Hey, remember that time Dracula hired Doctor Frankenstein to build a monster, one that could be used to bring Dracula’s army of stillborn bat children to life? It was up to Van Helsing to stop him, but Van Helsing totally turned into a werewolf and had to team up with the Frankenstein monster to destroy Dracula, Dracula’s Brides, Igor and also a race of creatures not unlike the Mole People (for some reason). And also Mr. Hyde was there, but he was impersonating Quasimodo because that was his thing, apparently?
Sure it sounds dumb, but that’s a real premise from a real movie: VAN HELSING, an impossibly expensive, wackadoodle monster mash-up that plays a lot like ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET THE WOLF MAN, but without Abbot and Costello, and with tons of steampunk. And I love every dumb minute of it. Or rather, a part of me does. The part of me that’s always ten years old.
Don’t remember VAN HELSING? It came out in 2004 and was expected to be the movie that jumpstarted a new, shared universe of Universal Horror monsters. The studio hired THE MUMMY filmmaker Stephen Sommers and blockbuster stars Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale in order to bring this epic piece of fan fiction to life. It was a plan that failed. Really, really badly.
VAN HELSING wasn’t a total box office bomb. It grossed $300 million off of a $160 million budget, and that’s a lot more than the studio’s second aborted attempt to reboot the Universal Monsters, DRACULA UNTOLD, made ten years later. But just like DRACULA UNTOLD, critics weren’t very kind to VAN HELSING, and even today the typical audience consensus seems to be that this brash, immature, Saturday morning cartoon of a movie is worthy of scorn… mostly because it is brash, immature, and a lot like a Saturday morning cartoon.
But sometimes we criticize movies for the wrong reasons, and I put it to you that the very things some people hate about VAN HELSING are the film’s biggest selling points. It’s a film for little kids, told with a weird and obsessive fascination for all things monster. It doesn’t just shove monsters together and make them fight, it imagines that they are inherently intertwined. It’s a film that doesn’t just imagine that Dracula should fight the Wolf Man but that they were destined to fight one another. What if the only thing that could kill Dracula was a werewolf? I mean, dude… what if?
Okay, let’s put the cards on the table. VAN HELSING is not a smart movie. Obviously. But it captures a “gee-whiz” rollicking adventure sensibility, the sort of tone that Sommers had previously captured so well with his first MUMMY movie (and not so well with his second). It’s got an impossibly sexy pair of lead actors, a supporting cast of broad caricatures, a lavishly production designed aesthetic and a plot that races from one fan service action extravaganza to another. It’s got just about every monster imaginable, shoved together with the sort of conspiracy theory logic that makes perfect sense to a ten-year-old. And my inner ten-year-old loves it.
Because here’s the thing about your inner child: if all you feed it is nostalgia, it will never grow. We tend to gorge our inner ten-year-olds on the things we liked when we were ten. We keep shoveling TRANSFORMERS and STAR WARS down their throats, only accepting older varieties of child-oriented entertainment because they’re familiar. For instance, it’s considered reasonably socially acceptable to like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE because we were kids when we watched it. Because it is nostalgic, it gets a free pass, even though it’s just as dumb as VAN HELSING, if not dumber.
Why do we reject new, good-natured, energetically silly contemporary films like VAN HELSING? I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have standards for our fiction – my job as a film critic frankly depends on it – but we should at least open minds to allow for brand new nostalgia.
Look at a television series like STRANGER THINGS, which was a brand new intellectual property but one that evoked what we loved about genre fiction from the 1980s. Everyone loved STRANGER THINGS because it evoked something we loved many years ago, and aped the original sensibility with gusto. Through that very sort of lens can we not also appreciate a film like VAN HELSING, which plays like it was based on a beloved, kinda silly cartoon series or action figure toy line? It, too, captures a familiar sense of childlike wonder even though it’s something new, something we didn’t have when we were kids.
The reason nostalgia works at all is because we never quite forget what it’s like to be a younger version of ourselves. And when we were young we didn’t just watch the same things over and over again. We voraciously consumed new stories, eager to find new ideas that excited us. Again, that doesn’t mean we have to ignore bad filmmaking but VAN HELSING isn’t so much “bad” as it is “cheesy,” and there’s an audience for sincerely cheesy movies. When they’re made with imagination and personality, they sometimes earn themselves a cult audience as the years go by.
VAN HELSING deserves a better reputation. Not a great reputation – I haven’t gone completely insane – but at the very least, with the latest Universal Monsters reboot coming out later this summer, I think we should all take a second look at this good-natured but failed attempt at a monster mash. It was a film that introduced us to the flesh-rippingest werewolf transformations in history, a film with the coolest FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS homage to date, and a film that made you honestly wonder whether Dracula laid eggs or if his vampire brides simply gave birth to giant bulbous green sacs of baby monster goo. Either way, VAN HELSING is bizarre and surprisingly Cronenbergian, and I love it for that.
Or at least, my inner child does. And his opinion matters too.