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Special effects turn 'Van Helsing' into a monster mush

"Van Helsing'' isn't based on a comic book or a video game or a line of action figures, although it bears a resemblance to all three. No, "Van Helsing'' is based on the Universal Pictures marketing department's tumescent desire to re-imprint its brands onto the minds of a new generation. Translated into English, that means we haven't had a good Frankenstein, Dracula, or Wolf Man movie in a long time, so here's one where the whole gang shows up.

One catch: It's not good. But that's secondary. A movie like this is just a beachhead for the eventual theme-park ride.

The early bird of the 2004 summer "tent pole'' movies, "Van Helsing'' promises a long, noisy, enervating season ahead. Writer-director Stephen Sommers proved with the two recent "Mummy'' movies that he could bring a Universal horror franchise back from the dead, but here he piles too much on his plastic buffet plate: We get Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) and his monster (Shuler Hensley), Count Vladislaus Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his three brides (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca, and Josie Maran as a slightly more dessicated version of the Gabor sisters), more than one Wolf Man (Will Kemp is the first), Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor), Edward Hyde of Jekyll and Hyde fame (played by Robbie Coltrane under several digital tons of CGI "make-up''), not to mention throwaway nods to "The Wizard of Oz,'' "Aliens,'' "Gremlins,'' and Lon Chaney in 1927's "London After Midnight.''

At the center is the monster-killer Gabriel Van Helsing, who was a doddering professor in the 1931 Bela Lugosi ``Dracula'' but who's here played by Hugh Jackman clad in vintage Indiana Jones. Employed by the secret Vatican intelligence agency the Order, Van Helsing is posted to Transylvania to help the surviving members of the Valerious family quell Dracula's plans for world domination (or something). Jackman has cut a natty figure in the ``X-Men'' movies and on Broadway, but here he's defeated by mall-goth dialogue like ``To have memories of those you've loved and lost is perhaps worse than having no memories at all.'' By the end you can barely see the actor between the explosions and morphing flesh.

The sad thing is that ``Van Helsing'' starts off with a stylish black-and-white bang that bows low to the Universal horror films of the '30s and '40s. Those movies were often scary and funny at the same time - intentionally so - and Sommers's opening scenes likewise let Roxburgh's Dracula and O'Connor's Igor rip with fruity line readings that have you looking forward to a smart, witty revamp.

Then the film switches to color, the special-effects bloat kicks in, and the fun drains away. For most of its running time, ``Van Helsing'' is one excruciatingly loud set piece of CGI hooey after another, and when a character or a plot twist does manage to make you laugh, you're not sure whether it's camp or ineptitude.

Except for Kate Beckinsale's performance as Princess Anna Valerious: That's all unintentional comedy. Wearing a leather bustier and thigh-high boots that don't exactly scream late-19th-century Eastern Europe, pitching her accented voice somewhere to the left of Natasha in ``Rocky and Bullwinkle,'' Beckinsale cuts a ridiculous figure - Alanis Morissette as a strapping action babe.

The movie may be a hit, regardless. Hollow big-budget sensationalism is a proven staple, and younger audiences may confuse the sound and fury of ``Van Helsing'' for actual content. (On the other hand, it didn't convince them to go see "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,'' which was worse only by a matter of degrees.)

Parents of younger teens should know that this is a horror-action flick in which the emphasis comes down - hard - on horror, and in which the filmmakers have worked overtime to provide one assault on the senses after another. Are the results icky-cool or icky-traumatizing? Depends on your kid. Still, read the reasons for the rating if you want a horselaugh: That ``Van Helsing'' got a PG-13 only testifies to the MPAA's cravenness when it comes to studio blockbusters that need the teen audience like a junkie needs heroin.

A final note: Universal Home Video has just released the original "Dracula,'' "Frankenstein,'' and "Wolf Man'' in deluxe "Legacy Collection'' DVD sets that group each film with its sequels. The target audience for ``Van Helsing'' will doubtless find them fatally dull (and in the case of the original ``Dracula,'' they'd be right).

The rest of us will curl up with James Whale's 1935 "Bride of Frankenstein'' and a mug of spiked mead and be perfectly content.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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