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Evil finally meets it match when Van Helsing – the legendary hero famed for killing Count Dracula – must join in a quest with the sexy mistress Anna Valerious to rid their Transylvanian village of the wicked evil that lurks in the darkness. Will they succeed and more importantly; will Stephen Sommer’s be able to give us another wickedly fun action adventure? Read on to unlock the secrets…

VH1
Movie
The first few minutes of Van Helsing are, well–inspiring. Shot in (or rather re-coloured to) black and white and featuring some truly creative visual effects, such as burning windmills, old castles and such, you really get the impression you are in for an experience quite unique to the summer spirit. This opening segment also pays homage to some of cinemas finest monsters, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula leading up the cast. Camera angles and filmmaking tactics are also reminiscent of classic cinema. My only first impression to all this black and white bliss was that it is stylistic as hell, superb, mind-blowing and totally bizarre. If only the whole film had been shot this way…

Indeed, as soon as we are introduced to colour, things slowly begin to head in a general downward spiral. It quickly becomes apparent that the film was truly at its best in those first ten or so minutes. Like the concept or loathe it, it would have been a truly ingenious masterwork to simply carry on with that opening sequence. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Don’t get me wrong though, the film doesn’t venture that far off course when a colourful synergy is introduced, it just loses some momentum and style. The CGI (there’s lot and lots and lots of it in Van Helsing) also seems somewhat weaker in anything more than monochrome.

So what about the plot? Stephen Sommers once again penned the script that he directed and is easily his weakest effort to date. His prior films, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns were nothing other than high budget firecrackers, but at least the cheesy dialogue and goofy fun worked. Here, it just becomes laughable and often seriously annoying. What would have blended nicely in his other works seems strained and unintentional here, almost as if his writing style is locked into a set routine.

Alan Silvestri, who has scored some huge films in his time, gives a fantastically loud musical performance for this gaudy adrenaline rush of a movie. The score, which seems poetically connected with the foray of action and the onslaught of computer imagery is one of the better elements of the production. I have heard many people comment that his music is far too good for the film, and I am inclined to agree. On the other hand, the score never lets up for a moment, and listening to it on record makes for a noisy affair. Never have I heard such an unrelenting and forte musical score outside the rigour of heavy metal. It's that heavy!

As expected with summer flicks, the acting is typical if somewhat very casually camp. Hugh Jackman does seems fairly decent in the lead role however, as does Beckinsale for that matter. I’d have to say the best performance between this large cast wasn’t in fact one of the major players, but that of Shuler Hensley who plays Frankenstein’s monster. His operatic outburst “Whyyyyyy” as he falls to his supposed death at the windmill feels very heartfelt and genuine as he cradles his dead creator.

With a rumoured budget of around $160 million, this is one of those pictures where I find it quite hard to see where all the money went. Sure, Allan Cameron’s production design is fantastic and often huge, and the many CGI effects would certainly seem to fill up most of the receipt, but nothing actually feels like it cost so much. For starters, the CGI is admittedly quite bad in places. Sometime it often seems like Industrial Light and Magic really had a bad day and apparently not even a multi-million dollar contract could snap them out of it.

VH3
Van Helsing is a firework; it’s colourful, bright and provides enough entertainment in a whiz-bang display you can really enjoy. But ultimately, and not unlike a firework, it’s a cheap thrill-ride that unfortunately isn’t really worth its tag price. It’s big, expensive and ultimately falls short of impressing for too long. Don’t let that fool you however, this firecracker doesn’t merely fizzle out at the end as some might have you believe, it goes up in a huge cosmic whirl of sparkles and smoke that arrives just in time for the winter!

Video
Shot in a disappointing 1.85:1 aspect (which has been enhanced to a superb anamorphic for the DVD) Van Helsing comes off rather dissatisfactory overall. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the aforementioned aspect ratio, but exactly why Sommers shot the movie this way is beyond me. With all the visual treats stuffed into the movie, I would have thought a nice n’ meaty 2.35:1 aspect would have taken advantage so much more.

Another instance I can think of where a wider image has made for more enjoyable cinema was with the recent sequel to Spiderman. Its 140 million dollar predecessor was also filmed in standard widescreen (something of a major letdown at the time) but was corrected to a super-wide 2.40:1 aspect for the 200 million dollar sequel. Strange then that Sommer’s decided against this when he himself shot both Mummy movies in a wider frame. It’s not a big deal; it just would have been so very geeky and great to see some of the imagery stretched over a wider area of screen.

The opening shot is great in this movie; the Universal logo burns into black and white before our eyes, bursting right into the first scene. Alan Strivesti’s musical score pounds away in the background, but what really takes you here is the level of detail in the black and white. It’s glorious, and when you see the burning windmill a few minutes in, it may just literally take your breath away! Never have I seen such a great blend of effects in monochrome; without doubt the best bit of the movie and of the digital transfer to DVD. Superb!

Moving onto other such aspects of the print, there are some grain issues dotted around, but in this instance they further aid the film’s age-old look. The occasional dodgy CGI effect in the movie (which is basically the whole damn thing) does look nice and sharp, but don’t stand out anymore than they should. For the most part I found the transfer quite seamless and I really couldn’t flaw it for anything of significance.

VH5
Audio
Wow! This is one deep, base-loaded movie and it delights me to tell you that the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is absolutely superb! It’s oh-so very good, clear and damn near perfect, yet such a joy to listen to that it really does enhance this movie. On the rare occasion that this happens, I have to credit Dolby and the sound designers for really pulling off a great achievement. This is one of these movies (and DVD’s) that could easily act as a demo-disc for you to show off your home cinema.

The score comes across with sheer perfection. It is loud but never interposes the dialogue or dramatic sound effects. It does seem a tad quieter than its cinematic counterpart, but the volume level isn’t too low. All I can really say is that it’s perfectly attuned, perfectly balanced and simply genius to behold. Likewise, all of the other aspects are great to listen to. Dialogue seems very taut, direction effects are aplenty and the overall listening experience is one of the uttermost pleasures of this DVD. Easily one of the best soundtracks of the year so far!

Extras
There are two versions of Van Helsing on DVD; a single disc edition and the more beefy double disc edition. This being the double disc release, you can expect better packaging and a host of additional special features to keep you happy that little bit longer. As for the packaging these discs come boxed in, I was very impressed at first glance. Everything from the silver font to the slip-out case and even the printings are most impressive indeed. The selection of artwork was also a stoke of genius. I only wish I could say the same for the menu designs!

Disc one has a rather healthy supply of features, not least two feature-length commentaries. The first is by writer/director Stephen Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay. The second is by Richard Roxburgh Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp. Between the two, the first was my preferred commentary. The second doesn’t really have that spark to it and a commentary from Jackman and Beckinsale would have been far better.

‘Explore Dracula’s Castle’ is one of those tedious interactive ‘navigation’ themed features that is only ever going to amuse younger kids who will probably enjoy this tour. I found it boring and was very temped to just skip it.

The five minute blooper reel is actually a good laugh, and coming from me, that is saying a lot. I found it to be quite inventive and it certainly came across as a fun environment the cast and crew worked in.

VH4
‘Bringing the Monsters to Life’ is a rather interesting making of feature, but the obvious bias remarks some of the effects team make are quite bizarre. One of them seems to think the digitally created Mr. Hyde was perhaps one of the greatest, most photorealistic characters ever seen. Yes, the creation and work is impressive, but to label it as one of the best was just plain absurd.

‘You are in the Movie’ seems like a totally pointless feature to be quite honest. Several hidden cameras were strapped onto various parts of the sets and cameras to give viewers an additional angle on takes. After you have seen this, a screen appears that inform you than you can watch an ‘enhanced’ version of the movie where icons will appear at certain stages.

‘The Legend of Van Helsing’ accounts the legend of the character as seen in many older films and as written by Bram Stoker. To go back and see footage from classic horror flicks was a nice addition to this otherwise drab feature.

The last feature on disc one are the trailer and DVD Rom features. So, let’s quickly move on and see what disc two has in store.

‘The Burning Windmill’ runs for several minutes and shows us the impressive work the visual effects team did to get this great scene to work.

‘Dracula’s Castle’ has Allan Cameron showing us exactly how he brought Stephen Sommers vision to life in his enormous production design. Watching this feature actually does begin to make you appreciate the scale of work that goes into a film such as this.

‘Frankenstein’s Lab’ cross references many older monster movies and elaborates how Sommers created the infamous laboratory set.

‘The Village’ is yet another set-creation feature which now reveals the many secrets in bringing the village to reality. Aside from all the construction work used, it also has some great footage of the CGI used within those set pieces.

‘The Vatican Armoury’ is a fun little feature that exhibits most of the weaponry as seen in the film. Many of these were naturally showcased in the Vatican Armoury itself. It also slips some set design information from the creators.

‘Evolution of a Legacy’ opens up a new menu with three features buried inside. ‘Explore Frankenstein’s Lab’ runs in the same vein as the Dracula’s Castle feature on the first disc. Once again you can click on the arrows which will then enable you to venture around the lab. ‘Dracula’s Lair is Transformed’ is a simple feature that shows how the set was constructed over time. ‘The Music of Van Helsing’ is one of the more interesting on the disc having Alan Silvestri walk us through his score for the film.

VH2
‘Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The legend’ also opens up another multi-select menu system. ‘Dracula’ is a lengthy documentary on the character himself. Drawing once again on older movies, this feature makes one wonder exactly why, after Summers and Roxburgh drone on endlessly about the mythos of Dracula, they decided to make their version the lamest to date with his camp embodying. The same also applies to the remainder of feature in this section ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, ‘The Werewolves’ and ‘The Women of Van Helsing: Anna and Dracula’s Brides’. In the last one, Sommers boasts that he has found a hugely talented cast; that might be true, it is just a shame he did not give them the material to work with to elaborate his theory.

Overall
If you see it for what it is, then Van Helsing really shouldn’t disappoint. It is pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. It’s goofy, hollow, over-the-top fun that never lets up, not even for a second. Grab yourself a bucket of extra-sweet popcorn, a large soda, crank up those volume dials, shut off your brain for two hours and simply enjoy.

The DVD itself is great. Both audio and visual elements are top notch and the huge host of special features, while lacking in any real quality, are pretty decent to sit through. Overall, a recommendation will only be given to those who are either a) looking for a good thrill ride and b) those who are fully aware of Van Helsing and its many, many degenerative flaws.


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