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Halloween at the box office came a little early this year with writer/director Stephen Sommers’ latest would be blockbuster Van Helsing which kicked off the summer movie going season. Sommers has had success in the past with his Mummy films dominating the early summer season box office and DVD sales in the Fall. Could this film be a trick or a treat for viewers at home?

Note: This review is of the standard single disc release of Van Helsing. The three disc Ultimate edition includes the Universal classics Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man as well as more featurettes on the film.  The transfer and content of the actual film are identical in both releases.

Van Helsing
Movie
Van Helsing has the prerequisites for a great monster mash with three of Universal’s most iconic creatures going head to head, a feast for the eyes in visual effects and production design and Hugh Jackman as the title character.  Unfortunately it doesn’t have much else going for it! The visual effects onslaught supplied by ILM, among others, becomes repetitive after a while offering nothing new or surprising later in the film and the story is silly, containing wooden dialogue and nearly zero character development.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the main villain, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), as he attempts to steal away the monster Frankenstein creature (Shuler Hensley) for reasons that will be revealed later in the story.  Thanks to some torch bearing locals he is forced to flee Transylvania without the creature.  Flash forward one year later to Paris where we find our hero, Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) attempting to capture Mr. Hyde (with voice and facial movements by Robby Coltrane and motion capture courtesy of Hensley).  After an encounter with Hyde, Van Helsing is called back to Vatican City on urgent business and given his next assignment to travel, along with sidekick friar and weapons master Carl (David Wenham) to Transylvania to aid in the hunt for Dracula.  Upon arriving, they meet Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), whose family has sworn an ancient oath to vanquish Dracula or spend eternity in Purgatory.  Too bad for Anna and her family that she and her brother, Velkan (Will Kemp) are the sole remaining members of their clan and dear brother has just recently taken up lycanthropy as a lifestyle choice.

It is now up to Van Helsing, Carl and Anna to track down Dracula and his cohorts, including his brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca and Josie Maran) and Igor (Sommers’ regular Kevin J. O’Connor), and stop whatever evil madness the Count has in store.  Along the way the plot involves Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, and while the Wolf Man character serves little purpose beyond a plot device and a neat visual effect, the Frankenstein Monster is delivered in a good performance by Hensley.  The Monster is easily the best developed and interesting character in the entire film, and I only wish that Sommers could have found more for the creature to do.  On the other hand, Dracula is played a little bit too over the top by Roxburgh for my tastes and comes across as a whining Mafioso whipped by his wife (or wives in this case). Van Helsing and Anna are mired by stiff dialogue and do not offer much character development of their own.  The only character other than Frankenstein’s Monster that truly comes across as interesting is Wenham’s Carl, who is given the best dialogue in the whole film.

Van Helsing
By the time the climax of the film comes, the visual effects and repetitive action sequences make it seem as if you have seen it all before, probably because for the last 1 hour and 45 minutes you have!  The film jumps from one action sequence to the next at breakneck pace and it creates a very disjointed feeling while watching the film.  Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to stop and take a breath and let the audience soak in some of the wonderful effects that have been created instead of hitting them with a barrage of them all at once, over and over again. While I can appreciate what Sommers has tried to do with this film, make a fun and action packed popcorn flick, I think the film would have benefited from slowing down a bit and concentrating more on story and character rather than gee whiz effects. It probably would have cost the producers less in the long run too. One thing you cannot deny is that Van Helsing is rarely a boring film and the visual effects and sets are amazing, but it is an overly produced one and not subtle enough when it needs to be to provide any good scares. Think of your obnoxious neighbor’s over done Halloween decorations…sure it’s all in good fun, looks pretty cool and probably cost them an arm and a leg, but it just screams tacky and feels ridiculous to live next door to.

Video
The film is, as expected, presented in anamorphic widescreen, but curiously enough Sommers has decided to go with an aspect ration of 1.85:1 rather than the 2.35:1 aspect ration of his Mummy films. One can only assume this was done to favor the numerous visual effects, as there are more found here than in Sommers’ previous films, but it gives the film a claustrophobic feel; it does not open the film up enough and make it seem like the epic it wants to be.  That aside, the picture quality is what one would expect from a new film with a transfer that is very sharp and free of major defects containing no obvious edge enhancement problems.

The major drawback, however, is that the film is very dark and does not contain a lot of eye popping color.  This has more to do with the nature of the film itself than the director and cinematographer’s choices; you don’t really expect to see vampires and werewolves running around on a bright, sunny day do you?  The transfer even in the very dark areas of the film is very well done and presents no visible grain that lesser releases would reveal.  The virtual cornucopia of visual effects jumps off the screen with only the slightest matting defects to be found here and there; the visual effects in the film are for the most part amazing.  Overall, this is one of the best transfers I have seen this year.

Van Helsing
Audio
The audio for the DVD is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with optional subtitles for each language and is near reference quality with good use of the surround speakers just when you would expect it, and sometimes when you don’t. The only drawback is that in some scenes the dialog is difficult to hear over the booming score and/or the sound effects during action sequences. Other than these minor instances, the sound is near perfect and the sound design for the film is just as good as the visual effects. Although not one of his stronger efforts, Alan Silvestri’s score fits in perfectly within the context of this film, but I for one would have preferred a creepier score more in line with the classic Universal Monster films rather than the obligatory action/adventure score.

Extras
The disc features two audio commentaries, the first a filmmaker’s commentary with writer/director Stephen Sommers and editor Bob Duscay who has worked with Sommers on all of his previous films.  The second commentary features the actors portraying the monsters of the film, Richard Roxburgh (Dracula), Shuler Hensley (Frankenstein’s Monster), and Will Kemp (The Wolf Man).  Both commentaries are a good listen and lively with the filmmaker’s commentary providing some good insight on all aspects of the film’s production.

The rest of the special features are average at best.  First off is a virtual tour of Dracula’s castle entitled ‘Explore Dracula’s Castle’ which looks into one of the best sets designed for the film in closer detail than can be seen watching the film, but is not at all in depth enough for anyone who would be interested in a feature like this would like.  Add in the fact that the navigation for this feature is both cumbersome and frustrating and it is almost a complete bust.  

Van Helsing
Next up is a special feature called ‘You Are in the Movie’ where the filmmakers placed hidden cameras around the set during filming.  The point of this is to give the viewer an inside look into what goes on behind the scenes on set from the actors’ point of view.  It turns out to be nothing more than a glorified behind the scenes montage without any real insight to the production; it really offers nothing new.

A short segment called ‘The Legend of the Van Helsing’ character is provided and I was looking forward to this feature but again I felt short changed.  After discussing all too briefly the character’s origins from Bram Stoker’s novel and the previous incarnation in Universal’s films, the feature mainly focuses on the new Van Helsing character as portrayed by Hugh Jackman; the segment turns out to be more of a spotlight on Jackman than it is a history of the character.

The third featurette, ‘Bringing the Monsters to Life’ focuses on ILM’s work involving the creatures created for the film.  This is actually the most interesting of the features and does a good job of going into detail the work and ingenuity behind bringing these monsters to the screen.

The rest of the features are rounded out by the usual trailers, outtakes, standard DVD-ROM content and a demo for the Van Helsing XBOX game.  Oddly enough and seemingly out of place is a preview for Dreamworks’ Shrek 2, but also included before the main menu are trailers for Universal’s Shaun Of The Dead and Seed Of Chucky.  The animated menus for the DVD are well done and fit in nicely with the tone of the picture.

Van Helsing
Overall
Van Helsing’s visual effects are really a treat, but overall the film is somewhat of a trick.  While the film is exciting to watch it feels fragmented and repetitive while jumping from one action scene to another, and the story is as convoluted at it is silly.  Those looking for a sugar coated effects movie will eat it up like a bag of Halloween candy while others looking for more substance and scares will find nothing but rocks in their bag.


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