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Van Helsing

The tumultuous summer blockbuster Van Helsing (2004) may utilize the 19th century Roman Catholic church as its thematic foundation, but it invokes an entirely different holy trinity for the sake of cinematic spectacle — Frankenstein's creature, Count Dracula, and werewolves. Throw in a few of Dracula's brides and even a potent cocktail of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and what writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) serves up is a lightweight bit of high-decibel Hollywood entertainment, if not the perfect monster mash. Hugh Jackman stars as the eponymous hero, a legendary monster-hunter who seems to have lived a long life, even though he remembers little of it. Found unconscious on the steps of a Catholic church in Paris, Van Helsing was taken in by a secretive order, led by Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong), to seek out and kill all known forms of inexplicable, presumably satanic evil throughout Europe. However, after his recent dispatch of the rogue British physician Henry Jekyll, an entirely new mission is placed before him: locate and annihilate Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). It would seem the undead noble is up to more mischief than normal, and his very existence threatens the Valerious family of Transylvania — a clan loyal for centuries to the order — and in particular the last two descendants, Prince Velkan (Will Kemp) and Anna (Kate Beckinsale). Armed with a variety of weapons and repellents by the inventive Friar Carl (David Wenham), Van Helsing sets off for the remote region in Rumania, but — as seems to be the case wherever he goes — he isn't welcomed by the local population. What's more, Velkan recently died at the hands of a werewolf, and Anna is determined to battle Dracula and his sinister brides single-handedly. Van Helsing isn't about to allow it, but what he and the princess don't know is that the count has been consolidating several supernatural powers for his own nefarious ends.

*          *          *

While Van Helsing contains all the trappings of a classic horror movie, reaching all the way back to the 1930s heyday of the Universal lot, another influence, while less apparent in the special effects, is equally present — the 007 franchise. After all, Van Helsing is a secret agent in the employ of spymasters who live in the shadow-world of a powerful government. The gentle chiding of Cardinal Jinette reminds one of M, while Friar Carl's innovative technology marks him as Q. And while one could fault Richard Roxburgh for treading the boards as a scenery-chewing Dracula, in fact it's a performance that's very much in line with all Bond villains (and what's more, the imposing score that accompanies his presence occasionally brings to mind Mike Meyers' Dr. Evil as well, to the movie's detriment). As a concept on paper, Van Helsing would appear to have a load of potential as a summer blockbuster, combining skullduggery, monsters, mayhem, and two attractive leads in Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. But it's in the execution that the film must earn its points, and that's were it comes up with a mixed bag of tricks. The eye-candy is plentiful — enough to make the DVD a top-shelf demo disc for any home-theater system. But at times it's too much of a good thing. At this point, Hollywood studios understand that younger viewers who enjoy relentless cacophonies of sound and fury are responsible for buying a lot of movie tickets come Memorial Day, but folks who appreciate subtle amounts of pacing and character development will doubtless begin to feel sensory overload, particularly with a movie as computer-generated as this. With a running-time just over two hours, Van Helsing would have been far more digestible were the story cut down by about 30 minutes. However, Sommers' script does a good job of not lagging in the second act, introducing a few genre-bending plot twists that extend his patchwork premise's shelf-life — although some exhausted viewers likely will bring the audio down a few notches during the closing sequences. Universal's DVD release of Van Helsing features a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with booming Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Stephen Sommers and producer/editor Bob Duscay contribute a commentary, while stars Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp can be heard on a second track. Also on board are the featurettes "The Legend of Van Helsing" (10 min.), "You Are in the Movie" (4 min.) with an on-the-fly option available during the feature, "Bringing the Monsters to Life" (10 min.), outtakes (5 min.), and an interactive tour of Dracula's castle with fangs-in-cheek narration by Richard Roxburgh. Keep-case.
—JJB



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