Universal // 2004 // 132 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // July 11th, 2008
"Do you think I like being the most wanted man in Europe? Why don't you
and the Order do something about it?"
"Because we do not exist."
Vampires and werewolves and a Frankenstein's monster? Oh, my. Throw in a roguish hero, a secret James Bondesque group with religious ties that tracks down the monsters, and you've got Van Helsing, an homage to those Universal monsters of old.
Van Helsing, of course, was inspired by the character in Bram Stoker's original novel and 1931's Dracula, which gave Universal its reputation for movie horror.
Writer/director/producer Steven Sommers has already had some experience with monster wrangling as screenwriter of two modern retellings of The Mummy. Can he handle the rest of Universal's monster lineup without a mashup?
Universal has brought the 2004 release back to life as Van Helsing: 2-Disc Collector's Edition.
As villagers march on Victor von Frankenstein's Transylvanian castle, Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, Mission: Impossible II) has a conference with Victor about a project close to Dracula's dead heart. Victor's not interested. They end up battling, but Victor isn't victorious, and Dracula hires Igor away and makes off with Frankenstein's monster.
A year later in Paris, Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, X-Men) catches up with Dr. Jekyll, who's calling himself Mr. Hyde now.
"You're a deranged psychopath," Van Helsing tells Jekyll/Hyde.
"We all have our little problems," Hyde says.
After a chase that ends with Jekyll lying dead, Van Helsing goes to HQ for a new assignment. From there, he's off to Transylvania, where he must destroy Dracula before the last two surviving members of the Valerious family die. Otherwise, a family vow will trap them in Purgatory.
Now it's time to meet the other members of Team Van Helsing: Carl (David Wenham, Moulin Rouge!), a cowardly friar; Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld), who's having trouble adjusting to her brother (Will Kemp, Mindhunters) becoming a werewolf; and Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley, The Legend of Zorro), who seems to be the (borrowed) brains of the team.
The opening scene in black-and-white, with Frankenstein and Dracula arguing while the villagers march, hits every note pitch perfect. The rest of Van Helsing won't hit this scene's heights, but it's no slouch.
Although Van Helsing deals with classic Universal monsters, Van Helsing is more of a steampunk action picture than a horror film, which becomes evident when Van Helsing brings out his spinning razor wheels in his fight with Mr. Hyde. When Carl does his "Q" routine, providing top-secret weapons for Van Helsing's trip to Transylvania, you know where this is going.
Don't worry, though. It's going there at a brisk enough pace that you won't have time to think about it much. The plot's simple -- Dracula needs Frankenstein's monster for his own pet project and Van Helsing must stop him -- and it doesn't get in the way of two hours of chases and fights, aided and abetted by spectacular sets and CGI imagery. Van Helsing even has a few scares, the best coming early on as Dracula's brides surround Anna.
Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale work well together as the standard action couple, but the character and performance that stood out most was Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's monster. He's tormented and angry, but he has a strong conscience and a solid mind, so he's thinking faster than the heroes at times.
The action scenes are paced well and look great, although I'm getting a little tired of moody bluish tints in the lighting for effect. The special effects were mostly seamless. The dialogue came through loud and clear, and the noises sounded realistic.
One of my favorite elements of this DVD release is the commentary featuring actors Hensley, Richard Roxburgh, and Will Kemp. I felt like I was in on some friendly reminiscences rather than a formal commentary as I heard about Hensley's experiences as both Frankenstein's monster and the CGI model for Mr. Hyde, Roxborough's marriage to Silvia Colloca, one of Dracula's brides, and other tidbits about filming. Writer/director/producer Steven Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay also provide a reasonably good commentary. Usually the people involved say they had a ball making the movie; this time, at least, I believed it.
These, however, were included in the 2004 release of Van Helsing. Are any of those new features on the bonus disc worthwhile? Under "Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend," four short features -- "Dracula," "Frankenstein's Monster," "The Werewolves," and "The Women of Van Helsing: Anna and Dracula's Brides" -- compare the characters in Van Helsing to those in original Universal horror films as they show how things were done and how the actors approached the characters. There's also a new segment on the score. These are pretty good as making-of features go.
Less so are "Explore Frankenstein's Lab," an interactive 360-degree set tour, and "Dracula's Lair is Transformed," which uses time-lapse cameras to show the sets being rearranged. "Lab" was especially frustrating because I found it difficult to navigate; a similar feature ported over from the 2004 release, "Explore Dracula's Castle," wasn't great, but it was easier to navigate. There's also a DVD-ROM, which might be chockful of all sorts of great new stuff; I don't know because I don't have a DVD-ROM player.
Other features, also on the 2004 disc, include "Bringing the Monsters to Life" and "The Legend of Van Helsing," two decent making-of segments, the usual bloopers, a trailer and an advertising spot, and "You Are In the Movie!," which used hidden cameras on the set to show scenes from different perspectives (for reasons as yet unknown).
It does seem at times like Frankenstein's monster is a more fully rounded character than Van Helsing. If you're looking for subtle characterization, this isn't the picture for you.
The big difference between Van Helsing and Stephen Sommers' Mummy movies is intensity. Van Helsing has the same goofiness, but you could actually get scared here and there. I liked that.
If you've already bought Van Helsing on DVD, there's little here that would make anyone go for a double-dip. The making-of segments may be worth a couple of extra bucks, but the commentaries -- which I found to be the best part of the extras package -- are on both editions.
Not guilty, and the 2-Disc Collector's Edition is worth considering.
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "The Legend of Van Helsing"
* Explore Dracula's Castle and Frankenstein's Lab
* "Bringing the Monsters to Life"
* Two Feature Commentaries with Cast and Crew
* "Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend": four featurettes on the making of the movie
* "The Music of Van Helsing"
* "You Are in the Movie!"
* "Dracula's Lair is Transformed"
* Original DVD Verdict Review