Van Helsing HD DVD

Stephen Sommers, director of a fun ride in The Mummy and an unnecessary, overblown sequel in The Mummy Returns, brings us a whole bevy of uglies in Van Helsing. It's a monster mash, with Dracula getting together with his vampire brides, the Frankenstein monster, Mr. Hyde, wherewolves, and various other hangers on.

Hyde shows up as a kind of humanoid cave troll in the opening Paris set piece. He makes a quick departure, but Transylvania turns out to be no picnic for our hero either. Not that you'd expect it to be. Even Hugh Jackman, in the title role, gets into some hairy spots as a part-timed wherewolverine and full-time vampire stalker.

The plot is convoluted but moderately clever, and the special effects are fun. That's a good thing, because without CGI there would be no movie. It certainly doesn't exist for the character development, unless your idea of character "development" is morphing from something human into something else, often involving a bad overbite. There's a lot of that going around in Transylvania. It must be something in the water.

Still, I had fun. When I first saw Van Helsing, courtesy of digital projection from Texas Instruments at New York's Ziegfeld theater during the 2005 Home Entertainment Show, I was surprised to find that it didn't suck. Actually, it did, but then that's a given in any Dracula movie.

I'll give the director credit for one thing: there's lots of action and plenty of thrills here, but this is not a standard-issue horror film. There's no gore, and while some blood is spilled, it's CGI blood and comparatively little of that considering the opportunities offered by the subject. The frightening images referenced in the fully appropriate PG-13 rating are no worse than what you'll see in Raiders of the Lost Ark or, more to the point, The Mummy.

There's a lot of wry humor in the film that keeps it lighter than you might expect. It might even be viewed as a subtle parody of horror movies. But photographically speaking, at least, it's a very dark production. There are enough highlights to insure that you'll be able to follow the action on any decent, well-adjusted video display, but it will take a very good system to do full justice to the HD DVD transfer's wealth of shadow detail.

For such a dimly lit film there's very little visible noise or grain. The pervasively dark images do sometimes keep the detail from being as obvious as in some other HD DVDs, but there were only a few relatively soft-looking scenes. One of them was the masquerade ball sequence. It's nowhere near as eye-poppingly detailed as the masked ball on the HD DVD of Phantom of the Opera. Considering the generally crisp quality of the transfer throughout most of the disc, I assume that the limitation here originated in the source photography. Directors and cinematographers will eventually realize that a soft-focused shot that will pass unnoticed in the multiplex will stick out like a sore thumb on a high definition disc—even more than on broadcast HD.

The lack of bright lighting here also keeps the color palette subdued with a few notable exceptions (that masquerade ball, in particular), but it always looks right. Furthermore, there is no obvious edge-enhancement, and I was never conscious of compression artifacts.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is rousing, with full-bodied bass and active surrounds. The HD DVD, overall, handles the film's wide dynamic range with a relative ease, though at times the audio can turn a little bright. Alan Silvestri's music is pervasive though not particularly memorable, apart from the impressive whack of the big taiko drum that punctuates much of the score. One of the special features, in fact, is an extensive discussion of the creation and recording of the music—a subject all too-rarely touched-on in disc extras.

Video reviewed on a Yamaha DPX-1300 DLP projector, 78-inch wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player set to 1080i. Audio reviewed using the player's digital audio output into on an Anthem D1 pre-pro, Parasound Halo amp, and Revel F52/C52/M22/B15 loudspeakers.