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Blu-ray Review: Van Helsing

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Stephen Sommers has such a unique approach to filmmaking. He can take the most sacred of vintage horror icons, re-imagine them in an entirely new and different light, and then proceed to botch them completely. His reworking of Universal’s classic The Mummy was entertaining at best, but his subsequent follow-up left the entire franchise reeking of dog shit. Nevertheless, the series made some money for Universal Studios.

And so, Universal gave Sommers the green light to take several other classic monster characters and revive them. The result was something called Van Helsing. It came nowhere near being a hit. It lacked many qualities: such as originality, or at least any general respect for the vintage films that inspired it. As an adventure film, it’s comical. As a comedy, it’s abominable. In the end, it left many a film buff wondering if Stevie-boy even bothered to watch the original films all the way through.

The titular character, one Gabriel Van Helsing, is a monster killer. He is employed by Vatican City, which doubles as an early form of MI6 and even has its own gadget department run by the monks, who invent many highly sophisticated items for the 19th Century. An automatic-firing crossbow with clips. Handheld spinning sawblade thingies (with their own secret power source). A solar bomb.

The rest of the 19th Century is also pretty advanced and has such amazing articles as moving pictures. No, I don’t mean the cinema — I mean pictures that move. But, of course, the other kind of moving pictures must have been pretty popular then, too: how else does one explain Van Helsing’s constant John Woo-style of gunplay?

But those are only some of the minor setbacks in Van Helsing. The actors either phone their performances in or overact to no end. The story itself is absolutely absurd: archangel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, who should have known better) battling a CGI Dr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) in Paris before being assigned to put an end to Count Dracula in good ol’ Transylvania.

Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) has been systematically trying to wipe out his mortal descendents for centuries — and he’s down to just two more finalists: Anna (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother (Will Kemp), the latter of whom turns into a werewolf. But werewolves are perfectly at home in a world of vampires (just ask Kate Beckinsale), and are just one of the many pawns in Dracula’s infernal game to bring life to thousands of unborn vampire babies — which is only possible by harnessing the power of lightning via Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley). The late Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Igor (Kevin J. O’Connor) is also onhand, as are a group of Jawa wannabes.

Got all that? Don’t bother: you’ll only give yourself a headache if try to comprehend this one. Add to the already jumbled mess an abundance of crappy CGI effects that take away any real suspense, and you’ve got yourself a film that is worthy of a Golden Turkey Award.

For its Blu-ray debut, Universal has encoded the release with a 1080p/AVC transfer in a widescreen 1.85:1 ratio. The opening black-and-white segment (the only halfway decent moment of the film) is about as solid as you can get, with deep black levels and a wonderful contrast of whites and all of the shades of grey in-between. The rest of the 132-minute feature is in color — and Universal does a great job of delivering the High Def experience there, too. The movie has a very blue/yellow flow about it, and these complementing colors are carried through admirably. I noticed only a few moments of grain here and there. At least, I think it was grain: my eyes could have been clouding up from the film’s narcoleptic effect.

If nothing else, Van Helsing will do a grand job of annoying small animals and neighbors with its mega DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless track. At times, said soundtrack threatens to dropkick you across the room, with a beefed-up bass and a tendency to test the limits of your speakers. Dialogue comes through fairly well, although it tends to get obscured by the sound effects and music score throughout the film. French and Spanish tracks are provided in DTS 5.1, and subtitles are offered up in English (SDH), French and Spanish.

It would appear that every single special feature here has been carried over from the previous DVD release. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, except for the fact that none of the bonus materials have been upgraded to High Definition or receive the benefit of anamorphic widescreen. Included are two audio commentaries, a blooper reel, and featurettes galore — in which you can judge for yourself whether or not Stephen Sommers bothered to research the classic Universal Monsters. The Blu-ray disc comes with Universal’s U-Control feature, allowing you to watch the special features (via picture-in-picture) while the main feature plays. The disc is also BD-Live and D-Box enabled.

The bottom line: do yourself a favor, and revisit the older Universal horror films (or their Hammer Films counterparts). They at least managed to mix their characters together better without disrespecting their monsters in the process (hell, even Abbott and Costello paid more respect to the monsters).`

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.