|HD DVD Sci-Fi-Fantasy|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Saturday, 01 July 2006|
In the original “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, Professor Abraham Van Helsing was a man of medicine, a physician, not a secret agent with memory loss who worked for the Roman Catholic Church. However, in “Van Helsing”, Gabriel Van Helsing (played with swaggering tough-guy authority by Hugh Jackman) comes across more as a religious-based 007 than as anyone or anything out of Stoker’s immortal novel.
In fact, “Van Helsing” goes on to borrow a premise even from “House of Frankenstein” (the 1944 Universal Studios monster flick starring Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney, Jr. and John Carradine) by uniting Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, his Monster and a Wolfman. One of the conceits in “Van Helsing” is that Dracula financed Dr. Frankenstein’s continued experimentation into the creation of life through the animation of dead flesh.
Video Presentation: The HD DVD in 1080i is absolutely stunning, offering picture clarity that rivals what’s presented on the big screen. The snow-swept mountains look like picture postcards, and the special effects sequences inside the dungeons and on the impromptu battlefields of the village are amazing. There are a number of sets and country sides visited during the movie. The resolution is first-rate, well worth the investment of stepping into the HD DVD line if this is a favorite movie, or if a rental that will show off the video capabilities of the HD DVD system and monitor is in order.
Audio Presentation: The sound on the disc is nicely divided, broadcasting on separate tracks that keep it moving through the surround sound system. This is one of those HD DVD movies a true audiophile will want to pick up to showcase his system because it will definitely rock the house. When the subwoofer kicks in, the neighbors are going to feel it and the walls will receive a thorough testing to see if the plaster or Sheetrock will stand up to sonic abuse.
Hugh Jackman plays the title role in “Van Helsing”, and he tries to come off as cool and confident, the true loner hero, almost like Clint Eastwood would have if the Man With No Name had bounty-hunted monsters instead of men. As a result, Jackman seems distant from the viewers and doesn’t ever truly come across as more than a device to get from point A to point B.
Richard Roxburgh (“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) plays Dracula with a pathos and vigor that comes across as intriguing and off-putting at the same time. Dracula cries out in pain at feeling hollow, at being bereft of any emotion. Yet he’s obviously a tormented and driven individual, neither a mindset that will be attributed to the passionless.
Kate Beckinsale (“Underworld” and “Underworld: Evolution”) as Anna Valerious is eye candy; she’s a beautiful, athletic woman. If the role just had more meat to it, she would have been a wonderful adventuress. Instead she comes off as stiff and wooden.
Will Kemp plays Velkan, Anna’s brother, but again there’s simply not enough of a role to really let his abilities as an actor shine. Shuler Hensley (“The Legend of Zorro”) does a fine job of portraying Victor Frankenstein’s Monster.
When the movie begins, it’s in black and white and feels very much like one of the old Universal monster films. The townsfolk have discovered Victor Frankenstein’s twisted experiments with the dead in their midst and marched on his castle to stop him. The scene with villagers carrying torches is a very familiar one. Probably it was there for a feeling of nostalgia, but the scene doesn’t play as well as it should because instead of coming across as familiar, it seems more fatigued. Even an episode of “X-Files” featured a similar set up. Not only that, but the townsfolk with their burning torches are misleading, making the audience think they’re in for a campy horror movie when what they’re really getting as a special-effects driven action story with superficial characters.
Still, the black and white imagery is intoxicating to look at for anyone used to watching B&W features. With the HD DVD capability and an HD monitor, the footage is crisp and raw, bringing immediacy to the story. Something about B&W presentations, when they’re filmed that way, just comes across as more visceral than color. The old noir practitioners in the 1940s and 1950s knew how to use light and dark, sunlight and shadows like surgical instruments. Sommers’ direction and the scene offers a rare glimpse of that quality. The villagers quickly turn the castle laboratory into ruins and seemingly kill the Monster. Dracula has already turned on Dr. Victor Frankenstein and killed him.
The movie cuts to Paris where Van Helsing is hot on the trail of Mr. Hyde (voice of Robbie Coltraine). The confrontation takes place in a bell tower of a building that looks suspiciously like Notre Dame. Upon completion of this mission, Van Helsing returns to Vatican City, gets into an argument with a priest who’s his boss, and a little of Van Helsing’s backstory gets doled out.
It’s at this point, as Van Helsing walks through the underground lab that any attempt at maintaining the horror atmosphere has just fled the building. He’s definitely gone secret agent at this juncture. In a series of encounters, Van Helsing talks with Friar Carl (Wenham), the Roman Catholic Church version of Q. Several impossible gadgets are introduced and tossed into the bag Van Helsing carries. Even Van Helsing’s dry humor is reminiscent of Agent 007. The inventions are not too far afield of the science available at the time, but there’s no way they’ll be used to fight real vampires and they just smack too closely of things James Bond viewed in his own films.
In no time at all, Van Helsing and Carl cross storm-tossed seas, ride through snow-covered mountain passes and arrive at a small mountain village in Romania not far from Dracula’s castle. As soon as hero and heroine meet, sparks fly and they’re attacked by vampires.
The pacing in the movie is headlong. If action weren’t so repetitious and predictable, there’d never be a dull moment. But the plot, to a degree, is a cookie-cutter one. There’s nothing really new under the sun with any of it.
On the plus side, the sets and special effects go all out, and--forfthe most part—work. Although kind of cheesy in some ways, Dracula’s mad ranting as he walks up the sides of rooms and across ceilings while everyone else in the scene that isn’t a vampire has to obey the laws of gravity are cool to watch. The steampunk technology revealed in the Monster’s right leg as he walks as well as his computer-assisted brain are delightful touches.
The sets are a fascinating smorgasbord of what a high-budget special effects team can whip up digitally. The castles feel right, and viewers can see the mortar and stone used to create them. Landscapes come to vibrant life and almost look otherworldly—especially in the HD presentation available through an HMDI hookup.
Stephen Sommers, the writer and director of “Van Helsing”, also wrote and directed the “Mummy” movies starring Brendan Fraser. (Coincidentally, “House of Frankenstein” was originally planned to have Universal’s Mummy as part of the tale as well.) Even though the movie wanders and becomes loose in structure, there are pieces that really play well, and puzzles that are put together. The dialogue is crisp and funny at times, occasionally spot on.
Although HD DVD version has a much easier interface for accessing the special features, no extra special features are included in the HD DVD presentation that weren’t on the Ultimate Edition of the movie. The “Bloopers” reel is really a bit weak and tends to be repetitive. “Bringing The Monsters To Life” is really a treat on digital movie-making, miniatures and motion-capture. Anyone not familiar with those venues will surely learn a lot. “Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend” is somewhat interesting, but probably more so for someone not familiar with the character’s genesis. And, in truth, Jackman’s character is more of a superspy-cowboy than Stoker’s Dutch doctor. “Track The Adventure: Van Helsing’s Map” offers information on locations. The feature commentary with director Stephen Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay as well as the one with actors Richard Roxburg, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp indicate the love held by all concerned for the Universal Monsters, and the good time they had while filming. “The Music of Van Helsing” is interesting and shows how much effect an orchestra can have on a viewer’s mood, and what this particular orchestra had to do in order to produce the score. “Dracula’s Lair Is Transformed” is another homage to all that the special effects crew does and is well worth viewing. “The Masquerade Ball Scene ‘Unmasked’” is chock-full of behind-the-scenes stuff, adjustments and mistakes and challenges for the cast and crew. “The Art of Van Helsing” also offers more digital work.
With everything “Van Helsing” has going for it—visionary director, amazing special effects crew, one of the top leading men in Hollywood today—the movie should have been more entertaining. . Somehow with everything going on, the brilliant pieces just didn’t fit together properly. The movie never comes across as horrifying or even once scary. The action was certainly over-the-top, but belonged more in a 007 movie than in something that had to do with the Universal Monsters. No expense was spared. The stunts were literally death-defying. The women were absolutely beautiful. But the movie just lies there, lacking the proper chemistry. Dr. Frankenstein’s mad cry at the beginning of the movie, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” was a misrepresentation.
Still, the movie has a cult following and will probably become immortal for its own reasons. Viewers wanting to try out their new HD DVD players and surround sound systems might want to rent this one or pick it up when the price goes down. Anyone who enjoyed the movie enough to at least want the extras that came with the ultimate edition but never picked that up, might want to add this one to their collections simply because of the HD DVD interface ease.