Somewhere, in the deepest bowels of Hell, lie a dozen or so contracts. The names on those pieces of parchment would be known to many, especially after sitting through the commercial rewards Satan has seen fit to bestow upon them. Take Stephen Sommers. Since his first film (1989's Catch Me If You Can) up and including his latest turn behind the lens (the upcoming, unnecessary GI-Joe Movie), his resume has been rife with unequivocal mediocrity. Sure, Deep Rising has its champions, and his live action version of the Jungle Book offers his standard adventure yarn delights, but ever since he took on the Egyptian legend of a certain wrapped rascal, his commercial fortunes have far outweighed his creative strides. Nowhere was this proven more definitively than with 2004's bloated horror epic Van Helsing. Starring Hugh Jackman as a brooding beast master with a need to destroy the agents of the underworld, Sommers clearly thought he was creating the next big screen blockbuster. Instead, what we have here is a collection of computer generated crap passing itself off as entertainment.
When the local peasants discover the horrific consequences of his graverobbing experiments, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are chased to a local windmill and seemingly destroyed. Several years later, Dracula is looking for the fallen fiend. He can use the creature's electronic heart to help his unborn "children" live forever. Helping him with his plot are a trio of winged wives, the doctor's old assistant Igor, and a couple of local werewolves. Trying to stop him is the Vatican's own Indiana Jones, the notorious monster hunter Van Helsing, Along with his trusty subordinate Friar Carl, the cloaked crusader will track down the Valerious family, a local band of gypsies, and help them fight the evil. You see, the last remaining member, Anna, is destined to destroy Dracula, or die trying. Of course, if she fails, and the vampire succeeds, he will annihilate all mankind.
Van Helsing violates the first rule of fantasy filmmaking - it takes a relatively intriguing premise and pisses it away early and often. There is nothing innately wrong with revisiting the classic monsters of the Universal cannon (read: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, etc) and turning them into the targets of a Ghostbusters like creature hunter with Vatican/religious support. There's also nothing problematic with tweaking the mythology a little, especially if it allows you to give your fiends some newfound angles of import. But Sommers, suffering from his typical "more is MORE" mentality, can't decide how best to present his ideas. Should the infamous neckbiter be scary, or just a foolish fop? Should the mélange of human body parts be erudite or easily angered? Between werewolves that shapeshift whenever the full moon is covered by clouds to female vamps who can wander around whenever they want (though one assumes its some directorial 'day for night' license), Van Helsing functions like an adolescent genre fans fruit roll-up inspired invention. Instead, of taking the best of each creature and turning it into something frightening and fun, Sommers is stuck trying to ramrod everything into his typical Saturday matinee serial style. It doesn't really work at all.
The first major stumbling block is the title character himself. Hugh Jackman is a capable leading man, especially when given something substantive (The Fountain) or properly supported by a fictional foundation (X-Men). Here, he's a hero without a missive, a hinted at motive suggesting that beating back the supernatural will lead to revelations about his unclear past. In addition, we get no real handle on Van Helsing as a person. He's cocksure and savvy sometimes, wimped out and indecisive at other instances. Take his barely there chemistry with co-star Kate Beckinsdale. She tries to slut it up in her cleavage-enhancing peasant tops and leather bodices, and yet Jackman acts like she's cramping his camp cult value by being around. Later, when she decides to sacrifice herself for the sake of the situation, we never feel the romantic longing that's implied. All throughout Van Helsing the guy/gal stuff is consistently the weakest - and that's to be expected from a filmmaker whose channeling everything through a limitless boy's adventure tale. If he handles his action in a hackneyed, hamfisted manner, it's hard to expect his interpersonal propositions to be any more skilled.
About the only thing that works here (barely) are the beasts. Then again, all the wolfishness is just junk and should never be mentioned again as part of lycanthrope mythos. Somewhat better is the opening material with Mr. Hyde, especially with its hunchback hints. As with most of Van Helsing, said sequence suffers from some of the sloppiest, most Sci-Fi Channel looking CGI ever committed to a popcorn blockbuster (yes, worse than 10,000 B.C. ). One would assume that with the 11 years that had passed since Jurassic Park that computer generated imagery would have advanced enough to make vampire babies look less like flying Smurfs, but apparently, Sommers' budget didn't demand such attention to detail. Dracula does morph into a decent winged demon, and the scene where Frankenstein's face falls apart delivers on its F/X promise. But as with most of Van Helsing, there is a lot of potential and ambition undermined by 'eh' execution and approach. There are some great ideas buried beneath this jumble of video game clichés and genre revisionism. That Stephem Sommers survived this and the equally retarded The Mummy Returns (Scorpion King was only partially his fault) signifies one of two things. Either Hollywood is truly bereft of decent ideas and individuals to realize them, or the Devil really does deliver when it comes to blood oath promises.
The consensus on the way this ported over from previous editions looks is pretty clear - Van Helsing is fantastic on the digital format. This is a quality transfer, the colors clear and sharp, the details easily defined and well established. This can work to the film's detriment, since some of the faked material is obvious and exposed in this marvelous 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. Still, from a purely technical standpoint, the picture presented on this DVD is darn near reference quality. Darn near.
With its reliance on macabre mood and mad scientist shenanigans, Van Helsing has one Hell of a soundtrack. It's not quite a chaotic cacophony of battling noises, but it's pretty damn close. Luckily, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix keeps all the speakers in action, providing immersion, directional ambience, and enough mash-up monster sonics to more or less manufacture some necessary atmosphere. Alan Silvestri's score is also treated to a multi-track instrumental offering that really sells its old school retro spectacle.
How do you celebrate the unnecessary tre-quel to a franchise no one was clamoring to revisit? Why, if you're Universal, you grab the 2004 DVD version of this film (and other Mummy-oriented titles), repeat the same extras from said releases (more can be read about them in Ian Jane's excellent review here) and add another disc to double your added content-ment. Of course, there's no need to look for new material on the second 'bonus' DVD, since all you have to do is grab the Ultimate Edition that came out later that year and remove the original films - Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolfman (1941). That's right - aside from a coupon redeemable for a ticket to The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, there is nothing new here. Disc 2 contains such bonus features as "Evolution of a Life Story", allowing you to tour the massive lab set, "Dracula's Lair Transformed" a stop motion document which shows how said backdrop was created, and a featurette on the movie's music. There's also something called "Van Helsing: The Story, the Life, the Legend" yet another remote testing 'interactive' map. In the end, it's all been there, done that in the digital packaging department.
Van Helsing is one of those "proper mood" motion pictures, the kind of film that requires the right mindset in order to avoid many of its obvious entertainment pitfalls. If you don't mind the cartoonish quality of the characters and dig on every stunt show setpiece director Stephen Sommers subjects one to, you'll easily recommend this movie to your mates. On the other hand, if your suspension of disbelief can't handle such heavy lifting, if your aesthetic mandates a certain level of clarity and characterization, you'll want to skip this slop all together. Slicing said opinion down the middle, an appropriate rating of Rent It is the result. It allows both sides to champion their position without the massive outlay of cash required to discover where your proclivities truly lie. As for those who already own a copy of this creature feature schlock, an extra disc of EPK lite offerings is not enough to require a trade up. You can just see the future franchise possibilities bubbling away in this missed opportunity - and Universal has no one to blame except the man they hired to helm it...or the demon who keeps delivering him scripts.
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