Van Helsing

Van Helsing (2004)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Kevin J. O’Connor
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Xbox Demo, Outtakes, Trailers

Earlier this year "Van Helsing" was the film that started off the yearly summer blockbusters. Opening on May 7th, "Van Helsing" didn’t quite bring in the box office that was expected in the domestic market, but internationally it was a much bigger hit. Bringing in a worldwide total of just under $300 million, "Van Helsing" became a massive success for Universal, and another hit for director Stephen Sommers, the man who brought us the other classic Universal monster update "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns".

Starring X-men’s Hugh Jackman as the legendary vampire hunter, "Van Helsing" is a visual extravaganza of action, horror and humor. Featuring what I consider the largest ensemble of classic movie monsters ever put on screen, ranging from Count Dracula and his brides, Frankenstein and his monster, werewolves, Igor and finally Mr. Hyde, we have a film that truly defines the phrase "popcorn flick".

I originally saw this film when it opened back in May and was a little disappointed with it. It seemed a little longer than it needed to be, the script wasn’t great and some of the computer generated visual effects were a bit spotty. But now that I’ve watched the film for a second time, now on DVD, I found myself enjoying the film on a whole new level that I wasn’t experiencing in the theater. Why I can’t really explain. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I already know what to expect throughout the story, and perhaps it’s because I’m looking at the film on a much smaller scale (not a 50 foot screen) so the visual effects look far better this time around. In fact I love the look of this film. Dracula’s Brides and the set pieces alone show that Sommers has an eye for these kinds of films and hires the right crew to bring it to life. Even when Van Helsing is fighting Mr. Hyde early in the film, the visuals just seem to look more realistic on a smaller screen. I also enjoyed the spectacular Alan Silvestri score more mainly due to the fact that my personal audio setup sounds better than most Cineplex’s.

"Van Helsing" is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film is also enhanced for <$PS,Widescreen> Televisions for those that have 16×9 displays. A <$PS,Full Frame> edition is also available separately. The two biggest areas where a film like this has to succeed in giving the viewer the visual experience they require is in the reproduction of detail and black level. In both areas "Van Helsing" succeeds. The film is filled with so much detail that it’s really impressive to see everything come through clearly without any sort of compression artifacts, film grain or haze in the image. Look at practically any scene and you’ll see every fine detail ranging from the computer-generated hair on the werewolves all the way to the immense details in the recreation of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Color fidelity is gorgeous and blacks are deep and rich. In fact the opening of the film is completely shot in black and white to give that classic Universal monster picture feel. Just play chapter 5 and tell me you’re not impressed. Only a few instances the film looks digital but only when a majority of the on screen material is CGI.

This is an extremely fun, active soundtrack. Like I mentioned before, the score from famous composer Alan Silvestri is fantastic and really immerses you into the on-screen action of the film. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 track delivers an incredible amount of depth in bass response and spatial dimensionality. Unfortunately Universal did not include a <$DTS,DTS> track. Surprising consider they were the first studio to back the format on DVD. Nonetheless you will not be disappointed. Dialog is great. This film has such an amazing selection of different vocal types that a good center channel can really provide the realism that "Van Helsing" exhibits. One of the best discs I’ve heard this year next to "The Day After Tomorrow". And please do yourself a favor and sit through the end credits. There are no extra scenes but the audio and presentation during the credits is really nice.

Two audio commentaries are included on the disc. The first is with Director Stephen Sommers and Editor/Producer Bob Ducsay. They go through a lot of detail describing the various visual effects in the film, how they shot particular scenes, and even how they came about casting Hugh straight off of a TV version of Oklahoma. Prior to casting him they hadn’t seen his work in X-men. The second is with the actors of the film, Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp. It would have been nice to see Hugh and Kate as well. "Explore Dracula’s Castle" is by far the weakest extra of the bunch and really not worth watching. You click areas on the screen and it cuts to sections of the castle narrated by Dracula. Boring. The Bloopers reel is also only okay. Again it’s just a montage of the actors and crew screwing up while music plays throughout. "Bringing The Monsters To Life" is where we start to see some interesting bonus material. This feature covers the creative process at ILM in bringing the monsters/characters to screen. It’s definitely worth watching. "You Are In The Movie" is a small feature that brings the viewer onto the set of the film while they were shooting certain scenes. It felt like they were really digging for extra material for this film because a lot of it isn’t very good.
"The Legend of Van Helsing" is the last feature on the disc that is worth watching. It’s a 10-minute short on the character of Van Helsing that Bram Stoker created. Unfortunately I wish they focused more on the mythos of the character as opposed to just giving quick impressions about the direction they took with the character. The last bit of bonus material consists of the theatrical trailer and Super Bowl spot, a playable level from the Xbox Van Helsing game, a lousy Shrek 2 preview and DVD-Rom extras.

I know that there was a lot of negative response to this film when it was released earlier this year. Too many people felt that the movie focused to heavily on the CGI effects and not enough on the script or characterization. After watching "Van Helsing" a second time I would still agree. But it’s entertaining. Just like in "The Mummy" Stephen Sommer’s isn’t really going for the scare or Oscar for best picture, but more for the excitement of his pictures. Even the bloody (awful) Deep Rising had its moments of entertainment. And if they were to make a sequel to Van Helsing I would definitely be looking forward to it, but I heard that Sommer’s next picture is an update of "Flash Gordon". And I’m sure some are asking if I’d recommend this as a blind purchase for those that haven’t seen it. Sure. You won’t be bored. Just don’t expect an in depth story.