"And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him!"
Minus comedic diabolical laughter, that line was sung by Jason Marshall as part of his musical about Dracula in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. For the life of me, that's all I could think of when watching the Hugh Jackman/Kate Beckinsdale 2004 film, and not in a good way. Having never seen the film before, I can now say that Van Helsing was a test of my physical will.
Written and directed by Stephen Sommers (The Scorpion King), Jackman plays the title character, a man whose primary purpose in life is hunting down and killing supernatural beings. His next mission takes him to Transylvania where he is to kill Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, Stealth). The Count had previously been working with Dr. Frankenstein on his creation; when the Doctor was killed, the Count took control of the monster. He also works with a mysterious Wolf Man who happens to be married to a Transylvanian Princess (Beckinsdale). With her help, Helsing tries to find Dracula, not to mention learn about his own past, which he is unable to remember and is mysterious to him.
That is basically the gist of the film, but there is so much is done in Van Helsing that it's the very definition of "going through the motions." Create protagonist and protagonist's basic goal in life, and what you want them to do by the end of the film. Jackman's there to kill goblins and demons, including a particularly smart/nasty one. Next is to inject a possible love interest. Beckinsdale fits that role to some degree, though she spends most of her time wearing really sexy outfits, along with some crying and the occasional "Be careful" line. Come to think of it, that's what she does in most of her films, but I digress. For the film, the protagonist has got to have some inner conflict, so Van Helsing's desire to find out his past, combined with Dracula's role in it, is what we get. But it's all so predictable that any subsequent conflict resolution is painful to watch because it's so tedious. Of course you've got the resolution, and everyone goes home happy in some manner or fashion. Whether it's Helsing's assistant Carl (David Wenham, Public Enemies) or Frankenstein's monster, everyone is a winner in the Helsing camp.
With such a transparent story, what does Sommers do to cover his tracks? Stunts and visual effects my friends, in both equal and copious amounts. In fact, any story exposition serves as segues to stunt and CG monsters and battles that after awhile get boring, even comical. Sommers has a tendency to do many of these scenes in slow motion, similar to what Zack Snyder (of 300 and Watchmen fame) does now. Excessive use of that tends to reveal more a "style over substance" proclivity; when you're making a film that's over two hours long (as Van Helsing is), it's downright punishing to the viewer.
I'll give credit for Sommers attempting to revive some old movie legends in the modern movie landscape. He did this well with his remake of The Mummy, but here it seems like he was given the keys to the candy shop, threw everything against the wall and hoped it would stick. Sadly, none of it does. On the flip side though, I'll tell you this; if I see Van Helsing again, I swear to the Lord I will slay myself.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen using the AVC codec, which is a change from the normal VC-1 encode that Universal uses both in their Blu-ray library and for the 2006 HD DVD release. The results are impressive here; black levels are deeper than I was expecting, and the film's black and white prologue looks excellent. Image detail in the foreground is solid, and background depth and clarity is quite good for a 1.85:1 feature; there's a multidimensional feel I wasn't expecting coming into the film. Grain is present without being distracting. Sommers and cinematographer Allen Daviau (Bugsy) pack a lot into the frame, and it's handled very well in high-definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround track is an upgrade from the HD DVD and its Dolby Digital-Plus track in a big way. The film may be inane in its storytelling, but when it comes to the action sequences, it brings the low end rumble and immersive experience well. Dracula's brides fly through the small Transylvania town with an effective and ample soundstage supporting them, whooshing through all speakers with clarity. But the dialogue is weak dramatically and technically. As a result it comes in extremely low in scenes, so you've got to compensate as a result, and get your eardrums blown out when the action starts. I'd probably put it in the upper second tier of lossless tracks that I've heard.
The extras from the 2008 Collector's Edition have been brought over to this DBox and BD-Live enabled BD-50, so hooray for that. Two commentaries are present on the film; the first, with Sommers and Producer/Editor Bob Ducsay, doesn't really get too involved in the making of the film. That is to say, I didn't get a lot of information out of the track while I was listening to it. The second track, with Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley (who played Frankenstein's monster) and Will Kemp (who plays the Prince/Wolf Man) was far more loose and enjoyable. They recall some of the more difficult moments when playing their respective characters, including Hensley's thoughts on wearing all that rubber, and they share the requisite thoughts on fellow cast members and on the crew in general. It's the better track, in my opinion.
Past those, the track has some decent supplements. The U-Control track is your obligatory picture-in-picture track, which includes cast interviews, stills, behind the scenes footage, the usual stuff here. A nice inclusion otherwise, but it feels wasted on this film. "Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend" is a multi-part feature where you can choose from five different segments examining the monsters, or you can play them altogether (58:09). They look at the books and movies on Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man, and explain the individual allure of each one, placing them in their historical context as well. The actors playing them discuss how they interpreted their role in the film, and Sommers discusses the approach he had when incorporating them into the story. The crew talks about the costume, makeup and effects for each of the characters, and this piece also covers how the stars handled the stunts and wire work needed in their roles. It's a solid piece and worth the time to explore.
"Track the Adventure" is a similar five-part examination on the film, though not as long (34:36). It looks more at the visual effects in the film, including the miniature shots used and the set design for the actual sets during production. The props and other weapons used in the film are even shown and discussed by those responsible for creating them. This is an equally effective look at the film, though from another perspective. "Bringing the Monsters to Life!" (10:02) is the portion of the disc where Industrial Light and Magic shows what their participation in the film was like, including some animatics and previsualization footage, along with the film as it progressed from shot footage to finished CG work in various scenes. "You are in the Movie!" (4:29) is a quick piece with some handheld cameras that were placed in sets or on cameras, and helped show a scene from another angle. "The Music of Van Helsing" (9:41) gives composer Alan Silvestri a chance to explain the score from the film along with his work process, and how he collaborates with Sommers. Much orchestral session footage abounds. The blooper reel (5:29) is pretty funny, while "Dracula's Lair Transformed" (2:41) is a time-lapse look at turning the soundstage into a set. "Masquerade: the Ball Scene Unmasked" (25:29) looks at the gala where Dracula and the Princess danced, and includes dance rehearsal sessions, Silvestri's music he wrote for the scene, the stars' ability to dance and a whole host of production issues surrounding it. It also examines costume design for the many extras and the visual effects in the shot. It's a much more interesting piece than I was expecting. "The Art of Van Helsing" is a series of artwork and designs set to a spooky soundtrack (5:10), while 3 "Monster Eggs" (1:53) are Easter Eggs included on the Blu-ray. A $5 coupon for Halloween (or movie) candy is included with the disc as well.
I had to watch Van Helsing over two nights, and I couldn't take more than 25 minutes without having a case of the drowsies. I've at least seen lesser quality films attempt to be good and fail, or revel in not even trying. Even as your stereotypical mindless action flick, it's not that impressive. From a Blu-ray perspective, it looks and sounds good, and there's quite a few supplements, so if you're a fan, feel free to double-dip. But if you're looking for a demo disc which you can watch repeatedly, you could do better.