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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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