Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor, Alun Armstrong, Silvia Colloca, Josie Maran
The One Name They All Fear.
Legendary monster hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is summoned to mysterious Transylvania on a mission that will thrust him into a sweeping battle against the forces of darkness! With non-stop action and electrifying special effects, Van Helsing is an adrenaline-powered motion picture event Roger Ebert calls "Spectacular!"
$51.748 million on 3575 screens.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby 2.0
French Dolby 2.0
Runtime: 132 min.
Release Date: 10/19/2003
• Audio Commentary with Director/Writer Stephen Sommers and Editor/Producer Bob Ducsay
• Audio Commentary with Actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp
• “Explore Dracula’s  Castle”
• “Bringing the Monsters to Life”
• “You Are In the Movie!”
• “The Legend of Van Helsing”
• Van Helsing XBox Game
• Shrek 2 Preview
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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Van Helsing (2004)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 18, 2004)
While a lot of directors like to branch out after a couple of smash hits, Stephen Sommers stayed close to home for his newest work. He hit it big with 1999’s The Mummy and struck gold again with the 2001 sequel. With that as his background, Sommers decided to stay with the CG-heavy monster movie theme in 2004’s Van Helsing, a broad combination of many different horror characters.
We get a taste of the film’s character-crossing premise right off the bat. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) brings his monster (Shuler Hensley) to life, and we find out that Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) acted as his financial benefactor. We learn that Dracula needs Frankenstein’s research for his own not-yet-named nefarious plot. With the doctor’s dream realized, Dracula no longer needs his efforts, so he kills Victor. This enrages the monster, who runs off with Victor’s body to a house that the local mob soon torches, an act that appears to cause the end of the creature.
Yeah, right! But the movie lets us believe in the monster’s demise, and we jump ahead one year to meet villain-hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) as he hunts Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) in Paris. After he takes down that baddie, he heads to the Vatican to meet with the mysterious order of religious leaders who commission his efforts.
There Van Helsing gets his next assignment. He learns that the Valerious family has attempted to battle Dracula and his minions for four centuries. If they don’t succeed, no members of the clan can ever enter heaven, and they’re down to only two siblings: Velkan (Will Kemp) and Anna (Kate Beckinsale). Van Helsing gets sent to Transylvania to help them, and the amnesiac also may find some hints as to his own mysterious past.
To assist, the order sends along clever weapons expert Friar Carl (David Wenham). The bookish Carl doesn’t want to go, but his superiors think he can help with the hunt, so out the pair head along with a mix of creative vampire-fighting components.
Over in Romania, we see the monster-battling attempts of Anna and Velkan. They try to take down a werewolf, but this ends negatively, as the furry beast takes down Velkan with him.
Into this setting step Van Helsing and Carl. After a hostile introduction to the locals, Van Helsing immediately goes into action during an attack from Dracula’s three brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca and Josie Maran). Van Helsing manages to slay one of them, an act we might think would please the residents. However, they react negatively, since this action will serve to further enrage the Count.
Nonetheless, this sets up an awkward alliance between Van Helsing and Anna. She states that Dracula seems especially desperate to finish her off but doesn’t know why. The rest of the film follows their quest along with other developments such as the fate of Velkan and Frankenstein’s monster along with the evolution of Dracula’s experiment, a task that connects to the movie’s opening.
Since Sommers did well with one classic movie monster via the Mummy movies, shouldn’t a flick that presents three of them be three times as fun? Heck, Helsing includes four of these characters if we count the early and brief appearance from Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, this movie offers an inverse relationship; with three times the monsters, Helsing comes across as maybe one-third as enjoyable as The Mummy.
Many criticized the Mummy movies for their lack of depth and their silliness. I think most of the criticisms missed the point, though, as they presented an absolutely pure form of escapist entertainment. Whereas most action flicks like The Day After Tomorrow or even the Bond movies attempt at least a little social commentary, Sommers’ efforts come without any form of introspection or broader goals. These were popcorn films of the most genuine variety, as they strive to entertain and nothing else.
Some may regard that as shooting too low, but I don’t have a problem with it. Not every movie needs some form of social context, and since many of them stretch awkwardly to provide that element, it’s good to occasionally find a flick with no delusions of grandeur. Sommers makes simple action films and offers no apologies for that.
As long as Sommers creates fun action flicks, that’s fine with me. Unfortunately, Van Helsing is short on enjoyment and long on tedium. As I watched the movie, I experienced an emotion that I never encountered during the two Mummy flicks: boredom. I waited for the tale to catch fire and go somewhere, but that never occurred. Instead, it plodded along aimlessly and just wouldn’t stop.
At 132 minutes, it’s way too long for this sort of flick, though the extended length isn’t the movie’s only problem. Independence Day runs even longer, but it manages fairly consistent excitement. Helsing suffers because the action rarely takes off and becomes involving.
One notable exception occurs. The first time that Van Helsing faces off against the vampire brides works well. That scene demonstrates some of the movie’s potential, as it combines slick visuals with rapid action.
Too bad it sits in isolation. Just as less is more, sometimes more is less. Sommers pounds us with action, as he tries to make every sequence equivalent to a climax. On rare occasions, a filmmaker can pull off that level of intensity; Spielberg did it for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sommers can’t match up with the master, though, and here the constant barrage of action scenes just wears down the viewer, especially since so many of them lack inspiration.
Sommers remains too obsessed with the visual elements and ignores good storytelling. With the two Mummy movies, they progressed with simple enough goals that the effects didn’t overwhelm them. That was especially true with the first flick, which was the strongest of the pair. Those movies enjoyed likable characters as well, a factor absent from Van Helsing. Sommers invests all his effort into flashy visuals and forgets to give us personalities about whom we care.
I really wanted to like Van Helsing. I dig this kind of movie and enjoyed the director’s prior flicks, so I anticipated a bigger and better experience here. Unfortunately, the film’s expanded scope proves its undoing, as it becomes too focused on wild visuals. It ignores its characters and story to a significant degree, and it turns into a dull, tiresome piece.
The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio A/ Bonus B
Van Helsing appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. A generally excellent presentation, I found little connected to the movie’s visuals about which I could complain.
Despite a smidgen of edge enhancement at times, sharpness always remained rock solid. The movie consistently presented excellent clarity and definition. The haloes created slight distractions, but they didn’t make the image soft or ill-defined. I noticed no jagged edges or shimmering, and the movie lacked noticeable source flaws. It came without any defects and remained nicely clean.
Van Helsing began with a black and white sequence, and based on the movie’s palette, it might as well have stayed that way. While not as monochromatic as something like Gothika, the flick usually lacked any strong evidence of colors. Nonetheless, the subdued tones we did see looked very rich and full. Blacks became more important than usual, and the transfer delivered excellent depth and fullness to its dark elements. Low-light shots occasionally looked slightly opaque, but those occasions occurred infrequently, as those sequences mostly were clear and smooth. The modest issues with shadows and the edge enhancement almost knocked down my grade to a “B+”, but so much of Van Helsing looked stunning that I thought it still merited an “A-“.
No waffling occurred when I determined my ranking for the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Van Helsing, as it easily earned an “A”. I expected an assault on my ears and that’s what I got. The soundfield consistently used all five channels to good advantage. The mix featured a wide and involving soundstage. Music demonstrated excellent stereo delineation, and the effects popped up all over the spectrum. Those elements showed nice localization and melded together smoothly. The surrounds played a very active role and added quite a lot to the mix. Given the almost constant nature of the film’s action, the soundtrack sure gave us many opportunities for involvement, and it never disappointed me. This was a vivid and engrossing mix.
Happily, the audio quality lived up expectations as well. Speech consistently came across as warm and natural, and I noticed no signs of edginess or issues with intelligibility. Music could have become lost amidst all the effects, but the score managed to maintain its own personality. The music stayed loud and dynamic, as the track replicated the score with nice clarity and definition. Unsurprisingly, the effects packed a wallop. They were vibrant and accurate, with clear highs and booming bass. Low-end was always tight and firm; the track exhibited genuinely terrific bass response. Some will bemoan the absence of a DTS track, but given the extremely high quality of the Dolby affair, I didn’t miss DTS at all.
As we move to the set’s extras, we find two separate audio commentaries. The first one features director/writer Stephen Sommers and producer/editor Bob Ducsay, both of whom sit together for a running, screen-specific chat. Expect a lot of emphasis on the technical side of things. At one point, Sommers gives us a quick synopsis about how he came up with the idea for the flick and developed the script, but mostly we hear about nuts and bolts elements of the production. We get some notes about the cast and how some of them came onto the project as well as a lot of information about visual elements. We get many comments about computer-generated bits along with information about sets, locations, and stunts. The pace lags at times but the pair usually keep things moving well. It’s a perky commentary that suffers from more happy talk than I’d like, but it’s lively and informative enough to maintain interest.
Next we hear from actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp, all of whom sit together for this running, screen-specific track, though Hensley splits before it ends. As one might expect, they provide a look at the film’s creation from the actor’s perspective. Given the technical bent of the movie, they mainly tell us of all the challenges that came with the makeup, visual effects and locations. They offer a fairly anecdotal discussion that concentrates on the elements they confronted throughout the film and also the fun moments as well. The participants demonstrate a nice sense of humor, as they joke around a lot and make actor David “Daisy” Wenham a particular butt of their blows. I don’t know how much you’ll learn from this piece, especially since the first commentary goes over so much of the technical material they address here, but it’s still a mostly entertaining and enjoyable track.
An interactive piece, Explore Dracula’s Castle lets you check out that location. It shows us parts of the building along with campy narration. It’s fairly tedious and doesn’t offer much entertainment.
The standard reel of Bloopers goes for five minutes, 39 seconds. Though longer than usual, it presents the expected goofs and silliness.
In Bringing the Monsters to Life, we find a 10-minute and one-second featurette. It depicts the creation of the creatures via behind the scenes elements and interviews with Sommers, Ducsay, visual effects supervisors Scott Squires and Ben Snow, executive producer Sam Mercer, previsualization supervisor Rpin Suwannath, animation director Daniel Jeannette, associate visual effects producer Joseph Grossberg, motion capture engineer Douglas Griffin, and technical director Raul Essig. They detail how they executed Mr. Hyde, the vampire brides, and other critters among various general challenges. We see a lot of pieces that demonstrate the work. Along with salient comments from the participants, those bits help make this a very interesting and informative show.
You Are In the Movie! presents a four-minute and 29-second piece with an unusual perspective on behind the scenes footage. The production mounted little cameras on various bits of equipment or set, and we get to see the shoot through those eyes. These snippets offer a cool look at the making of the flick.
”Movie!” also allows us to enable an interactive viewing mode. With this in action, an icon pops up onscreen periodically through the film. By “periodically” I mean “almost never”. The option became available a mere three times, and the first didn’t occur until the movie was almost half finished. All together, we see the icon three times, and the total of those snippets adds up to a mere 143 seconds! Adding insult to injury, they present shots already seen in the short featurette. Yeah, this format allows us to compare the behind-the-scenes shots with the film itself, but it takes us out of the movie - an ironic situation given this feature’s title - and isn’t worth the effort. The footage is cool but the presentation stinks.
The final featurette, The Legend of Van Helsing goes for 10 minutes and eight seconds. It looks at the background and development of the flick’s lead character. We see clips from the 1931 Dracula plus Van Helsing along with behind the scenes snippets and comments from Sommers, Hensley, Ducsay, English professor Elizabeth Miller, stunt coordinator RA Rondell, and actors Hugh Jackman, David Wenham and Kate Beckinsale. We hear a smidgen about the character’s origins and then get into the film’s take on him. That includes aspects of the character, casting Jackman, and stunts.
This featurette is a serious disappointment. I thought it’d tell us about other depictions of the character, but instead it mostly acts as a love letter to Jackman. It tells us a lot of fluffy positives about the actor and doesn’t toss out much useful information.
For those with the proper equipment, you can play a level of the Van Helsing XBox Game. I’ve got a PS2, so I’m out of luck. The Shrek 2 Preview is nothing more than a short clip to tout the DVD. In the trailers area, two promos for Van Helsing appear. We get its trailer plus a “Super Bowl spot”. The DVD opens with some Previews. These include ads for Shaun of the Dead, Seed of Chucky, and the DVDs for The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King.
Despite a lot of potential, Van Helsing fails to succeed for the most part. The flick pours on the action but little of it sticks in this bland attempt to redefine the monster movie. As for the DVD, it offers excellent picture and sound plus a pretty good roster of extras. I can whole-heartedly recommend the DVD to fans of Van Helsing, but I can’t advise it to anyone else, as it just doesn’t bring its story to life.
Viewer Film Ratings: 3.2982 Stars|| Number of Votes: 57|