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In the late 19th century, Bram Stoker's fabled monster hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) - with his assistant-cum-armourer, Friar Carl (David Wenham) - is ordered by a secret society to distant and dangerous Eastern Europe on a quest to vanquish evil: the enigmatic and powerful Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). He arrives just as Dr Frankenstein puts the finishing touches to his DYI human (Shuler Hensley). Van Helsing joins forces with Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) whose brother has been infected and at full moon turns into the hideous Wolf Man (Will Kemp). The forces of evil, Dracula and his three vile brides (Elena Anaya, Syvlia Colloca, Josie Maran), are not about to let this stranger spoil their plans for a vampire super-race.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This two disc release is highly recommended for anyone who wants to be immersed in the making of this film. Extensive and comprehensive extras provide as much entertainment and thrills as the film itself, albeit in a different way. It's a spectacular package in which the extra material has been as carefully produced as the film, and with a tremendous variety of inputs from cast and crew.

When Stephen Sommers resurrected The Mummy movie, he realised that Hollywood would put up the big money if it was NOT going to be an arty, earnest and thought provoking historical and scientific lesson. He made a Saturday matinee out of it. This reasoning has also motivated Sommers when making Van Helsing, a story loosely based on a character in Bram Stoker's world of Count Dracula. Loosely indeed (and re-named Gabriel), and the plot is perfunctory, a basic good v evil sketch; but it's not so much about what but about how.

Exulting in grand gothic, Sommers rips into this film. He seems to be of the mind that if you take morphing vampires, wolf men and Frankenstein's creature upmarket into profundity, you'll be digging your own gravitas. Doing nothing by half measures, the film takes the Gabriel Van Helsing character and plunders taciturn, action-driven heroics from well worn predecessors, ranging from Indiana Jones to James Bond. Ah, but it sets the symbolically named Gabriel down in the Transylvania of Sommers and production designer Allan Cameron's gothically engorged imagination.

The film begins with the Universal logo catching fire and morphing into a flaming torch in the hands of a grimy Transylvanian peasant in a mob about to ram open the castle gates. We know exactly what sort of film we're about to see. Escapism is the genre, blue-grey is the palette, bleak is the atmos, dark are the shadows and black is the colour of blood. In this monochromistic opening sequence, Sommers manages to pay tribute to the classics and at the same time stamp his own unmistakable style on the genre. The visual and aural settings are at the high end throughout the film, blending the trimmings of the period - 19th century Eastern Europe stuck in a Medieval timewarp - with the trappings of inventive faux-modern artifacts and armour. Like the bow and arrow equivalent of a machine gun, invented by the worldly Friar Carl, played with good natured eccentricity by our own beloved David Wenham. He may have modelled his Carl on C-3PO (the English-trained robot in Star Wars).

With Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing the goodie and Richard Roxburgh as Count Dracula the baddie, Australians will feel quite at home, albeit not for long. The mise en scene is so fantastic and the special effects so insistent that any reference to home will be obliterated, accents included. Jackman is a handsome and credible action hero, but we knew that. He is not expected to stretch his emotional muscles, but there is just a hint of the sensitive soul beneath his leather garb. His dialogue isn't any more challenging than a matinee crowd would ask for.

Roxburgh delivers a wonderfully authentic East European accent for his Dracula, and revels in playing a character whose evil doesn't overwhelm his charisma. The close ups he gets are memorable.

Kate Beckinsale lives up to her action heroine ambitions, unleashed in Underworld (shot down the road from Prague in Budapest not long before this outing), and her black beauty looks add glam to an otherwise sodden, sleety and flinty world.

Some of the morphing effects are exceptional, combining wire work with prosthetics and CGI for a bravura result that helps carry the movie on wings of dread. Indeed, larger than death though it is, Van Helsing is a fantasy in horror delivering its payload for today's thrill-seeking audiences who want cinematic blood. It's a comic come to movie life, with a touch of pathos in the tragic character of Frankenstein's creature, but ultimately relying more on motion than emotion.

All of the film's production values are accessible on this two disc release, most of the chapters carefully produced - often quite extensively - and all of it nicely presented with big sound, good graphics and user friendly navigation, but with the film's gothic mood still pulsing darkly through it all.

September 9, 2004

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CAST: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Syvlia Colloca, Josie Maran

DIRECTOR: Stephen Sommers

SCRIPT: Stephen Sommers

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.85:1 widescreen; DD 5.1;

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1: commentary by Stephen Sommers & producer/editor Bob Dicsay; commentary by Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley & Will Kemp; Dracula's castle 360 degree tour; bloopers; SFX featurette; trailers (inlcuding classic monster movies);[BREAK]Disc 2: Frankenstein's Lab; the village; the Vatican armoury; the burning windmill; Dracula's lair transformed; evolution of a legacy, Van Helsing - the story, the life, the legend & the music of Van Helsing


DVD RELEASE: September 8, 2004

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