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Van Helsing (Widescreen Edition)
In Stephen (The Mummy) Sommers' latest action horror hybrid, Hugh Jackman (known to pretty much everyone as Wolverine from the X-Men films) plays the title role of Van Helsing. While the name may conjure up fond memories of gothic horror and creaky cobwebbed crypts, Sommers ensures that his revamp of the character has less to do with Edward Von Sloan and Peter Cushing and more to do with James Bond.
Set against a backdrop of late 1800s Europe, Van Helsing is an agent of the Catholic Church whose mission is to fight evil and take down monsters. Why does he do this? Because at some point he lost his memory and wound up on the doorstep of a church where the took him in and turned him into the fighting machine that he is today, complete with his own version of Q named Carl (David Wenham) to provide some very unnecessary comic relief.
When the Catholic Church finds out that Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, sporting an unintentionally hilarious accent) is trying to pick up where the late Dr. Frankenstein left off, they send Van Helsing to Romania where he teams up with a buxom gal named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, who looks great in a corset for some reason) to stop Dracula and attempt to save her brother, who happens to have been bitten by and subsequently turned into a werewolf not too long ago. Unfortunately for our heroes, Dracula has a whole lot of evil doers on his side in the form of some scantily clad vampire brides, a werewolf or two, and if all goes as planned, Frankenstein's monster.
It should go without saying that being familiar with and even having enjoyed on a very base level some of Sommers' earlier efforts that I knew this movie would be full of CGI. Now I have mixed emotions on the format – sometimes it can really enhance a movie and allow for effects to happen that would otherwise be pretty near impossible. The Lord Of The Rings films are good examples of this. Other times, CGI can be so blatantly obvious that it sucks you right out of the film and ruins whatever atmosphere might have been there in the first place. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good example of this. Van Helsing falls somewhere in the middle in this regard – some of the effects are a little obvious, some of them work. The sets look fantastic and some of the creatures look really good – but others don't look quite as natural as they need to and kinda sorta look a wee bit phony.
But the problem with Van Helsing does not lie with the abundant use of CGI.
Van Helsing fails before it even gets to the visuals department. In fact, the movie looks pretty good for what it is. Where the real weakness lies is in the script. Now I realize that the demographic that this movie was going for was probably kids and pre-teens but come on, could the dialogue have been anymore painful to sit through or completely and utterly predictable? I honestly don't think that it could have been. Given the fact that we get almost zero background information on the lead characters it's hard to care for them in the least, and the relationship between Anna and Van Helsing happens so quickly that you know how it's all going to end and nothing comes as a surprise at all. With that in hand, the movie ends up a bore. With no suspense and no characters to care about, how else could it have turned out?
The movie looks interesting and the set design is absolutely fantastic but neither this nor the non-stop action that the film delivers are enough to carry a story that delivers nothing and performances that almost define clichéd. I found myself finishing lines of dialogue for the characters, it was just that easy to see it coming.The DVD
Well, those who enjoyed the movie should be pretty pleased with the snappy looking 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that Universal has give Van Helsing. While the high level of clarity present from start to finish does make some of the computer generated effects more obvious, the colors are rich and supple and the ever important black levels remain strong and deep without showing any evidence of compression – which is a big deal considering how much of this movie takes place at night and/or in dark rooms, caverns, laboratories, et cetera. Pay attention during some of the more difficult scenes involving smoke, cobwebs, snow, and water and you'll notice that they're rendered near perfectly and don't show obvious digital flaws like many transfers do. The amount of detail crammed into this transfer combined with nicely rendered transfer, the totally over the top visuals and set design ensure that Van Helsing looks terrific on this DVD presentation.Sound:
An excellent English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix adorns this DVD, as do Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound mixes in French and Spanish. English closed captioning is available as are optional French and Spanish subtitles. While it would have been nice to have a DTS option, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track gets the job done on this movie just fine. There's plenty of aggressive channel separation and during some of the more action-oriented moments in the film it's not uncommon to hear all sorts of commotion and sound effects whizzing around your room. Quieter moments use the rears to add ambience in the form of natural room sounds and background noise. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise even during the commotion of the fight scenes and the musical score and sound effects never overshadow what's being said on screen. Bass response is terrific and the mix will give your subwoofer something to chew on, especially when weather or battle sounds are being used in the mix. In short, the sound mix is great.Extras:
First up are two commentary tracks. The first track features director Stephen Sommers and Producer Bob Ducsay. The pair sound very enthusiastic about the film that they're watching, noting what they like about it and generally seem very pleased with the way that things turned out. Sadly, there's not a whole lot going on in this track to really make it worth sitting through unless you're on of those die-hard commentary types. Sure, they seem nice enough but they kind of ramble on about things that are already apparent just by watching the film. If you're looking for the insider's dirt on how the movie was made of fun gossip about its cast and crew, you'll be sorely disappointed. This commentary is, for lack of a better word, fluffy.
The second commentary track wrangles up three of the actors from the film who played the three main monsters – Richard Roxburgh (Count Dracula), Will Kemp (The Wolfman) and Shuler Hensley (Frankenstein's Monster). Considerably more fun than the first track, the three men seem to have enjoyed working together and have plenty of anecdotes to share about things that went down on set and behind the scenes. They also discuss some of the difficulties they encountered with the characters that they were playing as well as how things went in relation to working with so many special effects in the film.
Next up is an interactive game style feature entitled Explore Dracula's Castle. If the title didn't give it away, this is a little interactive 'rooms' that you can explore with your remote control to find hidden secrets as some of the characters pop up to share facts with you. This was interesting once, but I can't see ever going back to it.
Bringing The Monsters To Life is a ten minute CGI love fest that shows us how the filmmakers used computers to bastardize the classic monsters so many of us were raised on. The CGI artists seem pretty content with their work which we find out through interviews, boasting about their achievements and seeming quite happy with their results.
You Are In The Movie is, in a nutshell, different scenes from the film presented from different angles. Specifically four different scenes are yours to control as you decide which of the options you want to view and when you want to view them. This feature runs for just under five minutes and was shot with small cameras on set at the same time as the shots used in the final version of the film.
Van Helsing – The Story, The Life… The Legend is a ten minute crash course in the history and genesis of the character from his inception in the early Dracula mythos through to the Hugh Jackman version portrayed in this film. The best part about this documentary are the clips from the old Universal horror films, the worst part is the butt kissing done by Sommer's and Beckinsale who seem to think that Jackman was really good in this movie for some reason.
Rounding out the extra features are a Blooper Reel that clocks in at roughly five and a half minutes and isn't very funny, an X-Box Van Helsing game demo that I couldn't play as I don't have an X-Box, credits for the film in text format, a theatrical trailer for the feature film and a teaser for the feature film that was broadcast during the Super Bowl. At the beginning of the DVD, before you get to the menu, there are trailers for Shaun Of The Dead, Seed Of Chucky and the three other Sommer's Universal Monster movies, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and the Rock vehicle, The Scorpion King.Final Thoughts:
While the movie looks and sounds absolutely great, the extras play like fluff pieces and I believe that watching the movie itself actually made me 'stupider' by the time the end credits rolled. Van Helsing doesn't work as either an action movie or a horror movie and despite Universal's pretty DVD release should be avoided at all costs. Skip it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.