May 02, 2004

Film: That's why the lady is a vamp

The Dracula story is back, this time with a classic action hero, state-of-the-art special effects and parts for Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man, says David Eimer

If ever a novel was made to be adapted for the movies, it’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Turgid to read, Stoker’s 1897 tale of a Transylvanian vampire has been a cinematic staple ever since FW Murnau’s unofficial version, 1922’s Nosferatu, had audiences screaming in the aisles. Recent vampire films, though, such as Wes Craven’s woeful Dracula 2000, have failed to generate the same reaction. Indeed, many of them have been spoofs, such as 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But it’s a long way from Bela Lugosi to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So, while audiences will happily watch a troupe of teenagers taking on the bloodsuckers and supernatural beings that pop up in Sunnydale each week, they start laughing when a man in tails and a cape, with sharpened teeth, turns up speaking in a hammy mittel-European accent. Not even Francis Ford Coppola could prevent his Dracula (1992) from drifting into unintentional parody at crucial moments.

It’s a problem that Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale and the writer-director Stephen Sommers have had to deal with on Van Helsing, the latest attempt to reinvent Dracula. “When I think of vampire movies, I think of people with very white faces and red lipstick wafting around in nighties,” grins Beckinsale, during a break from filming in a cold studio on the outskirts of Prague. “But this doesn’t feel like a vampire movie. It’s very much an action-adventure.” In fact, it’s more than that. Instead of turning the film into the usual battle between Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his nemesis, Van Helsing (Jackman), Sommers has introduced Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man into the story, as well as Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde and Beckinsale’s gypsy princess turned vampire-hunter. It’s four monsters for the price of one. 

“I started thinking, ‘Well, three of them are from eastern Europe,’” says Sommers. “Then I reread Dracula, and thought Van Helsing was such a cool character. So I wove them all in and gave the script to Universal. They gave it the green light the next morning.” A youthful 42-year-old, Sommers struck gold with The Mummy and its 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns, which took a combined $849m worldwide. Universal had made the 1932 original, along with the first “official” versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, but the 1999 Mummy bore little resemblance to its ancestor. Sommers gave us an angry computer-generated monster who could shape-shift at will and whip up a sandstorm quicker than Jamie Oliver can create a soufflé. And in place of the original’s stiff hero, we got Brendan Fraser’s wise-cracking adventurer, a lead character cut from the same cloth as Indiana Jones.

The blend of state-of-the-art special effects, a classic screen hero and the jokey tone proved so successful that last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean appropriated the formula to breathe new life into the swashbuckler. Van Helsing follows the same rules, which is why Jackman was recruited. “You think of Peter Cushing or Anthony Hopkins, but this is a more physical, younger and less cerebral Van Helsing,” notes Jackman, 35, whose on-screen uniform of leather trousers, waistcoat and hair extensions indicates this is a rock’n’roll vampire hunter. “To be honest, if I got inspiration from past work, it was from the literature. I love the mystery about the character in Dracula. But Stephen smiles whenever I mention things like that, or historical facts. He says, ‘Hugh, let’s not get bogged down in details.’” We have taken huge liberties with the character of Van Helsing. Here, he’s basically a mercenary for the Catholic church, hired to kill possessed souls.”

Then there’s the setting. Van Helsing is set in a fantastical Transylvania where vampires and werewolves roam, and garlic hangs from the beams of the houses. The production built its own village outside Prague, but the real action has been taking place at the northern California HQ of Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’s special-effects operation. It’s the reason the film has a reported budget of $150m. Which means an array of computer-generated monsters and some revolutionary morphing work, especially when the Wolf Man transforms into his alter-ego. Then there’s Frankenstein’s monster, and the vampires who take to the air at the drop of a hat. But Sommers claims: “Some of the effects you won’t know are special effects. We’re taking you to a place you’ve never seen before, but it can’t look like Mars.” He denies the effects will overwhelm the actors and dominate the film. “This movie will be as organic as we can make it. At the end of the day, audiences want characters and a story.”

That’s why Universal’s 1930s horror films still stand up. Van Helsing pays homage to them in its opening sequence, which is shot in black-and-white and starts off where the 1931 Frankenstein ended. Sommers claims to be a big fan of the originals. “My cinematic heroes are people like David Lean and Howard Hawks. I love the old classics,” he insists. “But I don’t think most people now have seen those movies.” He stresses, though, that his film is very different from the ones that inspired him. “When I wrote the script, I said to myself, ‘This is not a monster movie, it’s about people with bad problems.’ Frankenstein’s monster is like the Elephant Man, and the Wolf Man is like an alcoholic who goes off the rails every now and then.”

He believes the romance between Van Helsing and the princess will widen the appeal of his film. But Dracula is the character with real sex appeal. “He’s sexy because he’s completely given himself over to the dark side and is totally comfortable with it,” points out Jackman. “Let’s face it, most of us live under codes, whether religion or the law, where we’re trying to repress that dark side.” Sommers is hoping that there are enough of us out there who still want to embrace it.