With the upcoming theatrical release of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Universal has seen fit to dip into its vaults to re-release a number of like-minded films to simultaneously cash in on and promote the new movie. In the last week, I've been lucky enough to have been sent new editions of both the 1932 and 1999 versions of The Mummy as well as The Mummy Returns to review. Each of these offers movie tickets and other promotional material connected to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
One other movie getting the double dip in this Mummy promotion is the 2004 action horror hybrid Van Helsing. Its connection to The Mummy franchise is tenuous: it's a revisit of sorts to the classic Universal monsters as The Mummy was, and it's directed by the same man, Stephen Sommers. Otherwise, it just seems to have been included in the promotion as an afterthought. In fact, unlike The Mummy films, this "Collector's Edition" of Van Helsing appears to offer nothing new (except a free movie ticket) - even the trailers that precede the film have been ported over from the previous release (a "preview" trailer for Shrek 2 is an extra that really shows the age of the content on these DVDs).
Perhaps it's not a film that has fans clamoring for new extras: it wasn't well-received in its theatrical release, and it is, truthfully, a bit of a dud. That Van Helsing doesn't work comes as a surprise given the talent involved. As mentioned before, Stephen Sommers is both the writer and director, and he proved fairly successful at updating The Mummy in his previous work. Hugh Jackman, a hot property as Wolverine in the entertaining X-Men movies, plays the lead hero. Opposite him is the beautiful Kate Beckinsale, herself coming off a defining role as the heroine of Underworld, a good horror action hybrid vehicle envisioning a war between vampire and werewolf clans.
Still, the talent involved don't elevate Van Helsing much above mindless matinee fare. A few reasons come to mind.
For one thing, Van Helsing is misconceived in Sommers' revision. In classic Universal and Hammer versions of the Dracula myth, Van Helsing (Dracula's most knowledgeable and dangerous antagonist) is older, projecting intelligence and gravitas. Edward Van Sloan and Peter Cushing were both well-cast as this character. In Van Helsing, the character is re-imagined as a young, long-haired adventurer, with an Indiana Jones-styled hat and gimmicky weapons in the mold of Roger Moore's James Bond. The generic action hero approach to Van Helsing makes him seem uninteresting, a cardboard cutout interchangeable with any other action franchise. I don't fault Hugh Jackman; he's a good actor. It's the initial concept that's at fault.
Coupled with this issue is Van Helsing's lack of focus. Sommers seems to have decided to go the monster mash approach here, with Dracula, Dracula's brides, Frankenstein and his monster, the Wolf Man, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all making appearances. Van Helsing has an entourage that also needs introducing: a friar companion and Anna, a Romanian sword smith and love interest. Add to these characters torch-wielding villagers and grave diggers, and you've got quite a lot crammed into one movie. Too much, in fact. Van Helsing moves from one monster to another, one action sequence to another, with little tension or suspense. Van Helsing just fights for a while before vanquishing his opponent, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Oh, and the monsters fight each other sometimes too. A flimsy plot holds everything together, and the closing sequence of the movie is ridiculously melodramatic and silly.
I can't help but think this could have been a much better film if it had gone the more traditional horror route and focused on Dracula and his vampire brides as the sole villains. With an older Van Helsing who had to resort to his wits, this could have been a much more dramatic - and interesting - film.
For all of its faults, though, Van Helsing still offers some entertainment. The special effects, while often unconvincing in concept and execution, are fun to watch. The movie's use of color is interesting, with settings washed-out in grays and similar colors that serve to highlight costumes and effects when they explode in color (more on this in the Video section of the review). Ultimately, it's a movie that I'd suggest is worth checking out once as pure popcorn fare.
Van Helsing is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. This is a dark film often favoring grey, green, and blue (the prologue is even in black and white), but colors spring to life when they're used to emphasize certain elements, especially in the faux lightening and sparks of Frankenstein's laboratory, and the costumes of Anna and Dracula's brides. Details are strong, and overall, the image looks very nice indeed.
Three language tracks are available on this disc. The first is English, and it's Dolby Digital 5.0. The other two are Spanish and French, and they're in Dolby Digital 2.0. As with the video quality, the sound is very good and gives the speakers quite a workout. This is one loud movie - with a ridiculously bombastic and over-the-top score and near constant battles. All are presented nicely and surround the listener; dialogue is always clear amongst the ambient sound effects.
Subtitles are provided in Spanish and French. There's also an English (Captioned for the Hearing Impaired) option.
When the first disc with the movie Van Helsing is played, trailers automatically precede the menu for Shaun of the Dead, Seed of Chucky, and a collective trailer for The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King.
Van Helsing has two feature length commentary tracks. The first one has director Stephen Sommers and editor / producer Bob Ducsay. The second has actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp (the guys who play the film's major monsters). Both are reasonably lively and humorous, though not essential listening.
A Bonus Materials option includes the following brief extras. Explore Dracula's Castle is an interactive and narrated look around the castle. Bloopers (5:39) is a frenetic compilation of bloopers on the set. Bringing the Monsters to Life (10:02) provides an overview of the special effects work on the film. You are in the Movie! (4:30) has hidden camera shots of several important scenes. The Legend of Van Helsing (10:09) covers the character's evolution in popular culture and includes clips from the 1931 classic Dracula and its sequel Dracula's Daughter. The last extra is probably the best, although it would have been better located with similar extras on disc two.
Rounding out the extras on disc one are a link to the trailers mentioned above, a separate preview trailer for Shrek 2, a Van Helsing Xbox Game that's only usable if you have an Xbox, and some DVD credits.
If that weren't enough, Van Helsing fans have an entire second disc - stamped "Bonus Disc" by Universal - with plenty of additional extras. It should be noted that subtitle options are available for these extras in Spanish, French, and English (Captioned for the Hearing Impaired).
The first menu on this disc provides a map with several options that lead to short clips with commentary from the filmmakers about the various sets used in the movie: The Vatican Armory (5:28), The Burning Windmill (6:37), The Village (8:09), Frankenstein's Lab (6:32), and Dracula's Castle (7:50). They're interesting, even if they fall into the habit of self-congratulations that frequently inhabit such featurettes.
The second menu provides two additional extras. The first is called Evolution of a Legacy, which is actually comprised of three featurettes about Van Helsing: Explore Frankenstein's Lab, an interactive and narrated tour of the lab similar in nature to the Explore Dracula's Castle extra on the first disc; Dracula's Lair is Transformed (2:41) sports some time-lapse photography of the building of Dracula's Lair; and The Music of Van Helsing (9:42) covers the scoring of the movie. The best of these featurettes is the third one; the other two are okay, though the interactive tour is a little tedious.
The second extra in this submenu is called Van Helsing: The Story, the Life, the Legend, and like the previous extra is divided into several featurettes: Dracula (11:37), Frankenstein's Monster (9:25), The Werewolves (12:29), and The Women of Van Helsing: Anna & Dracula's Brides (14:29). The filmmakers and various scholars discuss the antecedents for the various monstrous characters used in this movie. Clips from various Universal horror classics as well as Van Helsing itself are liberally sprinkled throughout. These featurettes were probably the most interesting of the extras. A Play All option would have been nice.
Finally, depending upon how far down the time stream you are from me, it should be noted that the cover of this DVD has a sticker attached proclaiming that a free movie ticket to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is included inside. Valued up to $7.50, the ticket is actually a Hollywood Movie Money code usable on their site to produce a certificate that will then need to be printed. This certificate expires on 24 August 2008.
Had this been a single disc bare bones release of Van Helsing, I'd probably have gone with a Rent It recommendation, as the film, despite its many faults, is at least worth watching once. But, considering the copious extras of this 2 disc edition (plus the free movie ticket), there's enough here to warrant a Recommended advice level. It's probably not worth the double dip, though, especially if you own the 3 disc Van Helsing: Ultimate Collector's Edition which includes just about everything mentioned here as well as the Universal classics Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man.