[Screen It]

(2000) (Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell) (R)

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Horror: A modern day vampire hunter travels to New Orleans to hunt down Dracula who's escaped from his century old imprisonment to search for a young woman with whom he shares a special bond.
It's 2000 London and antiques dealer Abraham Van Helsing (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER) has an oldie but a goodie securely tucked away in his subterranean vault, or so he thinks. Unfortunately for him, one of his employees, Solina (JENNIFER ESPOSITO), has arranged an inside theft job that's to be carried out by outsider Marcus (OMAR EPPS) and his team of high-tech thieves including Trick (SEAN PATRICK THOMAS), Nightshade (DANNY MASTERSON), Eddie (LOCHLYN MUNRO) and Dax (TIG FONG).

When they eventually arrive in the inner sanctum of his vault, however, all they find is a booby-trapped and seemly impenetrably sealed coffin. Figuring it must be filled with something valuable to warrant such security surrounding it, the thieves remove the coffin and head off for the Caymans. Of course, Van Helsing knows that the coffin really contains Dracula who's been contained within it for the past century or so. As such, he sets out to retrieve the vampire, telling his assistant, Simon (JONNY LEE MILLER), to stay put and run the shop.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Mary (JUSTINE WADDELL) is a young record store employee who's been plagued by nightmares and bizarre dreams about Dracula ever since she was a kid. Her housemate, Lucy (VITAMIN C), thinks Mary just needs a man in her life, but Mary truly believes she's going crazy.

When the thieves' plane crashes not far away after the rejuvenated Dracula (GERARD BUTLER) has killed or turned the robbers into more vampires, however, Mary soon discovers the truth behind her dreams. With Van Helsing arriving to save her and capture Dracula, and Simon following him to figure out what's going on, it's only a matter of time before the vampire finds Mary. From that point on, Van Helsing and Simon do what they can to stop Dracula and the many new vampires, including local TV reporter Valerie Sharp (JERI RYAN), that he's created.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Maybe it's just me, but if I were Dracula, and had last seen the light of day - excuse me, of night - back in London of the late and morally uptight 19th century, but now found myself in the far more liberated dawn of the 21st century, I'd obviously be considered the proverbial vampire fish out of water.

Okay, since there are no vampire fish, there obviously can't be a proverbial one, but the point is that if you were the king of all bloodsuckers, you'd be both shocked and amazed at how things had changed. After all, in the intervening years, both blood banks and AIDS would have altered the whole neck-biting behavior, and the sexual revolution and everything related to it - particularly as far as the easy availability of such material - would have made the sexually charged overtures of such neck biting not quite as shocking as it once was.

That's because the last time I checked, there weren't any thong-wearing babes gracing the airwaves of the BBC or the Internet back in the 1800s, and since vampires have always been about sex and repressed sexuality, Dracula and the year 2000 would seem to be a perfect fit.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers responsible for "Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000" haven't taken that concept far enough despite wisely setting their story amid the often libidinous festivities of Mardi Gras. Unlike the terrific "Time After Time" where Jack the Ripper time traveled to 1979 America and then proclaimed himself an amateur in this "new" violent world, this film's intentions seem more aligned with trying to frighten viewers on a simple scare level rather than attempting to be anything more profound.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing if the film manages to be truly scary, but this one isn't. That is, of course, unless you have a low threshold for vampire flicks or are generally easily frightened. For everyone else, this will probably feel like yet another unnecessary excursion into the Dracula legend.

While your everyday vampire has received far more attention than the title character popularized by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel and last seen in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film of that author's name, it seems as if the bloodsuckers may be at or near the bottom of their popularity curve at least in their traditional form. That may explain the recent presence of vampires in family comedies ("The Little Vampire") and faux historical flicks ("Shadow of the Vampire").

The film's biggest problem is that the actor playing Dracula-Gerard Butler ("Mrs. Brown," "One More Kiss") - simply isn't that frightening, sexy, or interesting for that matter. While that wouldn't be that big of a deal had be been playing "Vampire #5," the fact that he's the lead and therefore supposedly the most frightening bloodsucker of them all does create a problem since he doesn't possess that all important quality.

The other problem is with the basic plot. As scripted by Joel Soisson ("Highlander: Endgame," "Mimic"), the story is notable only for its unique back-story twist on the Dracula legend that has to be seen and heard to understand just how ludicrous it really is (believe it or not, it involves Jesus).

Beyond that, editor turned director Patrick Lussier ("Prophesy III: The Ascent") can't do much with the standard trappings of the genre - namely the plucky hero trying to save the damsel who's distressed due to Dracula's interest in her. Instead, and like most modern updates, the director has delivered a film that's far gorier than the Dracula pictures of old. While that might impress younger viewers and sicken those with low tolerance levels for blood and guts, it actually lessens the suspense/fright factor since little is left to the imagination that, as we all know, is a filmmaker's greatest, but usually underused ally.

It certainly doesn't help that some of the characters are graduates of the School of the Stupid where their inane behavior not only lacks credibility, but also predictably leads to danger and unimaginative and repetitive "scares."

As far as the performances are concerned - and beyond the lackluster one delivered by Butler - the rest are either unremarkable - including Johnny Lee Miller ("Plunkett & Macleane," "Trainspotting") as the hero and Justine Waddell ("Mansfield Park," "Anna Karenina") as the damsel - or notable for their soft-core sexuality/sensuality as put on display by Jennifer Esposito ("Summer of Sam," TV's "Spin City"), Vitamin C (a pop star making her feature film debut) and Jeri Ryan (TV's "Star Trek: Voyager"). Meanwhile, the talented Omar Epps ("Love and Basketball," "The Wood") inexplicably shows up in a lame thief and subsequent vampire part.

The only exception to all of that concerns the presence of Christopher Plummer ("The Sound of Music," "The Insider") who nearly brings a Max von Sydow-Exorcist touch to his vampire hunter character and certainly a lot more class to this film than it deserves or knows what to do with.

Whenever a film evokes the name of a notable director in its title - in this case producer/director Wes Craven of "Scream" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" fame - but doesn't utilize their skills on the creative side of the production, you realize that the studio is desperate to draw in viewers however possible. That's usually the case when a film is bad and can't do it based on its own merits, and this is a prime example of just that. While the film isn't the worst thing you'll see all year, it's certainly far from the best and clearly comes off as the weakest of any recent vampire flicks. As such, "Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed December 22, 2000 / Posted December 24, 2000

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