Van Helsing [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (8th October 2009).
The Film

I can vividly recall my excitement level reaching a near fever-pitch level when it was announced that Universal would be making a big-budget film based on their three most popular movie monster franchises: Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein. To top things off, the entire affair would be lashed together by the inclusion of the legendary literary figure, Van Helsing. As someone who has been obsessed with movie monsters since the age of 5, this was exciting news indeed.

Then came the announcement that Stephen Sommers would be directing the picture. Ok, I thought, this still might not suck. “Deep Rising” (1998) was a fun ride, albeit an incredibly cheesy one, but the director’s love of big monsters certainly shone through. As it also did on “The Mummy” (1999), a film which has held up surprisingly well and it far more fun than it has any right to be. But, just prior to the “Van Helsing” announcement, Sommers had done “The Mummy Returns” (2001), a bloated, sub-par sequel riddled with questionable CGI. In fact, I’m surprised that it didn’t dawn on me at the time that Sommers has something of a serious CGI fetish. The man simply can’t seem to make a picture without giving it a computer-generated enema ahead of time, effectively washing any semblance of practical effects work out. Not only that, but the CGI in all of his films tends to be of inferior quality. Hell, even the work Industrial Light & Magic did on “The Mummy Returns” was laughably bad. Still, I tried to remain optimistic.

The teaser posters were released sometime soon after the film got underway, and my excitement level one again hit the roof. Maybe I was being just a little too juvenile in my thought process, but I was imagining a veritable orgy of classic movie monsters invading multiplexes across the nation, and that very thought got me giddy as a school girl.

And then the trailer was released.

Oh boy did that sting. Just as I had feared, not only did the film look like it was shaping up to be a bloated mess, but my beloved monsters looked to have been reduced to Super Nintendo-level characters. Hugh Jackman seemed acceptable enough in his part, but this Kate Beckinsale person (keep in mind this was before the “Underworld” series (2003-2011)) was spouting off an accent bad enough to make Steven Seagal blush. I had decided right then and there that I could not in good faith watch something so abysmal looking.

So, now we cut to 2009, and I’ve got this shiny new Blu-ray disc popped into my player. I’ll admit that, although I had seen little bits of the film on HD channels, and it looked predictably god-awful, I still wanted to view the entire film as a whole to see if it really was as bad as people have been reporting since it came out. Well, I can safely say that it is, though thankfully it barely lived up to my impossibly low expectations. Had it been any worse, I don’t know how I would have kept myself from ripping out my eyes in disgust.

The plot goes a little something like this: Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a monster slayer who is protected by the Vatican and finds himself sent to Transylvania to vanquish Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). It seems Dracula intends to use Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) to power a machine that will give life to his thousands of offspring, thus allowing vampires to “rule the world”, or something like that. He also keeps the Wolfman (Will Kemp) around to spy on the local villagers, who are being led by Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale).

Man, that actually sounds kinda cool, which makes the film’s total and complete failure sting even more. In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, this would have been a dream project. I’m sure all Universal saw were the millions of dollars Sommers raked in with “The Mummy” films and figured he’d pull in even more if he had the top-drawing monsters from their stable to play with on-screen. The problem is that Sommers is about one step behind Michael Bay in terms of his ability to make a big, stupid, loud, bloated mess of a film. I can only fantasize about how this would have turned out if someone like Guillermo del Toro or Peter Jackson had been at the reigns…

As I said, problems are abound in this film from the first frame, so it’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing that caused this to be an unmitigated disaster. But I can definitely single out one aspect that is a major sore spot: the computer-generated imagery. Faring the worst are Dracula’s brides, who look unacceptable beyond belief. You now those cheesy pictures they take at amusement parks where they Photoshop your face onto a body which obviously doesn’t belong to you? Well, imagine that, but on a winged beastie and you’ll get an idea of just how bad they look. Even worse, when they die it looks like the cutaway scene from an old Windows-based computer game. Dracula, in his creature form, fares no better. The only CGI monstrosity that I will give any credit to is the third incarnation of the Wolfman we see in the film. Without spoiling who exactly transforms into the raging werewolf, I’ll just say that it’s the best looking non-practical creation in the film. Though that’s like saying I think cancer is better than AIDS.

I will commend the work done on both Frankenstein’s monster and Igor (frequent Sommers collaborator, Kevin J. O’Connor), however. Both creatures feature some real, honest-to-god makeup effects. The monster does feature some CGI, though it blends rather well with the overall look. The design on Igor is one of the film’s high points for me simply because it has such a tangible quality. And it doesn’t hurt that O’Connor is appropriately overdoing his role, as usual. I thought they did a good job updating the look of Frankenstein’s monster, although I did think that his being something of a thespian was kind of a stretch.

Congratulations to you, Richard Roxburgh. There have been hundreds upon hundreds of vampires featured in countless films and, yet, you have the distinction of being the single worst bloodsucker in cinematic history. Let that sink in for a minute. The Worst. Ever. That really says something if you’ve watched as many Eurotrash vampire films as I have. Roxburgh is laughably bad in almost every scene he’s in. Forget the fact that his dialogue is terribly written, and even more poorly recited, but his mannerisms are so over-the-top and comedic that I found myself laughing uncontrollably at many points throughout the film.

Another actor on the chopping block here is Kate Beckinsale. I can think of exactly two reasons why anyone would cast her in a film, and her acting skills definitely aren’t one of them. Maybe I was blinded by all of that skintight leather in “Underworld” (2003) to notice how bad she truly is because she sucks the life right out of this picture. Hmmm… ironic, given that she’s supposed to be hunting those who suck life from others. Like I had mentioned, her accent made me cringe whenever she spoke. Did she even have a dialogue coach? My guess: no. Sommers loves to make big films with bad actors (see: “The Mummy”, Brendan Fraser; “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009), Channing Tatum), so I suppose it’s simply par for his course. Regardless, there’s no excuse for sucking this much.

Hugh Jackman, thankfully, turns in a relatively sound performance here. Hugh doesn’t have much in the way of range, but his role requires him to simply look buff and kick monster ass, two things he does with ease. Honestly, he’s probably the best thing about the film. He doesn’t go into Wolverine-mode as I initially feared. He gives a solid performance and does a good job anchoring a picture that spins wildly out of control at times.

Bottom line, this movie is one massive wasted opportunity. It’s a shame a better film was cobbled together from the amazing pieces they had to work with here. Sommers may be a fan of the classic movie monsters (though the quality of this film would suggest otherwise), but he clearly doesn’t have the skills required to make bringing them all together work. As an aside, I hope that Joe Johnston (replacing Mark Romanek) can do some justice to the legacy of the Wolfman when his version of that eponymous creature arrives in theaters next February.

Video

Never one to shy away from providing a grandiose picture, Sommers’ visual feast arrives on Blu-ray sporting a 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer that looks simply amazing. The image has fantastic depth, popping off the screen with incredible clarity. The cinematography has an organic, earthy quality which permeates the screen with its dark, dank locations. Skin tones appear natural, black levels are rich and deep. Grain is present but never obtrusive, allowing the film’s finer detail to shine through with no hint of DNR having been applied. Unfortunately, the image sometimes looks TOO good, allowing the shoddy CGI work to become even more cartoonish and laughable. But if the biggest problem is that it’s too sharp, that’s a problem I can live with.

Audio

Total reference quality. No kidding. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48 kHz/24-bit audibly assaults you from the very first frame of the film. The LFE will be begging for mercy before you hit the halfway mark, as the bass levels are astonishingly robust and thick. Surrounds add to the complexity of the track, crackling with the rush of electricity and howling with the call of the Wolfman. Even when the bass was rumbling my house like an earthquake, I still had no issues with making out the grumblings of a mob of angry villagers or the musings of Dracula’s demonic brides. I didn’t expect to be blown away by this track but, knowing Sommers films and his love of LOUD NOISES, I should have guessed this was going to be a rough ride through Transylvania. There are also Spanish and French DTS 5.1 surround sound tracks included.
Subtitles are available for English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.

Extras

Universal has absolutely jam-packed “Van Helsing” with as much material as possible. We get everything that was included on the previous DVD and HD DVD editions, as well as gaining the addition of their "U-Control" interactive feature. Included on this Blu-ray are two audio commentaries, a multi-part documentary, several featurettes, a blooper reel and art galleries. The disc is also D-BOX motion code enabled and has a link for BD-Live access.

The first audio commentary is with director Stephen Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay. Ducsay does what he can to keep the track, well… on track, but Sommers is a frenetic school boy, though that should come as little surprise to anyone who watched the film. He seems to genuinely think everything here mostly works, so don’t expect much in the way of modesty.

Next up is the audio commentary with actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp. The trio, being less well-versed in how the film was made than the previous duo, has a jovial discussion about their respective parts and what it was like shooting such a big film. This is a much more laid-back track and an easier listen.

The major feature here is Universal’s oft-used "U-Control" picture-in-picture interactive feature. Personally, I’m not a big fan of "U-Control" I’d much rather have the material it presents included as a supplement, but if you don’t mind watching the film with little picture-in-picture boxes popping up you might like the experience of the whole thing. I’m not a fan of having to press buttons at certain times to access information, plus some material overlaps so you have to rewind and press a different button in order to see everything that’s available. But I will say that much of what I saw was appreciably informative and interesting.

“Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend” is a multi-part behind-the-scenes documentary that looks at the following aspects of production:

- “Frankenstein’s Monster” runs for 9 minutes and 25 seconds. Shuler Hensley, who plays the monster, and some of the crew discuss the legend of Frankenstein’s monster and how they approached his appearance in this film.
- “Dracula” runs for 11 minutes and 57 seconds. Just as with the previous segment, this piece looks at the lore of the ubiquitous Count, featuring interviews with cast, crew and professionals.
- “The Werewolves” runs for 12 minutes and 28 seconds. Again, here we get a look back at the classic werewolf films of the 40’s, as well as a look at how they designed the werewolves for the film.
- “The Women of Van Helsing: Anna and Dracula’s Brides” runs for 14 minutes and 28 seconds. Sommers discusses why he chose to give Dracula his brides and what makes each one of them unique, while Beckinsale talks about how she prepared for a role that required so much ass-kicking.
- “The Legend of Van Helsing” runs for 10 minutes and 8 seconds. Finally, we look at the film’s eponymous lead, and his history in film and literature.

All of the above are available to watch separately or continuously using the “Play All” option.

“Track the Adventure” contains a series of featurettes which examine the film’s many sets, including:

- “Dracula’s Castle” runs for 7 minutes and 50 seconds.
- “Frankenstein’s Lab” runs for 6 minutes and 31 seconds.
- “The Burning Windmill” runs for 6 minutes and 37 seconds.
- “The Village” runs for 8 minutes and 8 seconds.
- “The Vatican Armory” runs for 5 minutes and 27 seconds.

All of the above are available to watch separately or continuously using the “Play All” option.

“Bringing the Monsters To Life” is a featurette which runs for 18 minutes and 2 seconds. The film’s animators and crew talk about how liberating it felt working in the digital realm, as they could essentially do whatever they wanted to. Apparently, looking good on-screen wasn’t one of their chief concerns. They also discuss bringing each of the film’s creatures to life in the film.

“You Are in the Movie!” is a featurette which runs for 4 minutes and 29 seconds. We get an eye-level perspective at the shooting of a scene in the film. This raw look at the film’s production is pretty cool and well worth checking out.

“The Music of Van Helsing” is a featurette which runs for 9 minutes and 40 seconds. Composer Alan Silvestri talks about his approach to the film and how he worked to achieve the perfect score.

A reel of bloopers runs for 5 minutes and 39 seconds.

“Dracula’s Lair is Transformed” is a featurette which runs for 2 minutes and 41 seconds. A time-lapse camera gives us a rapid look at the construction and design crew putting together the film’s castle set.

“The Masquerade Ball Scene “Unmasked”” is a featurette which runs for 25 minutes and 29 seconds. Debra Brown, the film’s choreographer, discusses what went into putting together this massive scene. Sommers love of ostentatiously magnificent sets shows through most vividly here.

“The Art of Van Helsing” contains galleries of art set to music for each of the following:

- “Dracula” runs for 28 seconds.
- “Frankenstein” runs for 31 seconds.
- “Velkan Werewolf” runs for 51 seconds.
- “The Brides” runs for 50 seconds.
- “Van Helsing Wolf” runs for 1 minute and 18 seconds.
- “Bats” runs for 28 seconds.
- “Mr. Hyde” runs for 45 seconds.

“Monster Eggs” featurettes, which apparently are unhidden Easter Eggs, contains the following:

- “Hugh Touchdown” runs for 24 seconds. Jackman jokes around on set.
- “Shuler in Ice” runs for 38 seconds. The actor is prepped for a scene.
- “Shuler in Training” runs for 53 seconds. This is a quick look at Shuler working on set.

The Blu-ray is D-BOX motion code enabled, so those with the proper home theater equipment can utilize that feature if they want.

Universal’s ubiquitous, and, in my opinion, useless, “MyScenes” bookmark feature is also included. This way you can prove to your friends how bad certain sections of the film suck with the press of a single button.

The disc is has a BD-Live link which leads to the standard Universal Studios home page. No content specific to the film is available.

Overall

The Film: D+ Video: A- Audio: A+ Extras: A- Overall: C

 


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