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Foolish ghoulishness


It's a general rule that modern movies about Dracula need to strike a balance between a wide range of moods and themes: teeming sexuality, camp and horror. In his 1992 film, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola set that bar. Since then few Dracula films (with the exception of postmodern takes on the filming of Dracula films, like Shadow of the Vampire and Ed Wood) have been as fun, ghoulish or, for that matter, romantic. The newest entry in the category, one of the first summer blockbusters starring Hugh Jackman, adds to the long-running tradition of poorly conceived and executed Dracula films already crowding the canon.

Jackman stars as the famed monster slayer, Van Helsing, who travels from city to city killing things that go bump in the night. Set in the late 19th century, the film first shows our hero at work in Paris where he's wrangling with the unfortunate alter ego of Dr. Jekyl. Here Mr. Hyde, who looks and sounds like Shrek on steroids, meets an untimely death after being tossed off the roof of Notre Dame.

Doing work for a secret order within the Catholic church, and supposedly robbed of his memory—he has no recollection of his family or origins, Van Helsing is assigned to to go to Transylvania to hunt down Count Dracula. Once there, Van Helsing teams up with Anna Velorious (Kate Beckinsale), the last remaining member of a family that has been trying to kill Dracula for centuries.

Directed by Stephen Sommers, who's responsible for both The Mummy and its sequel, The Scorpion King, Van Helsing has the feel of an extended special effect in which the dialog and story were inserted as an afterthought. Rolling tales about Frankenstien, werewolves and vampires into one insipid extermination fest, Sommers explores none of the compelling or remotely interesting themes touched upon by the Dracula story. Backstories about Dracula attempting to harness an energy source through Frankenstein in order to hatch millions of eggs bearing his bloodsucking offspring is only as silly as much of the idiotic chatter that utters from the characters' mouths. At one point Jackman's rogue makes a comment about heading for the sea and Beckinsale's Transylvanian dominatrix responds with a wistfully unprompted, "I've never been to the sea. I'll bet it's beautiful."

Even the character of Dracula provides little in the way of fiendish humor. As played by Australian actor Richard Roxburgh, the villain is an aging playboy who bemoans the fact that he has no heart while staying committed to his plan of obliterating the human race. Surely there's a joke in that ... if only Sommers could uncover it.

As handled by the director, Van Helsing is short on everything but slime and CG effects. A poor man's Men in Black, the film is little more than an extended parade of ghoulish slayings, but with no punchline waiting after the kill.