Who wouldn’t want to see a movie that featured not one, but three of Universal’s classic monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man? Such a gathering is the stuff of Hollywood magic and childhood dreams. That dream became a reality with the release of Van Helsing in 2004, a film that put all three creatures into the same movie — and threw in Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale as a bonus.
Nod to the Past
Stephen Sommers’ film was, indeed, produced by Universal, and was meant from the start to be an homage to the particular style with which the studio applied to those creatures back in the ’30s and ’40s. Sure, the Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature of Universal Studios might not be the Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, but they are the Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature most embedded in our pop culture consciousness.
After all, we don’t even call him “the Creature” most of the time. We just call him “Frankenstein.” Universal is pretty much responsible for that. Anyway…
Richard Roxburgh’s portrayal of Count Dracula in Van Helsing may not at first glance bear much resemblance to Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance in Universal’s Dracula (1931), but look closer and you’ll see Lugosi’s ghost all over the place. Universal made Dracula a charming and handsome creature — a far cry from the socially awkward and often repugnant title character of Stoker’s novel. Lugosi’s Dracula was right at home at any London theatre or dinner party, his mutterings of things like “There are far worse things awaiting man than death” considered by his peers to be simply the dark musings of an eccentric Eastern European. How did this guy live in isolation in a filthy castle for so long? He’s the delight of British society.
Roxburgh’s Count is very similar. His Dracula is a young, sexy thing, full of passion and longing. He’s even got three hot brides with whom he’s seen partaking in physical pleasure (something we had never really seen a Dracula do before — can you recall seeing any incarnation of Dracula actually even touching one of the Brides?). Like Lugosi before him, he’s also a snappy dresser. He’s not up on the mountain where it always storms, sipping blood from a skull and mourning his horrible fate. He’s a tortured soul, sure, but he’s got style.
The “classic” physical appearance of Frankenstein’s Monster is entirely a Universal creation. The towering physique, the green skin, the bolts in the neck, the flattened head — except for that first part, none of those attributes were mentioned in Mary Shelley’s novel. Universal’s Monster was designed by makeup artist Jack Pierce (with probably a heavy assist from sketches by Frankestein director James Whale). And it was Boris Karloff who brought the Monster to life in 1931’s Frankenstein (and its many sequels and spin-offs).
There have been many different versions of the Monster over the years but, more often than not, Universal’s is the one that immediately comes to mind with the mentioning of the name “Frankenstein.” The Monster of Van Helsing is an homage to the tragic creature played by Boris Karloff, both in appearance and performance, though Shuler Hensley is allowed to be a little more verbally articulate than the grunting Karloff was ever allowed to be.
Hensley’s Monster also has blue skin instead of green. Ah well.
The Wolf Man gets a heavy CGI treatment in Van Helsing, but the general idea from 1941’s The Wolf Man is still there. Like Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Larry Talbot, Will Kemp’s Velkan Valerious (how could you not be a werewolf with a name like that?) works the ripped-shirt look and stays on two legs (most of the time, anyway). Like Talbot before him, Velkan is a put-upon soul, destined to endure his once-a-month curse before someone (like, say, Gabriel Van Helsing) releases him via something silver.
Today’s filmmaking technology gives us a more… well, maybe not realistic, but definitely a more impressive werewolf transformation process. Back in 1941, you were a slave to cross-dissolves (though the original Wolf Man used them brilliantly). Today, you can tear away the flesh of the man to reveal the beast within.
And so makes up the monstrous trio of Van Helsing. Now, if they can some day find a way to add the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon into the mix, that would be a real monster mash.
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