The very best thing about "Van Helsing" is the title; it carries the weight of a hundred years of vampire movies as the name of Dracula's nemesis. It's a name that's as much a symbol for an audience as that of a Sophoclean hero. Sometimes a doctor, though of what is rarely spelled out; sometimes just an expert on killing vampires; once, even, in Mel Brooks's parody, a borscht belt character. (In the great 1920 original, Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," his name was even changed to 'Dr. Olson,' because Wiene couldn't get the rights from author Bram Stoker.) In this incarnation the Australian Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine" in "X-Men") has the title role, though he seems not to have a first name. If I were Jackman I would at least have asked for one.
Nevertheless, it's a proud and rightly honored name. I only wish I could say that Stephen Sommers's new film lives up to it. Instead he trundles out every figure and every cliché of the genre: Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who at various times in the film seems to occupy three different castles, each one more inaccessible than the last; Princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale in a mittel-European accent that barely holds steady for two sentences in a row); Dr. Frankenstein himself (Samuel West); his monster (Shuler Hensley); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (with poor Robbie Coltrane playing another half-human, as he does in the Harry Potter films); Frankenstein's assistant Igor and Van Helsing's assistant Carl. I've forgotten to mention Dracula's three bat-wives and the thousands of bat-children he keeps breeding but - because they lack the key to life, and I hope I'm not giving anything away - keep dying. Where are the pro-lifers when we need them?
At any rate, Van Helsing has been fighting evil for some time: though he suffers from amnesia he does remember fighting the Romans at Masada, in which case I don't know how the Jews lost. Or how come he's still alive, for that matter. Now, though, he works for a kind of secret Curia in the Vatican, which sends him to Transylvania to take care of Dracula. Critics have been asked not to reveal what happens to Van Helsing and Valerious in the last half hour of the film, but if you're half as smart as I think you are I know you'll figure it out. In fact you'll do it way ahead of Jackman, so you can comfortably take a nap if you wish. Had Alan Sylvestri's incessant score not been so punishingly loud I would have joined you.
Mr. Sommers wrote and directed "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns," which each had at least a few moments of wit, and a nicely unpretentious performance by Brendan Fraser. Here, though, he has lost his sense of humor, perhaps overwhelmed by the enormity of the special effects, the weight of everyone's costume, the pounds of makeup, the necessity of shooting the whole film through a blue filter to emulate moonlight, and the need to juggle three plot lines at once. The one bright figure in the film is Richard Roxburgh as Dracula. He plays with sophistication and a nice sense of his own place in history. Too bad he had to die - oh, please forget I said that. It comes at the end and the studio doesn't want you to know what happens. Sorry.