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Special effects forge a horror compendium

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The lavish new vampire movie, Van Helsing opens, appropriately, with a sequence that combines back story with an act of homage to the long, rich history of horror. Shot in black and white, with the classic Expressionist oblique angles, the opening duplicates the famous laboratory from the Frankenstein movies.

            Electricity crackles and sparks up and down mysterious wires, beakers foam, strange liquids burble in giant tubes, and the monster is strapped to a table. The demented scientist, looking very like good old Colin Clive and assisted by the truculent Igor, giddily celebrates his creation of life. In a pardonable and not entirely anomalous variation, another character joins in the fun, Count Dracula, snarling his lines in an Eastern European accent and glowering in high Lugosi.

            After that recapitulation the movie settles into a more contemporary mode, employing all the special effects in Hollywood's vast warehouse to resurrect a whole collection of horror film menaces from the past. The writer-director takes the prototypical vampire hunter of Bram Stoker's great novel, changes his name from Abraham to Gabriel Van Helsing, and throws him in the ring against just about every major menace who stalked the dualistic dreams of the 19th century --- not only the main attraction, the vampire, and Frankenstein's monster, but also the werewolf, and even Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, a gigantic Mr. Hyde.

            The new interpretation of those characters and the situation rapidly depart from their original sources, undergoing a transformation into yet another expensive blockbuster packed with stunts, spectacular effects, fiery explosions, digital magic, a few moments of campy humor, and a large quantity of sheer nonsense. Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) journeys to that great capital of nightmares, Transylvania, the land beyond the forest, where he must confront Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his brides, a trio of harpies with Romanian accents, long teeth, and profound cleavage.

            In addition to the customary crucifix, the vampire hunter also totes some Victorian high-tech hardware in the form of explosives and a nifty crossbow machine gun. Assisted by a comical monk (David Wenham), he wages an extended campaign against the count to save the local folk and the beautiful Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), whose family has been fighting the vampire for centuries.

            Once the movie establishes the basic conflict it settles into a long, repetitive series of battles, with Van Helsing, Anna, and the clerical sidekick on one side and that gaggle of villains on the other. Those battles actually exist in order to display the familiar special effects of the usual summer blockbuster rather than the sometimes thoughtful theology of the traditional vampire film.

            To justify the powerful magic of the vampire and the great difficulty of defeating him, the writer-director embellishes the original material with all sorts of silliness. In particular there is some preposterous baloney about Anna's family being forever condemned to Purgatory unless she kills Dracula (so much for the theological) and a mindless mingling of all those other monsters and menaces (so much for the logical).

            Despite its obviously expensive budget and its remarkable display of contemporary cinema technology, Van Helsing actually seems like a really elaborate hash of all those Abbott and Costello Meet (choose a monster) comedies, combined with decades of American International cheapies of the Frankenstein vs. Dracula variety.

            While the pace rarely slackens and the shocks explode with admirable frequency, the underlying story and its characters constantly teeter on the edge of the ridiculous. The prevailing theme of transformation, the recognition of the existence of another self, the dangerous possibility of releasing the beast within the human, mostly manifest themselves in what seems an endless series of metamorphoses, some of them, to be fair, really quite magnificent.

            The constant and exaggerated violence of the plot, along with all the pyrotechnics, naturally overwhelms the actors and their performances. Apparently already condemned to comic book parts, Hugh Jackman overacts in the Victorian manner that dominates the whole cast. He and Richard Roxburgh frown and sneer and flash their eyes at each other in the great tradition of creaky melodrama.

            Nobody involved with the film, including the people who made it, appears to take any of it terribly seriously, which makes it difficult for anyone in the audience as well. The most expensive vampire film in history, Van Helsing never approaches the quality of some of the simple journeys of vampire hunters on those well traveled roads to Transylvania, the land beyond the forest.

Van Helsing (PG-13) stars Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham; written and directed by Stephen Sommers. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.

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