Universal have been trying to resurrect their Dark Universe for a lot longer than you may think. Back in 2004, emboldened by the quick one-two hits of “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns”, they decided to give director Stephen Sommers the whole Universal Monster toy box. Unfortunately, what he came up with was a textbook example of how not to go about setting up a shared universe that wouldn’t bettered worsened until Universal tried again thirteen years later.
Transylvania, 1887. With the help of Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), Doctor Victor Frankenstein creates his creature. Aghast that Dracula has his own plans for the creature, Frankenstein objects but before he can do anything, the villagers storm the castle. Igor (Kevin J O’Connor) manages to escape but Dracula kills Doctor Frankenstein and he and his brides chase away the villages but not before they have chased the creature to an old windmill and set it ablaze. One year later, the Vatican sends Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) to Transylvania to aid the Valerious family, an ancient family bloodline who must kill Dracula before the last of their family die or none of them will enter heaven, meanwhile Dracula is ravaging the local villages in search of subjects for his attempts to recreate Frankenstein’s experiments.
If that synopsis sounds overstuffed, then it does the job of giving you a sense of how much is crammed into this film, not all of it successfully. The opening scenes are a gorgeously faithful black and white recreation of the closing moments of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” but it’s the transition to colour which marks a significant downturn in the film’s (and the viewer’s) fortunes. We switch to a swashbuckling, CGI-heavy slugfest between a wisecracking Van Helsing and Mr Hyde, running amok in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (Quasimodo is absent, presumably on holiday). Hugh Jackman is never going to get a chance to play James Bond but he gets pretty close in this, infusing his steampunk monster hunter with a Moore-ish penchant for light-hearted and often situationally inappropriate quippery. He even has a Franciscan monk, played by David Wenham, as a sort of Catholic Q.
With Van Helsing being the Vatican’s preferred off-the-books hunter of public domain bad guys, the film bears a lot of similarities to its contemporary (in terms of production and setting) “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” in that they’re both largely terrible and a waste of the talent involved. They also both suffer from weak villains and an overly convoluted plot.
Richard Roxburgh is one of the campest and least threatening Draculas ever, landing quite a few bats in the belfry short of even kiddie friendly Count Dracula from “Hotel Transylvania”. His kitsch, jittery, unstable turn is more often irritating than intimidating; the Prince Of Dorkness. His plan, to use electricity filtered through Frankenstein’s monster to bring his children to…er…unlife?…is never particularly clearly articulated and there’s nothing intimidating or exciting about watching hundreds of Drac sacks explode into enough goop to cater a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards show.
Sommers layers on the period detail and generates an atmosphere as thick as the accent that’s under constant assault by Kate Beckinsale’ gipsy princess but the film’s just not in on its own camp joke. It takes itself far too seriously and nobody seems to be having fun, including the audience. The dialogue is cheesy and overblown and the special effects and action scenes have not, in the main, aged well.
It’s a film I revisit every so often, having forgotten just how poor it is because I want to like it. Jackman is reliably Jackmanish as the dashing hero but there’s no denying he’s laying the groundwork for a serious debate over what his worst movie is: this or “X-Men: Origins – Wolverine”. The film’s version of Frankenstein’s monster is actually pretty good and deserved a much better story to be in but the rest of the cast is pretty much just hamming it up and biding their time until they can pick up their cheques and move on.
Dracula is, famously, a monster who seems incapable of not coming back from the dead. Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ concept seems to have the opposite problem; it’s an anti-revenant and it’s no surprise that this muddled, bloated action adventure left the classic monster movie franchise as lifeless as one of Dracula’s weird pod-babies. Adventure may live forever, this would-be franchise did not.