Welcome to Script to Pieces, a recurring feature at Wicked Horror where we look at the best, most interesting and at times most unbelievable horror movies that never happened. Sometimes these will be productions that never came together at all, other times, they will be original incarnations that were completely different from what we wound up with. Each should be fascinating in its own way, because the stories of movies that never see the light of day can sometimes be even more interesting than the stories of those that do.
Back in the early ‘90s, after the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to put together a Van Helsing film that would see Anthony Hopkins reprise the role. After a few years of trying to put that together without success, the idea simply went away.
After Stephen Sommers helmed The Mummy for Universal (another project that had been gestating for a long time) he kept coming back to the idea of the Universal monsters. Sommers actually went to Universal to pitch them this idea of combining all of the monsters together in a single blockbuster film.
Combining all of the classic monsters together has a long history of precedence. Universal first did it in House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, maybe most famously in The Monster Squad, even done as recently as Penny Dreadful. When Van Helsing was released in 2004, the same basic concept had even just been done only the year before in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Even still, Universal absolutely loved the idea and were completely on board with it. They saw a major franchise in Van Helsing. Here was a hero being played by Hugh Jackman, fighting the most famous monsters of all time. This was Jackman right at the hight of early X-Men success. Universal wanted to ride this into the ground, marketing the hell out of it with an animated tie-in prequel, novelization, Dark Horse comic book, action figure series, video game… it was pretty hard to avoid Van Helsing, but that’s ultimately exactly what audiences did.
It’s still unclear exactly what that would have been. The main three monsters were featured in the film and Sommers had already done two Mummy movies. There was a scene planned for the feature that would have involved the Gill Man, but it was cut for time and budget.
Universal was so confident that they would be rolling immediately into Van Helsing sequels that they kept the sets in Prague intact and kept paying rent after filming, right up until the film’s release.
The pilot for Transylvania was green-lit in April of 2004 with word that it could air on NBC as early as that Fall, only a few short months after the movie’s release. Two weeks after Van Helsing opened to disappointing box office, the series was completely canned.
While it’s clear that Universal had plans for multiple sequels to Van Helsing, it’s completely unclear as to what those would have been. It’s likely that they hadn’t even begun to really break the story for a follow-up when the decision was made to just abandon the franchise cold turkey.
There are many reasons as to why Van Helsing was not the success the studio and Sommers hoped it would be. The director made it clear from the get-go that while it would feature classic horror characters, it would be as far removed from horror as possible, even showing some disdain for the genre and noting that “Nobody wants to see a guy walking around in bandages.” This approach sort of alienated the only built-in fan base the movie would have had, almost immediately.
Then there’s the fact that as fun and goofy as the movie is, it makes some weird choices. For this to be the big standout film for Van Helsing after such a long legacy of being played by so many different actors, it’s incredibly bizarre that this happens to be one of the very few Dracula movies without Van Helsing in it. The character Hugh Jackman plays is revealed to be the archangel Gabriel, who remembers nothing of his former life and presumably at some point met the real Van Helsing and took his name.
And then there’s the fact that the entire plot revolves around Dracula trying to revive his thousands of stillborn babies, which somehow manages to be both too cartoonish and wholly disturbing at the same time.
Van Helsing brought iconic characters together, but more than anything managed to be an all-star lineup of baffling decisions. It’s amazing that the studio had as much confidence in the project as it did. But at this point, I’ll admit that I still would have liked to see it continue, because the idea of a Transylvanian alternative to the Fast & the Furious or Transformers franchise doesn’t sound that bad, all things considered.
In recent years, Universal has attempted to reboot Van Helsing as part of the Dark Universe, hiring writers like Jon Spaihts and Eric Heisserer to work on it, but even that has fallen through at this point. It’s hard to say when we’ll next see the character on screen, or if he’ll actually be Van Helsing this time.