No one can truly declare themselves a lover of film without some level of appreciation of the classic Universal monster movies: Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and so on. Stephen Sommers already showed his love for The Mummy inhis 1999 remake. With Van Helsing, Sommers pays tribute to the other Universal monsters in another cheesy summer popcorn flick. The character of Van Helsing has been portrayed by quite a few notable actors over the years. From Edward Van Sloan in the popular Universal Dracula, to Laurence Olivier and Peter Cushing in the old Hammer Productions, to Anthony Hopkins more recently. Even Mel Brooks has picked up the mantle of the vampire killer. All of those versions of Van Helsing are old fogeys though, unsuitable for today’s MTV generation. Today’s vampire hunter needs to be swift, stealthy, fierce (like a wolverine one might say), and most of all handsome. Today’s Van Helsing needs to be a medieval James Bond, and that’s exactly what writer/director Stephen Sommers brings to the screen.
We are introduced to this Van Helsing, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) in a battle with the nefarious Mr. Hyde (CGI, voiced by Robbie Coltrane). As mentioned, this Van Helsing is intelligent, witty, and resourceful. He wields custom hand-powered saw weapons alongside his revolvers, and utilizes whatever else is at hand to defeat Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately defeating Mr. Hyde means killing Dr. Jeckyll, which is immediate evidence of why this Van Helsing is a wanted man, operating as a secret weapon of the Knights of the Holy Order. He is also a man without a past - found on the church steps with no memory, but conveniently with skills that would help the Knights.
It isn’t long before Van Helsing is sent to Transylvania, partly to help Anna and Velkan Valerious (Kate Beckinsale and Will Kemp) with their constant struggle against Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), and partly to discover his missing past. Unfortunately before Van Helsing gets to Transylvania, Velkan loses a battle with a werewolf and becomes one himself, caught under the power of Dracula. Van Helsing and Anna attempt to uncover Dracula’s plan to... well, that’s where the story gets somewhat confusing and inconsistent. It’s enough to say that Dracula’s plan involves the lost Frankenstein Monster (Shuler Hensley) in some attempt to awaken his vampiric children.
That’s the first downfall of Van Helsing - it attempts to intertwine too complex a plot for its own good. As a result, there is often confusion on exactly what’s going on in what should pretty much be a special effects extravaganza, and the film runs far far too long. A tighter script with less going on would have helped the movie significantly. Instead it establishes plotlines but never follows up on them. Van Helsing goes to Transylvania to recover his lost memory, but decides remembering isn’t worth it whenever he gets close to something that reveals his past. The worst plot offense comes in the movie’s climax, where a sequence of events must happen in a particular amount of time. Once the thing start though, time is thrown completely out the window. It’s almost embarrassing to watch Van Helsing's characters spend so much time establishing the consequences of not keeping within that time frame when a simple rewrite would have helped hold suspense and not make the movie seem so ridiculous by the end.
The second problem with the film follows the problems of Sommers’ previous Mummy films - inconsistent CGI effects. While CGI backgrounds and sets are pretty impressive and look incredibly real, some of the CGI creatures just look cheesy. It’s very strange too, because the more complex CGI creatures (such as the wolfman) look very cool, while effects that appear more simplistic (such as Mr. Hyde) look like they stepped out of a cartoon.
The performances are just as inconsistent as the CGI. Ridiculous accents from Richard Roxburgh, Kate Beckinsale, and Dracula’s brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, and Josie Maran) mar funny one liners and delightful dialogue. Hugh Jackman is pretty on top of things as Van Helsing, which seems appropriate since he’s the only actor the producers had in mind for the title character. (If you can only think of one actor to play a part, and you get that actor, you better hope he’s golden in the role). The real joy of the film comes in Van Helsing’s sidekick Carl (David Wenham). Wenham keeps the film from becoming dry or monotonous, injecting much needed humor whenever possible. He is the epitome of comic relief, and often he’s the only thing that keeps the movie going. Also of impressive note is Shuler Hensley’s Frankenstein Monster. Hensley brings a deep mournful soul to the monster which is really unexpected in a film such as this. Hensley and Wenham are the movie’s real stars and help the audience forget the over the top performances of Roxburgh and the film’s other villains.
Even as a flawed film, Van Helsing is a fun ride of a movie, as long as you’re willing not to take it too seriously. It’s a nice homage to the old Universal Monster films for anyone who was a fan of those flicks. While Van Helsing isn’t something I recommend highly, it’s good for an occasional afternoon’s entertainment just like Sommers’ take on The Mummy. If you like that, you’ll enjoy this one. The DVD of Van Helsing is one of those rare opportunities where a mediocre film has an extremely enjoyable release. With some cool extras, the Van Helsing DVD becomes a really fun watch, despite the movie itself not being the best.
The film is accompanied by two commentary tracks. The superior track is by writer/director/producer Stephen Sommers and producer/editor Bob Ducsay. The two talk about topics ranging from the cast, special effects, and locations, to the killer Alan Silvestri score, and keep it all interesting. Of course, Sommers has already established himself as a vibrant commentator on his Mummy DVDs, so this track is exactly as expected. The second track is sort of a “Monster” commentary, with actors Shuler Hensley, Richard Roxburgh, and Will Kemp. Although the three actors do their best to be interesting, the truth is there’s a lot of screen time that doesn’t involve their characters, therefore they weren’t around to film. On top of that, this was literally the first viewing these actors had of the film, so there’s lots of “Oh, that’s neat” type reactions. Probably not the best strategy for future commentary tracks.
The real meat and potatoes of the se is in the other offerings on the disc. On top of an X-Box Van Helsing video game demo, the theatrical and Super Bowl trailers for the film, and a chance to explore Dracula’s castle more in depth then the film allowed, are some cool featurettes and behind the scenes looks at filming.
The first of the two featurettes is “Bringing the Monsters to Life” which details the special effects used to create the monsters of Van Helsing. The crew goes into detail talking about the hybrid effects used to create Dracula’s bride as well as the werewolf and Mr. Hyde CGI characters. The second featurette looks at “The Legend of Van Helsing” giving some background to the character from the original Dracula and the changes they made to him for this film. It’s an interesting, brief, character study that shows my earlier comparison to James Bond isn’t far off the mark for what they were trying to accomplish.
“You Are In The Movie” is probably my favorite feature on the disc. The documentary crew was allowed to place mini cameras that offer a different perspective on certain scenes. Some of these scenes are interesting, since you can see what’s going on instead of just what the movie camera wants you to see. In other scenes it’s just downright entertaining, watching flaming characters being doused seconds after they leave the film camera’s view. I’d like to see more features like this one offered on other movies. After watching it you are invited to watch the film in a “You Are in the Movie” mode, where occasionally you can branch off from the movie to watch some behind the scenes clips.
Finally comes a fair amount of outtakes. These are the kind of outtakes you know happen on any action flick, but few are bold enough to show. Hugh Jackman falling down takes center stage, along with scenes of Shuler Hensley hamming it up in full Frankenstein Monster makeup, cheap props continually breaking, and David Wenham catching his cloak on the track of the camera that is filming him. I’ve always felt outtakes show a more humorous side of action flicks, and for this film they show that the cast and crew had fun making the movie. If you aren’t going to have fun making a film like this, then why make it?
While Van Helsing itself may be an acquired taste, the DVD is full of extras that will entertain its fans. Unfortunately not everyone will fit into that category, but the few who do will enjoy this release immensely.
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