Though the nation's movie screens are overrun by Grinches and Family Men, there's another viewing option this holiday season. It's the latest chapter in the ongoing story of Hollywood's most resilient creature of the night -- the one who's faced sure extinction countless times, only to return with his infernal powers miraculously intact. An entire movie about Robert Downey Jr.? Wow!
Actually, it's about Dracula; the title's an undead giveaway. "Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000" it trumpets, drowning out objections that the participation of Craven, that bankable master of the macabre, is negligible. Credited as executive producer, he's ceded the director's chair to Patrick Lussier, his editor on all three "Scream" epics.
To this editor, we say: Cut it out. Not only is "D2K" wretchedly written (Lussier had a hand in the screenplay) and laughably acted, but its pacing is lugubrious. In the extended heist sequence that begins the film, a cadre of thieves struggle -- for what seems like an eternity -- to unlock a purloined coffin. What's inside? Dracula, of course. In the cape is Gerard Butler, a nonthreatening, sadly miscast actor whose resemblance to Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins is the only surprise the segment offers. When a coffin appears in the first 10 minutes of a Dracula film, its seldom holds fruitcake.
Set loose on the modern world, the bloodsucker wings his way to a very cramped-looking New Orleans, arriving in time for a very cramped-looking Mardi Gras. (Two city blocks, tops.) He's pursued by his old nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer), who has remained on the hunt for 100 years by following an eternal-youth regimen whose main ingredients are vampire blood and leeches. No sensible shakes here.
Dracula's prey in the Big Easy is Van Helsing's daughter, Mary (Justine Waddell), with whom the villain shares a strange, psychic bond. But that doesn't stop him from adding other playmates to his coven of cuties along the way. One is Valerie, a TV reporter Dracula stalks unseen as her segment producer watches through his camera's viewfinder. Vampires, you'll recall, don't cast graven images. This is one of the film's two genuinely fun moments, and a better argument against the veracity of video than the one the Rodney King jury formulated.
Valerie is played by Jeri Ryan, known for setting adolescent hearts afire as the busty "Seven of Nine" on "Star Trek: Voyager." In a bold creative choice, her wardrobe does not consist of a succession of turtlenecks. Ol' Thirty-Six of D joins a trio of toothy shrews whose smutty banter is targeted to young boys, as is the movie's grinding neü-metal soundtrack. Happening upon a music video by Monster Magnet, the Count correctly lauds their evil postures as "brilliant." That's Moment No. 2.
Those cheap thrills are at odds with the spiritual claptrap "Dracula 2000" serves up in its second half. Lussier, who has already proven incapable of telling even a serviceable Dracula story, tries to put his own, grand stamp on the mythos by tracing the character's bloodline back to the New Testament. Since when did Bram Stoker cease to suffice as a source?
If there's a silver lining to "Dracula 2000," it's the meager screen time foisted on the actors who have actual careers to preserve. Plummer's contract must have stipulated limited contact with the surrounding nobodies: His Van Helsing (who pronounces his adversary's name druh-KOOL-ya for some reason) delegates much of his stake-wielding duty to Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), a subordinate who specializes in the procurement of mystical knickknacks. Yes, this is a film in which an antiques dealer kicks ass.
As for Dracula, don't worry too much about him. He's already shown that he can survive the indecorous assaults of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder -- working as a team. So he has nothing to fear from Craven. Or Lussier. Or whoever.