lover and master, Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who for some reason has been made to look like a world-weary version of Furio on ”The Sopranos” (so that’s where he went to escape Tony – Transylvania!), has got a castle full of egg pods just waiting to be hatched into baby gremlins. Even the hero, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a fearless demon slayer who sports what appears to be a failed 19th-century Eastern European prototype for Indiana Jones’ fedora, may not be quite what he seems. The key figures in ”Van Helsing” are all living on the verge of an altered state. Who are they? They’re the new digital-age hollow men. They’re everything and nothing at once.
”Van Helsing,” a fusion of eye candy and brain sputter, is a long, kinetic, yet dreary mess. It’s a movie in which people speak not in plain sentences but in grand and sinister pronouncements of such arbitrariness that they have absolutely no consequence, and so you end up giggling at the tin-pot pomposity of it all. As Anna Valerious, a descendant of a haunted aristocratic family who teams up with Van Helsing to defeat Dracula, the normally sexy Kate Beckinsale, in a corset and incongruous buckle-down go-go boots, could be Catherine Zeta-Jones in bad ’60s makeup, and her performance has a low-camp ’60s tinge as well. In a movie full of atrocious accents, she wins the prize for the most lugubrious Carpathian monotone as she turns a romantic eye toward Van Helsing and delivers clunkers like ”Nothing is faster than Transylvania horses! Not even VEREwolves!” Jackman, with flowing hair and a gleam of ice, cuts a glamorous figure, but Van Helsing, as written, has more weapons than he does dimensions. You can see Jackman straining to hold back any hint of his Aussie ebullience. He’s like a dashing surrogate videogame shooter, firing a fancy crossbow into undead harpies who come bouncing back to attack him anyway.
In addition to Dracula and assorted werewolves, ”Van Helsing” features Frankenstein’s Monster, a flap-skinned hulk with residual jolts of electricity dancing around his partially exposed brain. He’s played, with the charming civility of a grouch who’s got a good excuse for it, by the acclaimed stage actor Shuler Hensley, whose performance is the only one in the film with a glimmer of resonance. ”Van Helsing” is a chockful-of-ghouls horror movie that treats the great old monsters not as imaginative creations but as brands. The movie, with its special effects framed by awkward chunks of exposition, has exactly two modes: frenzied and static. At the climax of a particularly relentless sequence, Van Helsing kills one of the vampire brides with holy water, and as she crumples back into a human being and expires, he crosses himself – a gesture, in context, of ludicrous solemnity. Is he saying a prayer for the death of storytelling in blockbuster cinema? The castles and cobwebs, the silver bullets, the moon and fog, the meticulous set design that went into erecting Frankenstein’s laboratory so that it looks like it did in the old Universal days, if not the Mel Brooks days – all of this is gothic wallpaper meant to make two hours of flimflam look like a real movie.
You could say the same thing about Sommers’ ”Mummy” films, with their clattering scarabs and prancing hieroglyphic beasties, their mile-wide armies of darkness that presaged some of the more spectacular war imagery in ”The Lord of the Rings.” Except that those gonzo Egyptian thrillers benefited from being so over-the-top: They were airy fun, with no pretense of anything beyond the mass-market psychedelia of demons and movement. ”Van Helsing,” with its old-world ponderousness, is a roller coaster that lurches and creaks; it made me long for Brendan Fraser to show up and confront Dracula with one of his gee-whiz grins. If he had, the movie might truly have gotten the old vamp to rise from the grave, instead of just leaving him spinning in it.