VAN HELSING - TWO DISC COLLECTOR'S
Region 2 Edition
Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh
CAUTION: This review contains minor spoilers!
Here's a puzzle. What exactly were people
expecting when they went to see Van Helsing? Whatever it was they
were looking for, they evidently didn't find it. Were they expecting a
gutsy horror film? Really? From the director of The Mummy and The Mummy
Returns?! Surely they didn't think they were going to see a film that
closely resembled the classic Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s!
Was the film misleadingly-sold as some sort of period romance? No, nothing to suggest that. So why did Van Helsing get such a critical
and commercial pasting?
Van Helsing isn't a horror film.
It's an old fashioned monster movie, redefined as a slick, finely-oiled
Summer blockbuster. The film featured more action than Indiana Jones faced
in a trilogy of movies, and cutting-edge special effects that were every
bit as ambitious as anything George Lucas has dreamt up.
The film is close in tone to Sommers'
previous Universal Monsters-inspired films, and also very similar to Fox's
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The film is also sly,
and often very funny. Perhaps that's what threw so many viewers. They
weren't expecting a comedy. There are plenty of clues, right from the
start. In the thrilling, operatic, opening sequence, lovingly-shot in black and
white, you have Samuel West (as Victor Frankenstein) paying tribute to
Colin Clive's delirious Henry Frankenstein, while Richard Roxburgh chews
the scenery as his paymaster, Dracula (it's pronounced Drag-oo-lee-ahh,
according to the man with the fangs), in a performance that wouldn't have
seemed out of place in Mel Brooks'
Young Frankenstein. If that didn't clue you in that you were
watching something with its tongue decidedly in cheek, I don't know what
There's no denying that the film has many
weaknesses: the script is little more than a string of set-piece action
sequences; there's virtually no character development; the dialogue is
cheesy; and the performances can charitably be described as dubious.
Did the film deserve to flounder so
spectacularly? In truth it's not done too badly. It cost about $160m, and
took about $120m in the US alone. Add another $25m or so from the UK box
office, and it doesn't look so disastrous.
Universal Home Video has released Van
Helsing as a two-disc Collector's Edition set, with a whole
second disc of bonus materials. There's also a single-disc edition, for
those who don't want to take a peek behind the scenes.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic
format, and it looks simply spectacular. Allen Daviau's cinematography is
very impressive, and the disc transfer seems to be virtually perfect. The
contrast range is fine, there is plenty of detail (without any unpleasant
side-effects from artificial sharpening techniques), and the colour
rendition is spot on. The film offers a variety of settings, from the warm
hues of Dracula's castle, to the drab Transylvanian peasant village. Some
of the sets (the Vatican City workshop and Frankenstein's laboratory,
particularly), are rich in background detail. The transfer handles them
all extremely deftly.
The film retains its original establishing
captions (ONE YEAR LATER - PARIS, for example). The film and all the
supplements have optional English subtitles. (This includes the commentary
tracks: when you have the subtitles switched on, they automatically change
to support whatever audio track you've selected).
The audio presentation is equally
impressive, with a rich and boisterous mix that has plenty going on, and
plenty of well-controlled bass for the subwoofer owners. The
audio is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 format (sadly, using the inferior
384kbps bitrate). It's a shame that Universal couldn't have juggled one of
the bonus features on disc one onto disc two, and used the space to
provide a DTS track. (American Pie 2 gets one, Van Helsing
doesn't - something's wrong with that equation!) No doubt this offering
won't be the last time Universal offer Van Helsing on DVD, so be
prepared to double-dip if you want a DTS version!
The layer change isn't ideal (it happens in
the middle of a shot, at quite a dramatic moment, 77'03" into the film),
but isn't too disruptive.
The disc menus are animated and feature
animated transitions between selections. As usual with these things, this
become somewhat tiresome quite quickly, and, if you haven't seen the film,
there are plenty of tiny clips that spoil the surprise of seeing the
film's key characters for the first time.
THE BONUS MATERIAL
The film is supported by a good, if
relatively superficial, array of bonus material. Most aspects of the film
are featured, with an uncritical eye.
The film is supported by two commentary
The first is by Stephen Sommers and editor / producer Bob Ducsay
(this is their third commentary track together).
This track was recorded in April, a week before the film opened
theatrically, and it's interesting to hear that neither contributor seems
assured of the film's success. The track does a good job of laying out the
basic behind-the-scenes information that grounds the rest of the bonus
materials. There's hardly any information about how the script developed
(perhaps it didn't), and not much that suggests that the production didn't
operate like a well-oiled machine. It's rarely dull, though, and the
participants aren't afraid to point out the odd shot that didn't work as
well as they had hoped it would. Both men seem in awe of the film's
extensive CGI work. This aspect of the movie was heavily criticised during
the theatrical run. There's no hint that they felt that the film was
over-ambitious, or that the reliance on CG effects was detrimental. The
film certainly advances the technology, and that seems to be an end in of
itself. The commentary ends as soon as the film's swanky credits start
rolling. It seems somewhat disrespectful to leave before the credits end,
and makes it seem like they're glad the tiresome chore of recording the
track is finally over. A few minutes spent summarising their experiences,
perhaps acknowledging some of the contributors as their names scroll by.
(Not even Sommers' father, to whose memory the film is dedicated, gets a
The second track is by actors Richard
Roxburgh (Dracula), Shuler Hensley (a most articulate Frankenstein's
Monster) and Will Kemp (who plays the brother of Kate Beckinsale's
character). As usual with these sort of tracks, there's plenty of
good-natured ribbing between the thesps. Considering that it was recorded
as they were seeing the completed film for the first time, there's
remarkably little dead air. All the contributors to this track had their
performances enhanced by CGI at some point or other in the film, and it's
interesting to hear their thoughts on the fine line between flesh and
pixels. Contrary to some reports, neither Kate Beckinsale nor Hugh Jackman
make any contribution to this track.
Everyone agrees that Hugh Jackman is a very
There are a few other bits and pieces on
Explore Dracula's Castle - This
offers an interactive tour of the impressive Dracula's Castle set, using
especially-shot footage. The
user can navigate through it using the direction buttons on their remote
control. The options are limited and it's relatively easy to go to a
section you've already explored, which can be somewhat tiresome, since you
have to wait for the sequence to end. The segments are introduced by
voice-overs by characters in the film, briefly orientating the viewer, and
offering a little hokey atmosphere. Total video time: about four minutes.
Bloopers - a solid five minutes of
fluffed scenes, broken props and goofing around. This segment is more
elaborate than usual: it's been carefully edited, scored, and often uses
multiple images to help explain what's happening.
Bringing The Monsters To Life - This
ten-minute segment concentrates on Dracula's brides, and Van Helsing's
encounter with another literary monster (whose appearance in the Paris
segment of the film is probably meant to be a surprise, so no more clues).
Bonus material junkies won't find anything new here, but there's a
reasonably good demonstration of the Pre-Visualisation process here, which
explains the benefits it can offer.
You Are In The Movie - a short (4m)
collection of footage covertly gathered by miniature cameras attached to
the movie camera itself, and other bits of the set. This is something
relatively new for DVD, and, although its an idea that doesn't seem to
have been fully-developed, is worthwhile. The footage can also be viewed
in Follow The White Rabbit-style mode, by pressing enter during the film
whenever an icon (one of Van Helsing's Tojo blades) appears. It seems that
this option only leads to the same couple of minutes' worth of footage
that is presented separately in
this section, so it's pretty pointless.
The Legend of Van Helsing - a
ten-minute profile of Van Helsing, beginning with some
inappropriately-cropped footage from Dracula (1931) and other classic
Universal films. A few comments on Van Helsing's literary origins, and
then a bundle of behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews,
explaining that they've basically reinvented the character to suit their
A short (1m) theatrical teaser trailer
("May 2004") and a very, very similar Superbowl Slot ("May 7th 2004") are
also offered. Hardly a comprehensive collection of promotional material.
There are also trailers for Shrek 2, The Bourne Supremacy
and The Chronicles of Riddick, and an advert for the "Classic
Monsters" DVD range (the three titles already available, and the others
that are due soon: The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The
Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy and The Invisible Man).
There's also a trailer for Billy Elliot - The Musical, which opens
at the Victoria Palace Theatre in March 2005 (the trailer is made up from
audition footage). The latter does not appear on the Region 4 disc, indicating that they are different pressings.
The final option is to see the DVD credits,
which is simply a scrolling list of the people who worked on the disc
(what were you expecting!)
Like the first disc, disc two is a
dual-layer disc. It offers a selection of
featurettes, linked by the geographic location in the film. Versions of
the disc from other regions appear to have an umbrella title for this
The Adventure: Van Helsing's Map),
but there's no such annotation on the
Region 2 version. Another option
on the map (selecting the image on Van Helsing's signet ring) leads to two
general sections: Evolution of a Legacy and Van Helsing: The
Story, The Life, The Legend.
Evolution of a Legacy - broken into three segments:
Explore Frankenstein's Lab, Dracula's Lair is Transformed and
The Music of Van Helsing.
Explore Frankenstein's Lab - similar
to the Explore Dracula's Castle feature on the first disc. Total
video time: about fifteen minutes.
Dracula's Lair Is Transformed -
Includes time-lapse footage shot from a camera mounted in the lighting rig
(fifteen seconds were shot every hour for thirty days). This shows the set
being partially dismantled and re-dressed as a different room. It's a nice
idea (something similar was on the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD),
but it's rather spoiled by being sliced up and interrupted by interview
snippets and footage from ground level, not to mention numerous
picture-in-picture shots. It's only a couple of minutes long: adding
another minute to repeat the time-lapse footage, uninterrupted, would have
been a better way of presenting it.
The Music of Van Helsing - a
ten-minute interview with composer Alan Silvestri (The Mummy Returns,
Cutthroat Island, etc),
including footage of him conducting the orchestra and choir. As usual
composers have some smart things to say about the film. They're one of the
few people who work on a film who have to know the film inside out; it's
nuances and rhythms.
Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The
Legend is broken down into four sections, each focussing on a
particular character or group of characters: Dracula,
Frankenstein's Monster, The Werewolves and The Women of Van
Helsing: Anna & Dracula's Brides. These are similar to The Legend
of Van Helsing on disc one: a cursory glance at the character's
origins as seen in the Universal films of the 30s and 40s, and then a look
at how the characters have been re-invented for the new movie. They're
nice capsule summaries, and don't outstay their welcome.
Dracula - This eleven-minute
featurette includes a few sound-bites from Kevin J. O'Connor, who plays
Igor in the film, out of make-up. O'Connor is another Sommers veteran,
having appeared in Deep Rising and The Mummy (not to mention
credits in Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions, and a role in Gods
and Monsters, Bill Condon's biopic of Frankenstein's director,
Frankenstein's Monster - This
nine-minute featurette includes some colour on-set footage from the film's
black and white opening sequence, which features Samuel West as
The Werewolves - This twelve-minute
segment is the best of the four Van Helsing: The Story, The Life...
featurettes. It follows roughly the same format as the others, but looks
more closely at the various transformation scenes, which are quite
impressive. The CGI for the werewolves was perhaps the most difficult to
make real, and it's not always terribly successful. It seems Hollywood is
still some way from making fur move realistically.
The Women of Van Helsing: Anna &
Dracula's Brides - an odd pairing, since they operate on different
sides, and are very different characters. It's telling that Anna is lumped
in here, though, since there's not much to say about her gypsy
princess-like character. Red-blooded male Van Helsing fans will get
a thrill or two, seeing the brides out of make-up, and, in one memorable
sequence, out of costume! The Brides are given more to do in this film
than any other adaptation I can think of, but Bram Stoker would barely
recognise them. Kate Beckinsale's fans will find the bulk of the
behind-the-scenes material that features her here. (14m).
The other featurettes each focus on a
particular location, and are short studies on set design and construction,
and, in some cases, on the model work involved in creating them for the
film. If nothing else, you'll come away with a respect for the sheer scale
of the production. These segments are Dracula's Castle (7m),
Frankenstein's Lab (6m), The Burning Windmill (6m), The
Vatican Armoury (5m) and The Village (a scratch-built set
created in the Czech Republic, the length of two football pitches! 6m).
Finally, disc two also features some
DVD-Rom material (some games and colouring book images, from the look of
things). These bonus features use the invasive and disruptive InterActual
software, which I refuse to install.
Van Helsing's merits as a work of
cinematic art may be shaky, but it's scope is impressive.
Universal have created a very worthwhile
DVD presentation that showcases the film's terrific cinematography with an
The audio presentation is impressive, but
might have been more impressive with a higher Dolby Digital bitrate, or a
The extras are insubstantial, but
expansive. There are few surprises, although there are one or two nice
touches that will doubtless be copied and developed by other disc
The UK disc seems to have the same features
as the Region 4
Australian disc. There are currently no reviews of the US versions
available, but the lists of bonus features on various retailer sites
suggest that the US three-disc Ultimate Edition version will be
very different: among the features listed are a preview of the Van
Helsing X-Box game; an Anatomy of a Scene featurette on the
Masquerade Ball sequence; a Filmmaker's Diary; a Love Bites
spoof and deleted scenes. This is contradicted elsewhere however, with
information that the three-disc set will include the same Van Helsing
bonus materials as the UK two-disc version. Menu shots on some US
sites suggest that their single-disc version will feature a subset of the
UK disc's bonus material. (This confusion reminds me of Universal's
release of E.T. - no-one knew what was happening with that, either!) Only
one thing is certain: the three-disc US version will also feature three
bonus classic Universal movies: Frankenstein (1931), Dracula
(1931) and The Wolf Man (1940), on the third disc.
The UK two-disc version should certainly satiate most fans of the film, but
don't be surprised if Universal eventually re-issue the film with
additional bonus materials (there are no deleted scenes on the disc, for
example). A sequel to Van Helsing seems likely (there's already
been an animated short film prequel, The London Assignment), so the
disc will probably be - ahem - re-vamped to promote it.