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Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Van Helsing

Van Helsing

With 2004’s Van Helsing, Universal was certain it was sitting on top of a goldmine.  For years, they had been looking for a way to capitalize on their classic monster movie library.  Then along came writer/director Stephen Sommers.  Sommers put a fresh comedic spin on Universal’s troubled mummy movie.  In 1999, The Mummy turned into a surprise hit for the studio.  A sequel followed in 2002 which lead to a spin-off movie, The Scorpion King, in 2002.  Sommers seemed to have a magic touch.  So it seemed like a no-brainer to pair him with Wolverine and give him control of the complete Universal monsters collection.   But often times, what looks like a no-brainer on paper turns out to be a misfire in execution.  Van Helsing was one such case.

In the early 90’s there was a brief resurgence of monster movies kicked off by the 1992 hit, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  For years, there were rumors that Anothony Hopkins would reprise the role of vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, in a spin-off movie.  Universal has always been proprietary when it comes to their classic movie monster line-up.  So they naturally decided they wanted in on that action.  Their response was to start developing a low-budget update on The Mummy.

Originally, horror author Clive Barker was recruited to make a dark, violent Barkerian mummy movie for about $10 million dollars.  Think the Hellraiser of mummy movies and that’s what we’re talking about.  But that version of the project stalled out and Barker moved on.

Next up was George Romero who envisioned the mummy as a fish-out-of-water story.  In his version, Imhotep is awakened 3,000 years after his death and has to adapt to the modern world of the 1990’s.  He meets and falls for an archaeologist who was an ancient Egyptian priestess in a previous life.  But the movie wasn’t a fish-out-of-water rom com.  Imhotep would have resurrected a mummy to exact revenge on anyone who desecrated his tomb.  Romero’s version was deemed to dark and violent by the studio.  Additionally, the director had commitments to another project and he couldn’t make time in his schedule for the mummy.  So he ultimately left the project.

van helsing

After Romero left, Joe Dante came on board.  His version of the mummy was similar but focused more heavily on the romantic angle.  Daniel Day-Lewis was the first choice to play the brooding mummy.  But Dante’s version fell apart over budget issues.  Similarly, Mick Garris was attached to the project for a while, but ultimately ended up leaving.  Horror master Wes Craven was courted by the studio but turned down the chance to direct.

After seven years in development hell, it looked like The Mummy might never make it to the big screen.  But then Universal experienced a changing of the guard following the box office failure of Babe: Pig in the City.  According to the producers on the 1999 version of The Mummy, the new studio head was willing to increase the budget.  He was also less committed to the notion that the new Mummy needed to be a modern version set in the 90’s.  So when Stephen Sommers pitched the studio on The Mummy as an Indiana Jones adventure, Universal was sold on the idea.

With Brendan Fraser as their leading man, Sommers’ take on The Mummy was less horror than family adventure.  The movie was loaded with then eye-popping CGI effects served up with a heaping helping of winking self-parody.  This Mummy wasn’t brooding.  It made sure the audience knew not to take anything too seriously.  And audiences ate it up.  The Mummy was a surprise hit at the box office.  The 2002 sequel, The Mummy Returns, was an even bigger hit.  So Universal was very confident that Sommers could deliver a big box office bonanza with Van Helsing.

van helsing

“There are very few filmmakers, if any, that we would entrust the legacy of our monsters to besides Stephen,” said then vice chairman of Universal Pictures, Marc Shmuger. “Stephen has delivered for us twice before.”

Hugh Jackman was cast as the legendary vampire slayer.  While Jackman had yet to establish himself as a box office draw outside of the X-Men movies, he seemed like he was one non-mutant hit away from being a major movie star.  Van Helsing seemed like a slam dunk to establish the actor as an A-lister.

Aside from the name, Jackman’s character had very little in common with the character from Bram Stoker’s novel.  Jackman described his character:

Basically, I play a monster killer.  The movie is set in the 19th century and my character is sort of a black-ops priest, a mercenary for the Catholic Church. He’s an assassin sent to murder monsters, even though he’s not always sure how he feels about it.

Universal was feeling pretty great about it.  According to Shmuger, :

These characters are the crown jewels of our library.  They are part of an incredibly rich world with a huge set of mythic characters that haven’t been brought together like this in a long, long time. We see a lot of cross-marketing possibilities here.

van helsing

Shmuger wasn’t kidding about cross-promotional possibilities.  There was a lot riding on Van Helsing‘s success.  Not only did the studio have sequels planned, there were plans for a TV show, video games and theme park attractions.  NBC had a spin-off series in development titled Transylvania and Universal Studios theme parks were hashing out ride ideas.  Universal was so certain that they would be filming sequels that they kept the set in Prague intact and continued paying rent on the property until Van Helsing flopped.

Despite a first-place opening, Van Helsing‘s box office total came up short.  It grossed over $120 million in the US.  But with a budget rumored to be around $160 million, that wasn’t enough.  Van Helsing really needed to do about three times that amount – or roughly as much as both Mummy movies combined.

Somers initially defended the decision to go big with the budget, “You can’t make a horror movie for $80 million.  It’s got to have everything but the kitchen sink in it…. Nobody wants to see a guy wrapped in bandages.”

Then-Universal Pictures Chairwoman Stacey Snider was optimistic, but expressed concerns about the movie’s ability to meet sky-high expectations, “I feel a combination of excitement and pressure.  We’ve done everything I think we can to set this up to be successful.”

van helsing

But it turns out Sommer’s “kitchen sink” approach wasn’t the right one.  Van Helsing was panned by critics and came up short at the box office.  While it performed better overseas, it wasn’t enough to make up for the movie’s weak domestic grosses.

Sommers didn’t direct another movie until the 2009 sequel, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  He has served as an executive producer on the 2008 Mummy movie, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and several direct-to-video Scorpion King movies.  Jackman is still looking for a franchise that won’t involve adamantium claws.  Kate Beckinsale’s career has cooled off to the point where she is best-known for Underworld sequels.

In recent years, there have been rumors of reboots for both The Mummy and Van Helsing series.  Little is known about when or if these reboots are happening.  But the expectation is that if they do get updated, the new versions will be more serious than Sommers’ take on the material

More Movies that were supposed to…

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Posted on October 12, 2015, in Halloween, Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. Having played the bug-eating Renfield in a stage production of Dracula just a couple of years prior, I was looking forward to a big screen take on Van Helsing. Then I saw the trailer and it was obvious this was not the knid of movie I’d been hoping for. A reboot with a completely different tone could still be good, but I’ll try to restrain any residual enthusiasm that might still exist in me.

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    • Universal’s aim is to create a Marvel-like franchise of franchises. Last I heard, they had the Amazing Spider-man/Star Trek reboot team of screenwriters putting together their master plan which is a recipe for disaster. Hopefully the plan has changed after the underwhelming performance of Dracula Untold.

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  2. Every time Van Helsing is on TV and I happen to come across it while channel surfing, I groan and quickly flip through to the next channel. I think that says enough.

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    • It’s definitely groan-worthy. Van Helsing is the kind of movie you can only make when you are very confident of your success. You have to have made buckets of money on two Mummy movies to make Van Helsing. Everyone involved was very certain that the formula would still hold up. It’s almost the exact same thing that happened with Disney’s recent Lone Ranger reboot.

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  3. I remember when Van Helsing came out–saw it once in a theater, never since. I think that one reason for its failure is that Universal didn’t fully understand that what made the Mummy films work as well as they did were things apart from the story and subject matter–namely, getting the tone just right (just serious enough that the films don’t come across as parody, no more), and hitting paydirt in picking stars who were in tune with the tone of the films and who had great onscreen chemistry.

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    • I think you are largely correct regarding why The Mummy worked and Van Helsing didn’t. It’s hard to duplicate success. A lot of things have to come together just right to make a movie like The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean work. Just because you get the alchemy right once, that doesn’t mean the formula can be easily duplicated even by the people who cooked up the original. Change the tone just a bit and the entire souffle collapses.

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      • Exactly. I think we were talking about this the other day in reference to the Scream films, yet another example. Even filmmakers like Hitchcock or Spielberg, who frequently had a very good feel for what audiences would enjoy, have had their share of failures.

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        • A lot of times a big factor in what makes a movie work is just timing. Scream, The Mummy, Pirates, all of those movies came out at just the right time for audiences to find them. You can’t recreate that.

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  4. Boy, this reminds me of how gorgeous Kate Beckinsale is! I’ll happily watch this when I see it on cable just because of her.

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    • And you would be right to do so. I first saw Beckinsale in the indie comedy, The Last Days of Disco. It’s one of my favorite movies that no one else loves as much as I do. Bechinsale is a big reason why.

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      • I always liked The Last Days Of Disco. One of those indies that was omnipresent in that era.

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      • Hey, I like that film (I also liked 1994’s “Barcelona” by the same director). Part of it is that I’m enthralled by the mystique of Studio 54. It’s definitely better than “54”, which I like more than most, but it still seemed to me like a weaker version of “Saturday Night Fever” in spots.

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        • I share your interest in the subject. You’re never going to find a more authentic take on 70’s era disco than SNF. It’s the movie that popularized the music. But LDoD is a fun comedy with cute girls and a great soundtrack.

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        • I did mean that “54” cribbed more from “Saturday Night Fever”, especially with the main character being from a working class household and going against the grain to catch the night fever. Honestly though, I’m up for all three films.

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        • It’s honestly been so long since I watched 54 I don’t even remember. I may have to give it another look. I hear there is a director’s cut that’s watchable.

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        • I’ll have to keep my eye out for that “54” director’s cut; maybe it won’t give me as much of the night fever that the original did.

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        • My recollection is that there were subplots (mostly involving homosexuality) that were restored making it a very different movie than the one that was released in theaters. Similarities to SNF may still be there.

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        • That sounds good; Maybe that will explore Steve Rubell a little more, which is what I’d like to see anyway. I think Rubell and Peter Gaitien (I’ve viewed the 2011 documentary “Limelight” multiple times) easily have to be the most well-known of the owners/promoters during the disco/nightclub scene of that era.

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        • As I understand it, Mike Myers got as much screen time as they could give him. Originally Breckin Meyer’s role was much larger.

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        • It wasn’t a smash. What I meant was that it was the kind of indie that was especially prevalent for most of the 90s. I liked it quite a bit. Not as much as Boogie Nights (one of my all-time favorites). But way ahead of 54.

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        • That makes more sense. Yes, the 90’s were filled with these kinds of indie movies. That’s part of why I loved the cinema of the decade. The 90’s indie movement did fall into a rut as it went along. After a while, it just felt like Miramax was a factory churning out one Shakespeare in Love after another. But I’ll still take it over the blockbuster bloat we have today.

          Of the competing disco films, Last Days was definitely superior to 54. I’d like to have seen what 54 could have been without studio interference. It was a fascinating topic but apparently there wasn’t yet enough acceptance to do an honest movie on the disco scene. Maybe someone could pull it off today.

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  5. Bad Movie Beatdown: Van Helsing (REVIEW):

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  6. I feel like van helsing started a trend. Jack the giant killer, Hansel and gretel monster hunters, 7th son, I Frankenstein. Terrible cgi: the movie. All these movies are horrible and they don’t make money. Why are they still getting made?

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  7. The guy in that video is far too obnoxious to make it an entertaining watch.

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  8. This was one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen that wasn’t actually trying to be dumb on purpose. I hated it.

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    • I think some of the dumbness was intentional. I honestly never understood the appeal of Sommers’ Mummy movies. So no surprise that I didn’t like Van Helsing which was the same thing only over-stuffed.

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      • I really liked the first one at the time, probably because I was in the right age. Even then I thought it was quite silly and a bit flawed though, but it had (and I still think it has) charm. The second one was the kind of obligatory sequel were they really had no (good) ideas at all left to explore. Left me with bad taste the single time i saw it.

        When the third one came I simply was too old to be interested. Not one bit surprised that it flopped, would probably have happened even with good reviews. What were they thinking with that gap, they should just have given up.

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        • I thought the first one was dumb. It is dumb. I don’t think that’s up for debate. But for whatever reason, it wasn’t the kind of dumb that appealed to me. It clearly appealed to a lot of other people though. My sneaky suspicion is that most audiences had very low expectations of a Brendan Fraser movie opening that early in the year. In 1999, The Phantom Menace was supposed to be the offical kick off of the summer movie season. But audiences got an early jump on it with The Mummy. Its success extended the “summer movie season” into April.

          Then the sequel came out, I perceived no noticeable difference in quality. It was bigger as all sequels must be. But it was just as dumb and stocked with CGI. And yet, fans of the first movie claimed to notice a large difference in quality. I remain confused to this day by these claims. If the original is better, it is not by a wide margin as far as I can tell.

          I “watched” the third one because Netflix sent me the disc back in the days when Netflix did that with no extra charge. It was on in the background. I didn’t pay enough attention to determine whether or not the quality had gone downhill further. Considering where things started, it didn’t seem to me like there was all that much room for a drop in quality. But replacing Rachel Weisz was definitely a step in the wrong direction.

          I imagine the thinking went something like this:

          “The first two movies made money. We like money. Maybe we can make more money. Anyone still have Brendan Fraser’s agent’s number?”

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      • Myself, I’m particularly annoyed by anachronisms. If you’re going to do a film in particular time period, then don’t ignore time and setting. You don’t have to commit to absolute authenticity, but the least you can do is not have the details ridiculously out of place. Like Kate Beckinsale wearing spandex pants in the 1880s- with a corset made of leather on the OUTSIDE of her clothing. If those clothes were even possible in the day, they would have been considered downright pornographic (though I’m sure plenty of people enjoyed the pants enough to quibble about it). And Van Helsing swigging absinthe out of a flask- you’d have to be a downright rube to drink it like that. It probably also wouldn’t be in your best interest to be fucking drunk while fighting monsters. Just sayin’.
        I never saw any of the “Mummy” movies- they just never appealed to me. I never had any interest in “Van Helsing” either, but a friend rented it and I watched it to be agreeable.

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  9. The Mummy 3 has Jet Li in it. Just thought I’d point that out. But it’s OK because the guys who wrote Start Trek into Darkness and Amazing Spyderman 2 are rebooting it.

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  10. 10 Most Underwhelming Summer Movies Of All Time

    http://whatculture.com/film-tv/10-most-underwhelming-summer-movies-of-all-time?page=10

    Van Helsing

    Not only does director Stephen Sommers hate you, he wants to stomp on your memories of Universal’s classic monster movies, grind the films themselves into mince and sling the result in your face.

    It was bad enough when he rebooted The Mummy as an Indiana Jones style adventure, but Van Helsing takes Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr Hyde and the title character and puts them through the grinder for two hours of non-stop noise and special effects. There’s always something happening but there’s no real story, there’s lots of action but no memorable set pieces and everyone is trying so hard to be funny that after a while you just wish they’d stop.

    Worst of all is the twee, irritating dialogue that every single character has to utter, whether they’re supposed to be a centuries-old bloodsucker or an agent for the Vatican. Instead of being sinister, Dracula becomes so camp he should be selling breakfast cereal, and even Hugh Jackman is rendered dull. How he must’ve longed to get back to the X-Men franchise.

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