- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

Universal Studios hopes to turn its visually overloaded, eardrum-popping spectacle “Van Helsing” into a pop-culture legend before letting audiences make the decision.

In a move more consistent with franchise film series such as “The Matrix” and “Star Wars,” the multimedia giant has used both sequential-art and animation mediums to spread the legend of the monster-filled film starring Hugh Jackman — known to comic-book fans as Wolverine from the popular X-Men film franchise based on the Marvel Comics’ mutant team.

Even before seeing the movie, potential fans initially get background on the anointed warrior of God through a 30-minute DVD release that spends about as much time promoting the film as it does displaying a mediocre cartoon.

“Van Helsing: The London Assignment” ($14.99) stars the voices of some of the movie’s cast, including Mr. Jackman, Robbie Coltrane as Mr. Hyde, David Wenham as Van Helsing’s assistant, Carl; and Alun Armstrong as Cardinal Jinette.

It acts as a prequel to the film by setting up a confrontation between Van Helsing and the female-soul-sucking killer Mr. Hyde — whose alter ego, Dr. Jekyll, acts as a part-time physician to Queen Victoria.

The visuals rely on 2-D animation techniques and a style comparable to that of the MTV Spawn series (based on the Todd McFarlane comic book) that ran in the late 1990s: smoky visuals, night fights, lots of serious dialogue and a smattering of graphic gore as Van Helsing searches sewers, rooftops and alleyways for his transforming prey.

Also included among the DVD’s extra features are a background on the feature film hosted by bride of Dracula Josie Maran; an interview with Mr. Jackman; and a featurette touting the Van Helsing video game, which offers the same type of stimulation as the film.

Next — following a time frame immediately after the demise of Mr. Hyde and before Van Helsing’s movie-story assignment that takes him to Transylvania to battle Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and Wolfman — interested parties will appreciate reading the 64-page sequential-art one-shot Van Helsing: From Beneath the Rue Morgue ($2.99).

Much as Dark Horse Comics has done to develop a rich mythology surrounding the George Lucas-created science-fantasy universe, no expense was spared in putting together the perfect creative team, whose members have already cut their teeth in the fantasy-horror genre of comics.

Writer Joshua Dysart, known for the graphic cult series Violent Messiahs, and J. Alexander, contributor-illustrator of Tales of the Vampire, have created a hellish landscape for Van Helsing in which he encounters another famed horror icon: Dr. Moreau and his failed experiments.

The tale offers a great blend of action and Lovecraftian gore that lovers of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series will relish.

So, now, with a background on the famed monster hunter, viewers should be adequately prepared for the cinematic adventure — and if they’re in the mood for a mindless folly that melds the action of a video game with comic-book plot, they won’t be disappointed.

Supposedly an ode to the classic Universal Studios monster film of the 1940s, including a dazzling black-and-white opening scene as Dracula interacts with Dr. Frankenstein, “Van Helsing” quickly breaks down into a noisy and gooey special-effects extravaganza in which director Stephen Sommers tries hard to show off how many ways he can kill nasty creatures.

Hugh Jackman offers another performance as a man who has no memory of his past, but unlike his more robust X-Men role, he gets little time to find it as he wields an array of James Bond-style weapons (had 007 lived in 19th-century England).

The $160 million-budgeted effort already has made more than $100 million worldwide, so it appears Universal has accurately predicted its new film legend. Hopefully, fans will see more comic books from Dark Horse — and better animated efforts before the sequel.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016, fax 202/269-1853, e-mail jszad kowski@washingtontimes.com or write to Joseph Szadkowski/The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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