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What Universal Can Learn from the "Van Helsing" Movie

By now you know that Universal is rebooting all its classic monster franchises into one shared universe, starting with The Mummy in 2017 (though bits of 2014's Dracula Untold are now part of that canon). What you may not know is that the studio already tried this over a decade ago. Universal released Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, in May 2004. The film was supposed to start a franchise, in the spirit of Indiana Jones, and a spinoff series for corporate parent NBC. Unfortunately, the film wasn't very good. It made less than twice its budget, which classified it a disappointment, if not an outright failure—not to mention it has a score of 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. The sequels and TV show never happened, though we did get a video game and an animated prequel.

Universal can learn from Van Helsing's mistakes, but also from the elements it got right. Let's examine the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Female Hero

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Kate Beckinsale's Anna Valerious was a princess, but she was no damsel in distress. She faced down a werewolf in her first scene and fought with a cool sword. She was the last of a long line of vampire-hunters, cursed by a centuries-old crime to fight the creatures forever. The original films weren't as kind to women, almost always featuring them as passive victims. The reboot films will start with Tom Cruise as the hero, but I hope he'll team up with a woman—whether she's a monster, or magical, or just a cop—to fight the bad guys. Maybe Sofia Boutella's Mummy could be the first candidate?

 

Pay Tribute to the Classics

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Possibly the best part of Van Helsing is its prologue, which hearkens back to the original films. It's shot in black and white and ends with angry villagers burning down a windmill with the monster inside, as they did in 1931's Frankenstein. The whole sequence has the look and sound of the classics, and shows how much writer/director Stephen Sommers respected the material. Hopefully Universal's team of filmmakers will drop little hints, references, and Easter Eggs into the new films for the hardcore fans, just as the Marvel and Star Trek films do.

 

Keep it Simple

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Maybe Van Helsing didn't work because the film had so much to do: It had to introduce the Big Three monsters—plus Mr. Hyde, and the title character, and Anna Valerious. The result was that some scenes were confusing and others featured too much exposition. Universal seems to have received the message and is following Marvel's model of films focusing on one character, which will lead to "Monster Mashes" like the original Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Dracula. The mixture of science, supernatural, and history can require a lot of attention from audiences, so I hope the films start with basic storylines (like, say, the 1999 Mummy) and work their way up to complex plots of intrigue as monsters and humans conspire against each other.

 

Dracula's Brides

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They didn't do much in the original film, but Van Helsing made them important supporting characters—even giving them names. They were beautiful and seductive in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way, but could transform into terrifying winged harpies with fangs and claws. In a universe with far too few women characters (see above), they deserve at least a part of the spotlight. With a female Mummy already on the way, and the Bride of Frankenstein due to appear, a powerful female vampire could form a new "Big Three" for the 21st century. And while we're at it, let's stop calling these characters "brides"; they're awesome enough without having to be attached to another monster.

 

More Monsters

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Right now, Universal has announced films for Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man. Van Helsing featured the Big Three but also slipped in an ogre-like Mr. Hyde. I think Universal can up the monster quotient once the shared universe is underway. There are still a few creatures from both the studio's vault and the public domain that are worth including, even if it's just one scene where Tom Cruise kills them.

I'd include the Phantom of the Opera. Universal made a silent version in 1925 and a sound version in 1943. Maybe this property has been watered down by the famous stage musical, but I think a dramatic version—set in the Paris Opera House and the sewers beneath it—has the potential to be very scary. Also: Mr. Hyde, who made it into Van Helsing after all. As someone who transforms into a killer, he might be too close to the Wolfman, but since Hyde is really just an aspect of Jekyll's personality, and not a mindless animal, the character might be more relatable to a modern audience. American monsters like Bigfoot and the Headless Horseman could also be fun.

 

Music of the Night

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An overlooked aspect of the classic horror films is the music. It's a great way to create a sense of dread without showing any violence or gore. The Wolfman has his own, haunting three-note leitmotif that you can hear in this track, and AllMusic said of Franz Waxman's score for Bride of Frankenstein, "With its strange, sweeping yet disquieting melodies and unusual timbres, it was some of the most ambitious music ever written for the screen." Alan Silvestri's score for Van Helsing was well-received by critics and helped the film as much as possible, with some pieces that were fast and intense, and others that were grand and epic. Luckily, I think The Mummy's composer, Brian Tyler, is up to the task; he created the scores for Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What do you think Universal could learn from Van Helsing? Add your thoughts in the comments.


Jason ginsburg

Jason Ginsburg

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