Van Helsing

Van Helsing (2004)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxbury, David Wenham, Will Kemp
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Bloopers, Featurettes

I understand that opinions about Stephen Sommers' "Van Helsing" vary quite a bit and cover the entire spectrum. I enjoyed the film when I first saw it and even now upon repeated viewings I still get a kick out of it every time. It is a popcorn flick, plain and simple, and you have to take it as that. Overblown, loud, fast, furious, stylish and slick – but not overly deep on character development.

Universal Home Entertainment has prepared a HD-DVD version of the movie and while I expected the film to look great in high definition, nothing prepared me for what I was about to witness, as "Van Helsing" is easily the most impressive HD-DVD I have seen so far.

For "Van Helsing" the writer/director Stephen Sommers really pulled all the aces from his sleeves, creating an action-loaded adventure that mixes many of the classic horror myths, characters and stories. It is a homage to the genre which is evident in many scenes and shots that nicely duplicate scenes from classic horror films. As such the film starts out entirely in black and white as Dr. Frankenstein brings to life his creature. The story quickly takes a turn as we learn that he did so under the tutelage of Count Dracula, who has plans for the creature. But things go awry as the villagers decide to burn the poor doctor and his creature and so Dracula has to find another way to execute his devious plans.

In the meanwhile Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a monster hunter, is taking care of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in Paris, where he poses as Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. Once done with the job, he is assigned to protect the last remaining siblings of the Valerious clan, a family that has fought Dracula and his vampires for centuries. Once there, he hooks up with the beautiful Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and begins to hunt down the vampire count to eradicate him once and for all.

"Van Helsing" offers surprises and great moments around every corner. It is a film that has been designed like a theme-park thrill ride almost, as the viewer is thrown from one amazing moment to the other, never giving the viewer a chance to catch their breath or rationalize what just happened. Featuring a great cast with Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing, Kate Beckinsale as Anna, Richard Roxbury in a fantastic performance as Dracula, Kevin J. O'Connor as Igor and many others, the film is loaded like Gatling gun and smooth as silk.

Such a visual spectacle lends itself to a stellar presentation, of course, and I had high hopes for this HD-DVD version. And I wasn't disappointed as the level of detail in the picture is absolutely jaw-dropping. Particularly the black and white opening of the film is so utterly staggering that you ask yourself if it is at all possible for film to be that crisp, and I am almost tempted to guess that this is actually an all-digital transfer that is not coming from a film print at all. Given the countless special effects shots, it would make sense, after all, as virtually every shot in the movie has been enhanced with some sort of computer generated effect. When you see Frankenstein's castle in the darkness, it will simply amaze you how incredibly sharp and detailed it is, how shadows and textures create the whole and how razor sharp every single edge is. The same is true for practically all shots in the film. When the film switches to color, it often uses as softer look and doesn't' have the same deep focus as the black and white opening, but still, over and over again you will stare at the screen in disbelief and wonder at this remarkable-looking transfer. One thing that crossed my mind while seeing this, was that the job of a focus-puller on a movie set has just become a lot more important and challenging because high definition video is absolutely unforgiving when it comes to images that are even the slightest bit out of focus. It can make the difference between a stellar presentation like this one and a viewing that is simply great.

Next up are the colors. While portions of the film use a color palette that is limited to create a somewhat vintage look, others are awash in hues and tinges, and the HD-DVD transfer also excels here. Skin tones are absolutely amazing, and when you see the vampire brides turn from their harpyie-like white shapes into the beautiful women with their colorful costumes, you quickly realize just how awesomely this transfer reproduces even the slightest tinges and hues. Black levels are so deep you could fall into them. Seriously, though, the blacks in this transfer are absolutely solid while making sure that shadows still hold enough detail to perfectly reproduce the image.

In a word, this is a must-see transfer that is clearly of reference quality and so far the best I have seen!

Just as the visuals in the film are designed as candy for the eye, so is the audio. Bombastic, explosive, aggressive and dynamic at all times, it makes full use of the 5.1 channel surround format and makes constant use of the split surround channels. There is always some activity going on in the rear and using an incredible dynamic range, the soundtrack is ready to give you the subtlest ambient noises all the way to the earth-shattering rumbles of explosions. While it is hard to pinpoint particularly exciting moments, look out for the scene when the entire flock of newborn vampires descends on the villagers, for a particularly rich treat.
Dialogues are well balanced and always understandable while Alan Silvestri's score nicely enhances the atmosphere and images on the screen. The enhanced bitrate found on the Dolby Digital Plus tracks on this release help bring the track to live more so than the Dolby Digital track found on the DVD, and all those of you who sorely missed a DTS option on the DVD, here is the track to make up for it. While it may not be the most subtle sound track using subtle sound textures, this track is also a showcase track that drives the experience home like there's no tomorrow.

All the great bonus features from the DVD release are included on this disc as well, presented in 480i standard definition. If you watch the right after the feature presentation you will be struck immediately by the difference in resolution, but overall their presentation quality is certainly good by all means.

The extras start out with two separate commentary tracks. The first one give Stephen Sommers and co-producer Bob Ducsay the chance to elaborate on the film. It is a highly informational track that also discusses a lot of technical aspects of the production and the shoot of the film. The second track features actors Richard Roxbury, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp, as they discuss the movie. It is a great track but clearly, Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale are sorely missing from the line-up.

A Blooper reel is also included as well as a selection of featurettes covering all aspects of the film. They are of varying quality but certainly worth checking out. One of the highlights is clearly "Bringing The Monsters to Life," offering a glimpse at ILM's work on the creature effects. "Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend" is another interesting feature that is worth viewing, as well as "The Masquerade Ball Scene Unmasked" as it also dives deep into the creating of the sequence and its impressive special effects.

Watching "Van Helsing" in this HD-DVD was like a revelation, really. I put in the disc and thought someone pulled a veil form my eyes. The clarity and detail of this presentation is so utterly beyond description that you have to see it to believe it. If you ever need a disc to prove to someone why high definition is the future, "Van Helsing" is the disc to put in. If anyone views this release and is not simply blown away by the level of detail and the sharpness of this transfer is clearly beyond help.