In 1928, Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle decided to make his son, Carl Jr., head of the company as a present for his 21st birthday. The company already had a notorious reputation for nepotism, major even in an industry practically built on it, and this hiring was met with mostly derision. Carl Jr. was keen to build up the company’s reputation through a combination of technological progress (he converted the studio to talkies), attempts at critical prestige, and horror movies. While his more noble efforts were mixed (he won a Best Picture Oscar for All Quiet on the Western Front), the real goldmine was his horror titles. Carl Sr. thought they were trash, but titles like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy were all major hits. Carl Jr. helped to redefine the company. The Laemmles lost control of Universal in the mid-30s but Universal continued to build up their roster of monsters well into the 1950s, and today, the old-school horror icons remain one of the most defining features of the studio. Universal are, of course, highly aware of that, and boy do they keep trying to make them happen again.
There’s probably an entire thesis waiting to be written on the many efforts made by Universal to revive their beloved monsters. The Tom Cruise version of The Mummy along could fill up a few books (RIP The Dark Universe). Not all of their efforts have been a failure. This week sees two of these films celebrating major milestones. It’s the 20th anniversary The Mummy, which launched two sequels, a really fun theme park ride, and a generation of much-deserved Brendan Fraser love. But it’s also the 15th anniversary of Van Helsing, which, well… Yeah.
Van Helsing was released on May 7th, 2004, the major release of the week aside from the Olsen twins’ New York Minute. The $160 million blockbuster epic was preceded by months of hype and inescapable marketing that appealed to teenagers who like horror but are massive chickens (read: me). It made big promises: The classic monsters of horror cinema, together at last for the ultimate monster mash! And who was front and centre to take on these beasts? Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman! What could possibly go wrong? Apparently most things could go wrong, and while the film still made over $300 million, bad reviews and a serious downplaying of high expectations meant those many planned sequels never happened (unless you count the half hour animated prequel that nobody saw).
Confession time: I think Van Helsing is awful and I absolutely love it. It’s a ludicrously overpriced folly with some of the worst VFX committed to celluloid in the 2000s, populated with actors who either look lost or bored off their tits. The film desperately tries to force together some of the most iconic characters and moments from the golden age of horror to form something vaguely resembling a cohesive plot, but the overall impression is more one of a child shoving their dolls together then tossing them aside out of boredom. The humour is flat when intended and absolutely hysterical when it’s not, and it’s almost universally agreed upon that the most energetic presence on screen is Hugh Jackman’s luscious long hair. But still, I love it. Come on, it’s peak mid-2000s Hollywood B-movie trash under the thin veil of blockbuster legitimacy and I always have an absolute ball whenever I watch it. of course, there’s only so far you can go with a movie when the bulk of its entertainment value is to be found in all the stuff it does wrong, especially when you’re intending to launch an entire franchise with it.
Stephen Sommers, who also directed The Mummy to great success, tried to replicate what made that reboot so much fun with Van Helsing: Let’s take these horror properties and inject a little (or a lot of) Indiana Jones into them. However, Van Helsing ends up taking this concept and going way too serious with it. if you’re going to make a film where Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster and casually naked vampire brides all cavort around Transylvania while Hugh Jackman swishes that magnificent mane atop his head, then you can’t pretend that solemnity and dark backstories are what audiences want from this experience. One of the things that makes The Mummy so endlessly re-watchable is that it knows when to puncture the pomposity with a good one-liner or pratfall. For a movie with drunks and toadies and an evil mummy that wants to destroy the world, the film has a remarkably consistent tone, something Van Helsing could only dream of.
The Mummy is a film that audiences have only grown to love more since its premiere in 1999. Critics, who were initially cool on the movie, have gained a greater appreciation for it as its particular brand of historical comedy horror action drama has become the norm in blockbuster cinema. For a while, such films took themselves way too seriously and felt the need to inject smothering levels of self-seriousness in an attempt to legitimize the genre in ways it didn’t really need. By the time we all got over that phase, we needed a few laughs and for these big-budget speculative extravaganzas to admit that they were silly and be all the better for it. I firmly believe you can draw a line from The Mummy to some of the MCU’s finest moments, especially when they let their weird flag fly. And a lot of that comes down to a certain Brendan Fraser.
There’s a moment in the Van Helsing episode of How Did This Get Made? where Seth Rogen makes a jokey comment to the effect of, ‘Who knew that Brendan Fraser was what made those Mummy movies work?’ The thing is that he’s right. It’s not exclusively Fraser saving the day - Rachel Weisz and John Hannah are equally excellent - but his particular take on the old-school action hero elevates that story to the needed level of funny-serious to keep everything in place. Hugh Jackman has been told to play Van Helsing as ‘hero’ and not much else, while Fraser skewers the Errol Flynn charming rogue trope with Looney Tunes style slapstick and a kind of self-aware silliness that would seem right at home in a Taika Waititi movie. It’s a performance that simultaneously feels like a throwback and one that’s completely ahead of its time in terms of blockbuster acting. Fraser knows what movie he’s in, as does his fellow cast members, which is more than can be said for Van Helsing. The Mummy also has one of the era’s most striking heroines in the form of Rachel Weisz’s Evie Carnahan, a proud nerd who does all the intellectual groundwork while the men around her get into d*ck measuring contests. Van Helsing, by comparison, has Kate Beckinsale in a corset who dies at the end and that’s as much of a characterization as she gets.
What seems so delightfully and knowingly retro in The Mummy is much clunkier in Van Helsing. The latter doesn’t seem to understand what makes those characters and iconic horror themes so enticing, or why mashing them all together for a generic action story would leave people wanting more. Turning richly layered creatures like vampires and werewolves, with centuries of mythological context and endless metaphor potential, into big dumb fight machines isn’t a terrible idea, but most of the action scenes in Van Helsing look like they were made for the Playstation One, then shot with a lens covered in Vaseline.
Perhaps the key difference between the two films, and the reason that one is purposefully so much better than the other, is that The Mummy was not created specifically to set up an entire franchise, nor was it intended to be a symbol of sorts for a studio’s history. For a film that is so ridiculous and borderline inept at times, Van Helsing is clearly weighed down by the expectations of Universal to be more than just a movie. Sure, there was always sequel potential with The Mummy - it’s Hollywood, they can’t help themselves - but it’s still a movie with an arc that isn’t completely dependent on what is possibly to come. Its story, its characters, its intent are all self-contained. Poor Van Helsing gets hints at an epic backstory but the film practically drops in a ‘To Be Continued’ sign every time the subject is approached. This would be a mistake Universal would repeat in 2017 when they tried their hand at The Mummy once more, once again forgetting that there’s no point in setting up an expanded universe if nobody cares about the starting point.
It remains to be seen if Universal will ever pull off a Monsters franchise or reboot of these films. Jason Blum has apparently been handed the keys to the kingdom following the quick and relatively painless death of the Dark Universe, and his low-budget and proudly genre focused approach to horror has yielded positive results that would seem to make him a good match for this material. Stories like this are just too good and have too much untapped potential to leave them languishing in Universal’s vaults. For now, we have two of many examples on what can go right and what can go wrong when a historic studio wishes to expand the shelf life of its cultural lineage. Enjoy it before someone else tries to make the monster movies into a Marvel-style franchise. I’m telling you, we’re like five years away from a modern edgy EDM DJ Phantom of the Opera reboot.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Universal