Running Time: 132 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: French and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1, French & Spanish – Stereo Surround (2.0)
October 19th, 2004
In the early 1930s, as the horror genre came into its own, Universal Studios wasted little time in giving movie patrons more of the thrills and chills that they were craving. Indeed, within a single decade, a trio of films that has been entertaining horror fans for over 70 years burst onto the big screen - Dracula, starring the incomparable Bela Lugosi, James Whale’s Frankenstein, featuring the “uncanny” Boris Karloff, and The Wolf Man, which starred Lon Chaney. Jr.
In recent years, horror films have seen a bit of a revival, and Universal has returned to its horror roots to a degree, largely due to the efforts of a young filmmaker named Stephen Sommers, who helmed both The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Not content to stop with remaking the Mummy for a modern audience, Mr. Sommers bravely decided to roll his version of the aforementioned trio of monsters into one film, where they are pitted against the infamous vampire killer Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman). Of course, those familiar with the classics will no doubt notice that Van Helsing’s name has been changed from Abraham to Gabriel in this film.
Unfortunately, although this idea sounded immensely appealing with Sommers at the helm (I thought his first Mummy was an awful lot of fun), Van Helsing ended up being a major disappointment on many fronts. The biggest problem is that Sommers appears to be following in the footsteps of George Lucas, whose recent films are all about style over substance. More specifically, though this film has some dazzling set design (it really is imaginative) and sounds great, the characters are just not very interesting or memorable, the dialogue is atrocious, and the abilities of Industrial Light and Magic are relied upon far too much. Let me say that as this is clearly a “popcorn” movie, I was in no way expecting a cinematic masterpiece, but Van Helsing is simply devoid of the heart and sense of fun that made Sommers’ version of The Mummy such a likeable film.
Obviously intended to be the first film in a potentially lucrative franchise, Van Helsing is interesting in one way – it reveals a much different side of the illustrious Van Helsing than we are used to seeing. More precisely, Stephen Sommers takes us back in time to 1887-1888, an early portion of the worldly and educated scientist’s career, when he was a fearless bad-ass who mercilessly hunted the forces of evil for the Knights of the Holy Order, a secret society made up of leaders from all religions.
Shortly after the film opens, with a neat fight between Van Helsing and Mr. Hyde, our hero is sent to Transylvania by the Knights’ leadership. Basically, his mission is to bring Count Dracula’s (Richard Roxburgh) afterlife to an end before he can complete an experiment that will allow vampires to populate the globe. It seems Dracula wants to procreate, and is trying to locate the Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley), who is the key to the machinery that will give everlasting life to thousands of his offspring. And as if battling Dracula were not enough of a challenge, Van Helsing must also contend with the werewolf in league with him and his three harpy wives.
Fortunately, our distinguished hero has some help on this most dangerous of quests, in the form of a beautiful Transylvanian vampire hunter named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and the trusty Friar Carl (David Wenham), who provides a variety of cool-looking gear and weaponry for Van Helsing to use as he battles the forces of evil. Naturally, however, since the Count is the granddaddy of vampires, these gizmos and gadgets prove ineffective, and the protagonists soon realize that no one knows how to kill Dracula. Can Van Helsing and company finally find a way, or will humankind drop a step in the food chain, as the Count’s plan to birth a race of vampires comes to fruition?
Not wanting to provide too much detail on the plot, my description of the story will end there. I will, however, tell you why I had some serious problems with Van Helsing. The first thing that comes to mind is that despite a story containing three of film history’s most frightening and creepy characters, Stephen Sommers’ movie contains little more than a handful of scares (and even those are cheap and obvious). Instead, Van Helsing assaults the senses with almost endless action/chase sequences, most of which are so repetitive they quickly wear out their welcome. This is not a good thing in a 90-minute action/horror flick, much less one that runs for 132 minutes! Even worse, I found the expository sequences that tie the action set pieces together to be unbelievably shallow and dull.
Yet another big problem for me was that although the set design was fabulous, a lot of things in Van Helsing, including the CGI monsters, the stunts, and even the CGI sets, “feel” fake, so it was impossible for me to suspend disbelief at times. Indeed, Stephen Sommers injects computerized images of one sort or another into nearly every shot, but it seemed to me as though they really did not do anything to enhance the story. In my case, instead of seamlessly blending CG with traditional effects to create a believable world, a la Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, the overuse of CGI in Van Helsing actually took me out of it.
Unfortunately, Sommers integration of humor into this film is also far less effective than it was in his Mummy pictures. In fact, I thought most of the things that were funny about Van Helsing were not intended to be a source of laughter. In my opinion, although interactions between Friar Carl and Frankenstein’s monster generated a few humorous moments, almost all of the scripted comedy in this film is uninspired and lifeless, not to mention unfunny. And the weaponry Van Helsing uses…sure, it looks cool but come on!
The performances are no less up-and-down than anything else in this film. As always, Hugh Jackman does fine work as the title character, but some of those surrounding him are surprisingly inept. The most glaring example is Kate Beckinsale, who is a decent actress, but was absolutely horrible as Anna Vaerlious. To be sure, I attribute some of this to the dialogue spoken by her character, including such gems as how her people “…look on the brighter side of death.” , but she definitely didn’t do much to help this film from sliding headlong into the jaws of failure.
An almost equal disappointment was Richard Roxburgh, who was great in Moulin Rouge, but ridiculously over-the-top as Count Vladislaus Dracula. Conversely, Shuler Hensley, who gives the Frankenstein monster a lot of humanity, and David Wenham, who is amusing Friar Carl, turn in commendable performances. Too bad their efforts are lost in the overabundance of CGI, stilted dialogue, and repetitive action sequences.
Finally, I think that Stephen Sommers, who proved so adept at turning in a solid action/horror film with The Mummy, was off his game here, even more so than in The Mummy Returns. This is especially true of the buildup of romantic tension between Anna Valerious and Van Helsing, which is handled horribly through some truly contrived fighting. I also grew weary of how the title character did not show a single ounce of fear, even when confronted with bloodthirsty undead monsters that are much larger, faster, and stronger than human beings. Perhaps I am being overly critical, but when “heroes” appear to be unflinching in the face of such grave danger, I find it hard to feel any tension or dread myself.
Perhaps I am being overly critical, but I really had hoped for a much different outcome for Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing. As I said, I thought the concept had a lot of promise, but the end result seems to me to be a perfect example of a film that places far too much emphasis on style, at the expense of its substance. Certainly, there are people out there who liked this film (hell, my wife did!), and I completely respect your opinions…but I do not share them. As such, I hope you will forgive me if I do not celebrate when they announce the inevitable sequel (this film has grossed several hundred million dollars worldwide).
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ration, anamorphically enhanced for widescreen displays, Van Helsing’s transfer is just about perfect, highlighted by bold, smoothly-rendered colors and blacks that are, well, black. Many environments in the film are completely digital creations, and there are a great many of night shots in the film, but even in these challenging environments the image is clear, extremely well defined, and completely free of compression artifacts, grain, and video noise.
Hell, even though a lot of this film looks artificial, the superb set design, Allen Daviau’s imaginative cinematography, and some jaw-dropping aerial shots are reproduced in all of their glory on this disc. Again, there is so much detail throughout that it is nearly unbelievable! Just look around Frankenstein’s laboratory or the Knights of the Holy Order’s shop in the Vatican, for instance, where detail is so precise that you can see every weird-looking, cobweb-covered device or instrument with crystal clarity!
The opening sequence, shot in black-and-white, also looks magnificent, with just about perfect contrast, a smooth grayscale, and deep blacks. Honestly, I can’t say enough about this transfer – but its clarity does come at a price, as a little more attention is drawn to some of the more “fake”-looking CGI effects. Other than that, which is no fault of the transfer, Van Helsing looks stunning on DVD!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
While listening to this film’s soundtrack, it should be patently obvious – a lot of care was spent making Van Helsing a loud, boisterous aural experience. Happily, although this movie is simply screaming for a DTS mix, the 5.1 channel Dolby Digital offering included holds its own pretty well.
To begin with, the soundstage is absolutely gigantic, but it also exhibits a wonderful sense of balance and extremely precise imaging, even as all hell breaks loose around the protagonists! Almost as impressive was how dialogue remained discernable, even during the very busiest of scenes, so listeners never have to strain to hear what is being said.
Of course, the sound effects in Van Helsing, which include weapons fire and a variety of monster noises, will give your system quite a workout. With that in mind, it is some of the environmental effects, particularly thunder, which do the best job of showcasing the soundtrack’s powerful, and yet extremely tight, bass response.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Alan Silvestri’s dynamic score, which is wonderful mixture of sounds/instruments both old and new! In terms of how it is reproduced for the home, I had no complaints, as Silvestri’s compositions are spread nicely throughout the sound field, and boast excellent fidelity! Would you expect anything less from a big-budget, “Sommersized” production?
To sum things up, this Dolby Digital mix has great atmospherics during quiet scenes, dialogue is presented in fine fashion, and when it is called for, it will most certainly remind you that you are watching an absurdly expensive action film! Again, I would have LOVED to have a DTS track on here, given that Universal puts it on fare that doesn’t really require it, like Meet the Parents, but this will do for now.
Audio Commentary #1
The first audio commentary for Van Helsing is contributed by director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay, who offer their thoughts on the film a week before it debuted in theaters. After listening intently to their comments for 2 hours and 12 minutes, I can safely say that both men are chatty, both men appear enthusiastic about this film, and both men say very little of real interest about the film!
Indeed, this commentary is surprisingly screen-specific, with Sommers and Ducsay touching on the visual techniques used, and location information on only a very superficial level. I also grew irritated with how much pleasure Sommers seemed to take in telling listeners how big and grand his films are, and that ILM has coined the term “Sommersizing” for the work they have done on his films.
In all honesty, I do not think that most people will find this track interesting enough to spend over two hours of time with it, but if your opinion on the film differs from mine, you may find it worthwhile. Some of the few highlights (for me) were:
--- Mr. Sommers chatting (very briefly) about the genesis of the story, and how he prodded himself into fully fleshing out the script. Interesting as insight into how he comes up with stories.
--- Bob Ducsay pointing out some of the continuity errors in the film, and revealing (along with Stephen Sommers) some of the homages paid to other films in Van Helsing.
--- Brief discussions about the reasons why Hugh Jackman was cast, which apparently had nothing to do with his work on the X-Men films.
--- Stephen Sommers talking about how he went about answering the question “Why does Dracula cast no reflection in mirrors?”. I must admit, although I did not like the film, I thought his approach to this question was very creative, as I have always wondered the same thing.
Audio Commentary #2
The second, and more interesting audio commentary for Van Helsing features the musings of actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp (who portrayed the Wolf Man). Although it is somewhat screen-specific, the track is still plenty lively, with the three actors joking with each other throughout the feature, and covering a wide range of topics, such as:
--- How (in their view) computer effects were used to enhance both their performances and the film.
--- Discussions about the extensive makeup applications and wire-work sessions that some members of the cast had to endure.
--- The challenge of portraying iconic characters, like the Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man.
Explore Dracula’s Castle
Through this neat extra, viewers can embark on an interactive tour of Dracula’s forbidding castle, and take a much closer look at the wonderful set design than they were able to get in Van Helsing. Unfortunately, the tour is accompanied by some rather lame narration by Richard Roxburgh, who played the infamous Count in the film.
You Are In The Movie!
Through miniature cameras scattered throughout the set, this 4 ½-minute bonus feature offers a bird’s eye view of a few scenes being filmed, including Van Helsing sneaking into Dracula’s lab, and their subsequent meeting. More specifically, viewers will see these scenes from alternate angles, along with some text that describes what is taking place.
There is also an option to explore several of the movie’s sets while watching the feature. Press enter/select (depending on your remote) when the icon pops up during the film, and you are on your way. Personally, I never cared for extras that disrupt the flow of the movie like this, but to each their own…
The outtakes reel for Van Helsing is approximately 5 ½ minutes long, and features the usual – on-set hijinks, actors messing up their lines, and so forth. There is nothing groundbreaking here, but it is a bit more amusing than typical offerings.
Bringing the Monsters to Life
One of the more interesting extras, the 10-minute “Bringing the Monsters to Life” chronicles the process of re-creating some of history’s greatest monsters. Essentially, from conceptual art through digital composition, the good folks at Industrial Light and Magic show viewers how Van Helsing’s monsters were given life.
The Van Helsing Xbox game
The first level of the Van Helsing video game is available for play (provided that you have an Xbox console, of course).
Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend
Essentially, this value-added feature consists of a 10-minute documentary that outlines the Van Helsing character through interview clips, concept art, and a breakdown of Industrial Light and Magic’s computer-generated effects.
As the segment opens, Van Helsing’s origins are outlined, via interview excerpts and footage from Universal’s classic monster films. Afterwards, Stephen Sommers reveals why he decided to focus on the early part of Van Helsing’s career. Finally, Mr. Sommers, and actors David Wenham and Kate Beckinsale offer plenty of complimentary comments about man who played the legendary vampire killer, Hugh Jackman.
A nearly 2 1/2 –minute promotional trailer for Van Helsing, is included, as is the “Superbowl Trailer”. This latter trailer, which runs 60 seconds, seems like a condensed version of the 2 ½ minute trailer, as it features much of the same footage.
If you have the inclination, you can see a list of the people responsible for bringing the abomination that is Van Helsing to DVD.
The disc kicks off with promotional material for:
--- Shaun of the Dead, Seed of Chucky, and The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
As you can clearly see, despite going into it knowing it would be a “popcorn flick”, I thought Van Helsing was an extremely disappointing film! Maybe I was being overly optimistic, but I simply expected much more from Stephen Sommers, especially with an actor of Hugh Jackman’s caliber on board.
On the other hand, in terms of A/V quality, the DVD is fantastic! Love it or hate it, Van Helsing does deliver in those departments, as the transfer is first-rate and the soundtrack truly immerses the viewer in the on-screen action. With a couple exceptions, the extras also provide some insight into the creation of this film and Stephen Sommers’ writing process. Thus, if you liked the movie in the theaters, you will almost certainly find it worth your money.
Unfortunately, for me, this is yet another case of a great DVD being released for a really bad movie, and I would only recommend it to those who have already seen the movie and disagree with my assessment of its quality. For all of the reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I think what could have been a really fun movie ends up being little more than a test of one’s endurance. I can only hope someone stakes Van Helsing through the heart, before Mr. Sommers brings him back to desecrate the memories of more of the classic monsters that horror fans hold dear!