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VAN HELSING

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin O'Connor
Director: Stephen Sommers
Audio: English 5.1, French and Spanish 2.0
Subtitles: French, Spanish; English close-captioning
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: Tour of Dracula's Castle, Bringing the Monsters to Life, You are in the Movie, Legend of Van Helsing, two commentaries, Xbox game demo, trailers, bloopers
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: October 19, 2004

"I hope you have a heart, Aleera, because someday I'm going to drive a stake through it."

Film ** ½

Recently, Universal Studios began a revival of its classic monster franchises, starting with The Mummy (1999).  The film was a light-hearted romp that was part Indiana Jones and part special effects extravaganza.  After it became a surprise smash hit, a sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), soon followed and scared up even more big bucks at the box office.  Neither film was really a critical success and both were admittedly a bit deficient in the story department, but audiences still flocked to see them because the films were a lot of fun and provided the perfect popcorn entertainment for the masses.  The two films were directed by Stephen Sommers, who would again helm Universal's next installment in its new movie monster franchise - Van Helsing (2004).

Sommers not only directed Van Helsing but also wrote the film's script.  The story focuses upon the mysterious Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a monster-slaying "superhero" of darker ages.  We first encounter Van Helsing in the streets of late nineteenth-century Paris as he hunts down and defeats a grotesque Dr. Jekyll, looking like he just stepped off the sets of League of Extraordinary Men.  Van Helsing himself looks remarkably similar to a popular anime character, the vampire hunter D (so much so that I wonder if the resemblance was intentional).

Van Helsing's initial fight scene is actually preceded by another exciting sequence (filmed in gorgeous black & white) in which villagers from a Transylvanian town storm the home of Dr. Frankenstein to destroy his abomination, a monster created from the body parts of the dead.  The doctor is secretly under commission by a certain Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) to refine a way to bring the dead back to life.  In the ensuing mob sequence, the Frankenstein Monster is apparently consumed by fire and Dracula escapes but not before killing Dr. Frankenstein himself and stealing his notes and not-so-loyal assistant, Igor (Kevin O'Connor).

Count Dracula is, of course, a vampire.  For centuries, he and his undead brides have preyed upon the poor villagers of Transylvania.  And for centuries, only the members of the Valerious family have stood steadfast against Dracula in a tireless quest to find a way to ultimately defeat the evil Count.  Now, Prince Velkan and Princess Anna (Kate Beckinsale) are all that remain of the Valerious line.  When the Prince is apparently killed saving his sister from a werewolf, one of Dracula's evil minions, who should soon arrive to assist the beleaguered Transylvanians but Van Helsing!

While previous incarnations of the Van Helsing character have presented him as an old, scholarly man, this re-interpreted Van Helsing is a young and physical vigilante for the forces of good.  He operates under the guidance of an ultra-secret religious society that monitors the deeds of evil creatures worldwide and sends Van Helsing where he is needed.  Van Helsing is just a mortal man, but like a pre-modern Batman or James Bond, he is outfitted with a plethora of hi-tech gadgetry - automatic crossbows, mechanized throwing stars, and even a mysterious device of immense solar energy.  He even has a sidekick, Friar Carl (David Wenham), a quasi-Q who supplies him with the necessary accessories for dispatching evil with extreme prejudice.  When word arrives of the ominous occurrences in Transylvania, the secret society dispatches Van Helsing and Friar Carl abroad to help Princess Anna defeat her nemesis, Count Dracula.

Van Helsing's initial reception in Anna's village is a chilly one, as the villagers are understandably suspicious of strangers.  But, a sudden attack by Dracula's brides, who are part succubus and part harpy, affords Van Helsing an opportunity to prove his worth in battle.  After warding off the attack and killing a vampiress in the process, Van Helsing convinces the villagers and Princess Anna to let him help them rid evil from the land.  Soon, Van Helsing and the Princess are off not only to defeat the Count but also to prevent him from fulfilling his ultimate goal - bringing a virtual army of undead offspring to life to spread his reign of horror and destruction.  The presumably destroyed Frankenstein Monster and the werewolves also play a role in Dracula's grand scheme, so never assume that anything or anyone is truly dead until you actually see the lifeless corpse (and even so, dead bodies have a tendency to be very problematic in a vampire film).

Van Helsing packs in the pre-requisite action sequences that audiences expect and then some!  There are numerous melees against the trio of vampire brides and several encounters with Dracula's werewolves, including a very thrilling carriage chase scene.  Don't forget the early slam-bang tête-à-tête between Van Helsing and Dr. Jekyll, either!  And of course, what Dracula film would be complete without a climactic showdown between the Count and Van Helsing?  Furthermore, this is one super-charged Count Dracula who is seemingly impervious to being impaled through the heart or having crosses waved in his face.  There are very few dull moments in Van Helsing, and such spots usually don't drag on very long, either, before the next chase or action sequence commences.

To be perfectly honest, that is probably a good thing because the film's actual storyline is weak at best.  Scenes of exposition are commonly laughable, and the dialogue is predictably silly in the typical action-hero sort of way.  Van Helsing starts out quite brilliantly in the prologue (an homage to the classic black & white Universal horror films) but the plot soon disintegrates into a gooey mess whose only purpose is to loosely link the many action sequences together.  All this non-stop action ultimately spirals out of control in a mishmash of scenes recalling Aliens, various James Bond films, Sommers' two Mummy films, and even a Tarzan film or two.  Hugh Jackman does a good job of character assassination (this is not Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, that's for sure), while Richard Roxburgh's Dracula is uncomfortably a bit too touchy-feely.  David Wenham, virtually unrecognizable from his courageous Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is basically around for wimpy comic relief.

The women in Van Helsing are mostly eye candy, although that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Dracula's three brides, one portrayed by supermodel Josie Maran, are possibly the most drop-dead gorgeous brides assembled for any film featuring the Count (and that's saying something, considering that Italian beauty Monica Belluci herself once played a bride in Bram Stoker's Dracula).  As for Kate Beckinsale, she seems to have developed a penchant lately for playing beautiful, leather-clad dominatrixes who get a kick out of killing monsters (although being stabbed in the heart by Kate Beckinsale is not such a bad way to go).

Van Helsing may ultimately be superficial, but it doesn't aspire to high art in the first place.  Yes, the Sommers script is juvenile and makes poor use of a fine cast, but at least it achieves some tongue-in-cheek success in its goal of simply providing non-stop action and thrills.  I'm pleased that Sommers also had the courage to give the film a somewhat downbeat ending and not the typical "happily-ever-after" conclusion of most Hollywood blockbusters.

Bottom line - is Van Helsing a good or thought-provoking movie?  Hardly.  But it is fun and crowd-pleasing?  Believe it!  If you're looking for a light and entertaining way to pass a couple of hours on an otherwise dull evening without taxing your mental capacities, then give Van Helsing a spin!  Just be sure to shut your brain off first (and I mean really off).

BONUS TRIVIA:  Van Helsing is the first Universal film since 1948's Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein to feature Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Frankenstein Monster together in one film.

Video ****

Van Helsing looks fantastic.  The early black & white cinematography absolutely glows, and the rest of the film, photographed in subdued, dark (almost grayish) tones, is equally beautiful to behold.  The black levels are deep and never muddy in the film's many dark scenes.  In brighter scenes, the frequent flashes of color really stand out in everything from the endless sparks, lightning clashes, or explosions, to Kate Beckinsale's luscious red gown in one of the film's visual highlights, an undead masquerade ball.  The film's image quality is very sharp and the transfer is practically perfect.  Overall, this is one of the best-looking discs of the year.

Audio ****

As might be expected, the sound quality is extremely aggressive and quite loud.  Your home entertainment system will receive a major work-out, and the surround speakers will be constantly busy.  Keep an eye on your sub-woofer, too, lest it should start hopping around the room as well.  Audio is available in English 5.1 (the best track, of course) or optional French and Spanish 2.0 tracks.

Features ***

Anyone interested in roaming the sights of Dracula's castle can take the self-guided tour included on this disc.  Click on the various lightning icons throughout the castle to receive a quick review of that site or object, complete with narration from the Count or one of his brides.

Bringing the Monsters to Life (10 min.) concentrates on the truly incredible work involved in creating these Universal monsters on-screen.  Much of this is very much state of the art and quite intricate.  I was particularly impressed with the level of detail and texture of the werewolves' pelts and the realistic flesh tone of the Dr. Jekyll creature.  Too bad the brides in their harpy forms were not rendered with, shall we say, as much anatomical accuracy as were the other monsters.

You are in the Movie! (4 min.) offers a short preview of the actual filming of various scenes via hidden cameras arranged on the set.  At the end of this featurette, an option appears to re-watch Van Helsing from these alternate, candid angles via occasional icons which will pop up during the film.

Legend of Van Helsing (10 min.) is a typical behind-the-scenes featurette.  It shows clips of some of the early Universal incarnations of the Van Helsing character before focusing almost exclusively on Hugh Jackman.  This is mostly a puff piece.

If you want to learn more about Van Helsing, there are two available commentaries to choose.  The first offers thoughts from director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay, who are both clearly thrilled to be commenting on their film.  I must admit that their unabashed enthusiasm is quite infectious and a lot of fun to listen to even as they discuss the usual topics - secrets about the casting, the special effects, and occasionally about the film's script and multiple sets.

The second track is a cast commentary.  Unfortunately, neither Kate Beckinsale nor Hugh Jackman participate in it, although Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp (who portray Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolfman, respectively) do appear.  This track is the less informative one and is more like casual banter between buddies watching a film.

Bloopers are always fun, and there are just over five minutes of goofy out-takes to see on this disc.  There are also two trailers for Van Helsing (the Superbowl spot and the regular theatrical trailer) and a disgusting preview trailer for the Shrek 2 DVD.

Lastly, if you have a DVD-ROM drive, you can access an internet website via this disc, and if you own an Xbox game system, there is a one-level demo of the Van Helsing game you can play.

Summary:

Big, loud, and dumb pretty much sum up Van Helsing in a nutshell.  But, the film is still great fun and the perfect popcorn movie.  If you liked Underworld, The Mummy or The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing offers more of the same thrills and chills, only darker and faster.

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