Hello again, everyone - and here we are once more at the start of blockbuster season, a part of the cinemagoing calendar with pleasures and pains all is own. First off the blocks this year is popcorn auteur Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing - but then again you probably knew that already, given the saturation-level publicity it's been given (the theatrical trailer alone seems to have been on nearly as often as the 'Hurt me Gunter! Make me bleed!' one).
Very much in the tradition of Sommers' mega-grossing Mummy movies, Van Helsing kicks off with a loving pastiche of the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, depicting the terrible success of the unholy experiments of Dr Frankenstein (Sam West doing a pretty fair Colin Clive impersonation), and the sacking of his castle by the traditional mob of revolting peasants. But hang on! Who's this lurking unexpectedly on the scene? Blow me if it isn't Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, in a hairstyle and costume that unaccountably reminded me of Ricky Gervais in his New Romantic incarnation). Having backed Frankenstein's experiments for reasons of his own, the Count now wants the Monster (Shuler Hensley)...
Fast forward one year and we get to meet our eponymous hero, played (rather well) by Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame. He's a sort of extreme-prejudice exorcist for the Vatican, tracking down creatures of the night and giving them a good slap, armed only with crossbow, stakes, circular-saw-thingy, shampoo and curling tongs. For his latest mission he and his comedy sidekick Karl (The Lord of the Rings' David Wenham, doing exactly what the part calls for) are packed off to Transylvania to aid tight-trousered Gypsy princess Kate Beckinsale in her struggle against Dracula and his evil female minions (no, not the Cheeky Girls). But just what is Dracula up to? And how is it connected with Van Helsing's own mysterious past?
Naturally, this milieu and these characters come with a considerable history of which Sommers seems reasonably aware. It's quite well known that after the death of Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula and Van Helsing), his widow successfully sued the makers of the 1928 film Nosferatu for plagiarism and got nearly every print destroyed, on the grounds that it was an unlicensed rip-off with Stoker going uncredited. Well, Stoker isn't credited on this movie either (certainly not prominently - and neither are Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson or Curt Siodmak, for that matter), but the studio needn't worry as their film bears roughly zero resemblence to the original novel.
Obviously not keen on contending with fond memories of Lugosi, Karloff, Cushing, and so on, Sommers has crafted this tale as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, steampunk swashbuckler, which puts simply being outrageously entertaining ahead of making too much sense. The prologue aside, it doesn't resemble the horror films of Universal or Hammer very much - although in some ways it is very similar indeed to Roman Polanski's marvellous Dance of the Vampires, even down to stealing a few visual flourishes.
It's also operating in narrative territory perilously close to last year's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, sharing several characters, the same actor in the villain's role, and a virtually identical action sequence. (I suppose it also has quite a lot in common with Beckinsale's last big movie, Underworld, too.) But this is by far a better treatment of this sort of material - winningly played, energetic enough to cover the holes in the plot, and very inventive - Sommers even crowbars in a Bond spoof without utterly destroying the credibility of the movie.
Admittedly, after an irresistible first half hour or so, the pace flags, and the way the film lunges from one headbangingly overblown CGI set piece to another gets a bit wearying before the end. (The special effects range from the impressive to the rather ropy.) It's too long, and the final scene will doubtless be too appallingly schmaltzy by far for many tastes. But it's wittily played by Beckinsale and the Australians (coincidence though it doubtless is, the fact that we can now have a blockbuster where 75% of the leads are Aussies shows just how much muscle the Antipodes now wields in the movie business), and skilfully put together by Sommers. It's not deep. It's not thoughtful. It has no aspirations towards seriousness or genuine art. But it's a lot better than it looks on paper: I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. A good omen for the summer.