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Full Moon Fever

Hugh Jackman Battles Transylvania's Creatures of the Night in "Van Helsing"

"Van Helsing." Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O'Connor and Shuler Hensley. Directed and written by Stephen Sommers. Produced by Stephen Sommers and Bob Ducsay. A Universal release. Thriller. Opens May 7.

If you ever wondered who would win in a fight, Wolverine or Dracula? Wolverine or Frankenstein? Or, in perhaps the most direct match-up, Wolverine or the Wolf Man?, Universal's "Van Helsing" should answer that pugilistic ponderance, as Hugh Jackman, the bigscreen incarnation of the metal-clawed X-Men mutant, plays the eponymous monster-slayer.

Of course, that logic might also lead one to conclude that singer-songwriter Peter Allen of "When My Baby Smiles At Me I Go to Rio" fame is a worthy opponent against fiction's most frightening creatures, as that's another of Jackman's alter egos: He's currently portraying the late flamboyant Australian performer and one-time husband of Liza Minnelli on Broadway. Perhaps Allen's victory is not so far-fetched; they say that music soothes the savage beast -- and if that didn't work, the ruffled outfits, maracas and disco-whistles probably would. But it's safe to say that Van Helsing will be armed with none of these things in his fight against evil; however, his machine-gun crossbow and spinning sawblades should prove at least as, if not more, effective.

"He's the Batman of the early 1900s," declares Jackman of "Mummy" director Stephen Sommers' take on Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the steel-willed vampire hunter who first appeared in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula." "He pretty much has a gadget for everything. He wears a very cool overcoat which goes right down to the ground, and that's so he can stash all these weapons. Inside his coat is every gadget known to man. He's got blades that he spins around in his hands and throws them, and they're pretty lethal. The piece de resistance is the crossbow which fires out arrows like a machine gun, and let me tell you, that thing is a thing of beauty."

As cool a silhouette as he must carve in costume with such an implement, the facade can only last so long. "[The crossbow] weighs 45 pounds. And to hold that thing up, sometimes for two-minute takes, with your arm extended straight, it didn't always look very heroic," Jackman laughs. "It's not very heroic when your arm is shaking trying to hold up your weapons."

Any such tremors have no doubt been CGIed out, for Van Helsing is not a man given to wavering. Indeed, he has "an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, an indomitable resolution and self-command," according to Stoker, after whom the character is named: Bram is the short form of Abraham. He also has a number of inner demons that are not as easy to conquer as those he hunts and kills to fulfill a duty even he doesn't entirely understand.

"He has a troubled past, which he's trying to sort out for himself," Jackman muses. "He's a relatively quiet man, and still waters run deep. There are a lot of things going on that he's trying to piece together and make sense of. He's driven by his desire and his need to fight and to vanquish evil, but he's not 100 percent sure what motivates him. And at the beginning of our movie, he's almost at his wits' end, and he's trying to work these things out."

Van Helsing is "loosely based" on the Stoker character, according to Jackman. "We play him as a younger man who's more of a man of action. In the book he's a professor and an adversary of Dracula and knower of all things of the occult and so on. But Van Helsing in our movie is like a warrior. He works for the Catholic Church, and he's sent out to take care of their dirty work -- all those lost souls that are demonized and ostracized and are beyond repair.

"It's around about the year 1900, and he's sent off to Transylvania to take care of Dracula, who has been around and the Church has known of him for years. But all of a sudden, he's started to get a little out of hand. Now, on the way, Van Helsing encounters several other adversaries -- Frankenstein is one of them; the Wolf Man is another one. [Scripter/ director] Stephen [Sommers] has written a script which intertwines all these characters really brilliantly. It's not just a case of one man going out there battling three monsters."

And there's much more to the monsters themselves, who are as tragic as they are terrifying. Frankenstein's travails are among the most heart-rending in literature and cinema, while werewolves and vampires bear their own unthinkable curses.

"What Steve managed to do is flesh out the characters [of the monsters] so we understand what's going on behind them, and you feel for all of them. It's not as easy as a battle of good and evil. All of these characters are battling those forces within themselves. There's a human soul battling with the demonic element. And by the time Van Helsing's sent in, the Church has basically admitted that they've lost the soul.

"And Van Helsing, too, is not a cut-and-dry good guy. He's heroic, ultimately, in this movie. But he battles himself with personal dilemmas and feelings of good and evil. He's asked at one point, 'Are you a murderer or are you a holy man?' and he says, 'I think it's a bit of both.' He's a little unsure of who he is and whether he really is doing good. And so it's not necessarily like, 'I'm gonna blow the smoke from my gun, get on my horse and move on, and yee-haw, we've killed another one.' It's a little more complex than that.

"What I'm trying to say is there's not a huge separation between hero and monster. Every character has a great journey to go on. And that's what interests me as an actor in the role and in the movie."

By humanizing the villains, Sommers must transcend the usual formula to elicit audience satisfaction. "[People] don't want to see Dick Dastardly twirling his moustache anymore, nor see a guy coming on a white horse killing everyone and having no obstacles in his way. It's clear in the end who the heroes are, where the selfishness is and where ultimately people rise above their problems for the greater good. But what is great is there are some real twists and surprises in what these characters end up doing with their lives, and what their choices are. And across the board -- Dracula, Frankenstein, the werewolf and Van Helsing -- people are going to be surprised about the turns that these characters make."

Jackman hadn't necessarily been a fan of the monster movie genre in the past, but "I am now," he declares enthusiastically. Horror has always been more his thing, he adds: "I'm one of those geeks who's seen 'Friday the 13th' parts one right through 10. Including the 3-D ones. When I was a teenager, everything was horror movies. That's all I saw."

And what scares the man who onscreen shows no fear? "There's a couple of things that scare me the most. Growing up, the monster in 'Salem's Lot,' the devil, that freaked me out for about six months. And I've always had this very weird kind of freak-out by dolls that come to life. Like the clown in 'Poltergeist,' or 'Chucky," you know, those ventriloquist dolls that come to life? [Affects a raspy possessed-doll voice]: 'Take the girl right up the hill and kiss the girl goodbye.' That used to freak me out."

That adamantium claws, machine-gun crossbows and all the grit of a veteran action icon would apparently be no match for Talky Tina may come as a shock to many moviegoers, but every hero has his Kryptonite. And what fun would life be if you were impervious to thrills and chills? The desire for that adrenaline rush is what catalyzed the conception of such masterworks as "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and the like in the first place.

"If you read the original stories, they're very intelligently written. Back then, it wasn't all just 'boo' scares and things like that; they wanted to be scared entirely and intellectually. And the idea back then in the early 1900s of a man-made creation, bypassing God -- that was, like, revolutionary thought. So it was an extraordinary thing to imagine -- not only just the creation of the monster, but that ability to create life without God.

"All these characters are so elemental. We're all drawn to the character of Dracula; even though he's sort of bad and evil, he's somehow sexy and funny and compelling. And inside all this is that darkness of eternal life or eternal death, whichever way you like to see it, which he symbolizes. And even when you look at the Wolf Man -- back in the 1900s, there were newspaper reports about wild dogs, and in brackets, they would say werewolves. I mean, these were things that were talked about that could possibly have happened only a hundred years ago. So there's something about those stories and those characters which are so iconic and touch on something in all of us, and that will always be around."

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