Hugh Jackman pursues gruesome creatures -- and the summer's first smash -- with 'Van Helsing'

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated March 26, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Transylvania is empty these days. There aren’t any vampires swooping out of castle turrets. No werewolves howling at the moon. Not even any villagers poking big green guys with pitchforks. In fact, there aren’t any monsters around here at all anymore — unless you count the occasional studio exec visiting from Hollywood.

We’re referring, of course, not to the Transylvania in Romania, but the one Universal Studios built last year on the outskirts of Prague as a backdrop for Van Helsing, the $148 million monster extravaganza that kicks off the summer movie season on May 7. Not long ago, this spectacularly ghoulish set — an entire medieval village filled with a dozen or so surreally Gothic structures, including a lopsided church with a twisted steeple and two cemeteries dotted with creepily crooked headstones — was packed with possessed souls and other gruesome creatures. Also a few human beings, most notably Hugh Jackman, the only big-screen action hero ever to sing ”Bi-Coastal” on Broadway.

”Basically, I play a monster killer,” the 34-year-old Aussie said last year while shooting the film on this muddy patch of Prague. ”The movie is set in the 19th century and my character is sort of a black-ops priest, a mercenary for the Catholic Church. He’s an assassin sent to murder monsters, even though he’s not always sure how he feels about it.”

It’s pretty clear how Universal feels about it: The studio is hoping Jackman’s demon slayer — extremely loosely based on a character in Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula — will help launch its most synergistically ambitious entertainment franchise ever. Already plans are in the works for a sequel, a TV show, and a videogame, all conveniently featuring long-dormant characters dug up and dusted off from the studio’s ancient horror archives.

”These characters are the crown jewels of our library,” salivates Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures. ”They are part of an incredibly rich world with a huge set of mythic characters that haven’t been brought together like this in a long, long time. We see a lot of cross-marketing possibilities here.”

In fact, Universal is so hot on monsters nowadays that the studio is actually keeping the now-deserted Van Helsing set in Prague entirely intact, spending 865,000 Czech crowns a year to rent the uninhabited property (okay, so that’s only $32,000), and even posting security guards around it to ward off intruders…to say nothing of grave robbers. The studio is convinced that if its Van Helsing franchise takes off as anticipated, it won’t be long before this muddy little village will once again be alive (ALIVE!) with the pitter-patter of gigantic misshapen feet. Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula — pretty soon they may all be moving back to the old neighborhood. Indeed, Transylvania could end up becoming the most precious plot of land in Universal’s entire real estate portfolio.

March 2003. Stephen Sommers — the same writer-director who brought the Mummy back to life with his last two films, grossing a total of $357 million domestically for Universal — is making mad hand gestures at a hundred Transylvanian extras (Czech extras, actually). Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is hanging around the set as well, along with his three bloodsucking brides (one of them being Italian actress Silvia Colloca, who’s now Roxburgh’s fiancee for real, proving that life sometimes imitates the undead). It’s even possible to catch a glimpse of Frankenstein — at seven feet, he’s a hard monster to miss — cracking up crew members by singing show tunes and busting Britney Spears moves (that’s musical-theater veteran Shuler Hensley under all the prosthetics). And Jackman is pretty conspicuous himself. He’s the guy dangling 10 feet above the ground on steel wires, shooting an action sequence in which he saves costar Kate Beckinsale from a squadron of winged vampirinas.