Review: Van Helsing (2004)

Composer: Alan Silvestri

Label: Decca Records

Catalogue Nr.: 986 1999

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The Mummy-director Stephen Sommers is one of the most creative masterminds behind recent summer blockbusters in Hollywood. After the incredible success of the weakest film of 2001, The Mummy Returns, Sommers was allowed to do virtually anything because it was nearly guaranteed that he could take any crappy story or weird concept and turn it into pure box office-gold. Classic horror icons such as The Mummy (1999) seem to be his passion so it was only natural that he would go for a crossover-film which features three of the most iconic horror creatures in cinema history. Sommer's latest creation Van Helsing (2004) has them all: Dracula, Wulfman and Frankenstein. The film is even more action-packed than anything Sommers has done before (I know, hardly imaginable) with wild editing, lots of effects and ridiculous action set pieces. It is really hard to top the amount of nonsense and one has to wonder where they will draw a line. Van Helsing was nearly unbearable with all the things going on in the film and thus received rather poor US box office response, only saved by the results overseas.

The score:

Despite all the negative things that can be said and have been said about Sommer's films, there is one important reason to admire his work: His taste when it comes to composers. Modern film music legends such as Bill Conti, Basil Poledouris and the late Jerry Goldsmith contributed their musical talent to his films. However, one composer managed to make an extraordinary impression on the director and this composer was Alan Silvestri. Both collaborated on The Mummy Returns (2001) which resulted in one of Silvestri's best adventure scores to date so it was natural that Sommers would return to Alan for his next project called Van Helsing. The assignment was the perfect opportunity for Alan Silvestri to finally take revenge for the injustice rejection on Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and it was a good feeling to finally see his name on a CD cover again.

You really have to admire Alan Silvestri for the fact that he is an ever-enthusiastic person who can find something inspiring even in the crappiest films. Van Helsing is certainly no exception and with all the sound effects banging and clashing you have to wonder why a talented composer does even bother to come up with good material. Luckily, the Back To The Future-composer again delivered good work though he did not re-invent action scoring with this one. Rhythm is once again Silvestri's key to success here with a huge array of percussion playing against the sound effects in the film. The rhythmic qualities of the score are spiced with a wealth of solid thematic material. The 12 tracks of the album are actually a non-stop action concert which gives the phrase 'big is better' a new meaning.

The main theme opens the CD in "Transylvania 1887". Imagine a much bigger and slowed down variation of Silvestri's "March of the Lava" from Volcano (1996) and you will get a hint what this main theme sounds like. Choral chants underline the various strikes of the percussion as the main theme continues which gives the tune a gothic sound. An interesting rhythmical idea is introduced at the end of the cue which is revisited several times throughout the score and also opens the next track "Burn It Down". There are hardly any moments to gasp. Only few short passages of suspense music interrupt the action here or there. "Burn it Down" features such a short spot of quiet suspense music before the action continues with a huge choral outburst followed by more banging percussion and dreary strings. A bombastic variation of the main theme accompanied by a choir singing pseudo-Latin vocals ends the cue.

Fast-paced wild choral chants open the next cue "Werewolf Trap" followed by a hint of the first heroic theme. Even the darkest Silvestri action score would be incomplete without even a hint of an heroic motif and Van Helsing luckily has even two very good ones which are often used in combination. For some reason, the tone of these two heroic motifs remind me of his fanfares from The Abyss (1989). "Journey To Transylvania" is introducing the actual Van Helsing character theme, a fast-paced tune for brass accompanied by synthesized percussion and an Armenian folk guitar.

Crazy strings and atonal brass open "Attacking Brides" which is probably the score cue of the album where the Silvestri-sound is becoming most prominently with lots of trademarks in the usage of rhythm and orchestration. A huge operatic choral outburst can be heard near the end of the cue accompanied by organ. "Dracula's Nursery" begins with barely noticeable suspense music interrupted by sudden outbursts of huge dark orchestral music which makes the track a gothic dark brother of "Bracelet Awakens" from The Mummy Returns (2001). Both heroic motifs are used in "Useless Crucifix" most prominently at the end of the cue after huge swellings of gothic choral music. "Transylvanian Horses" is one of the highlights of the album. If you thought the previous tracks are big powerhouse action cues then you have to hear this one! It opens with the Van Helsing character theme interrupted by a short passage of suspense music before wild and extensive action music takes over which features the heroic theme and goes into a crazy finale.

Time for a break! A calm and slow waltz for strings, violin and solo voice offers a relaxing but somewhat disturbingly mysterious feeling in "All Hallow's Eve Ball". After the immense action bombardment of the previous tracks you would want this quiet cue to go on forever but the waltz is quickly swelling into another huge piece followed by more action music. "Who are they to Judge?" is a very dramatic musical moment with some strikingly emotional music. The longest cue of the album is "Final Battle", a cool cue with more crazy action music and nice swelling gothic choral music reminiscent of Silvestri's choral music for Judge Dredd (1995). The cue is carrying the best variation of the main theme as well with banging rhythms and choir, which sounds here like Shore's Lord of the Rings on steroids.

One would complain that the music lacked of emotionally touching moments so far, but wait! It is not over yet and we still have one more cue to go! And what a cue that is! No action music can be heard in "Reunited" (except for another rendition of the Van Helsing character theme at the end) because it is one beautiful emotional piece of epic proportions. How Silvestri managed to come up with something as touching as this is beyond me and he definitely saved the entire ending of the film in the same way as in Lara Croft - Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life (2003). When I watched the film, I found myself completely ignoring the on-screen action during this scene and was just listening to the amazing music. The emotional impact of this cue clearly boosted the rating for this score beyond the 80% border.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 79%

Score as heard on CD: 82%

TOTAL: 81%

 

The presentation:

Decca Records released 42 minutes of score from Van Helsing which covers all the important action material. Sadly, a lot of space on the CD is left blank in favour of the useless enhanced content and it basically lacks most of the quiet musical moments. There was a very long cue of beautifully calm underscore with a slightly religious touch in the sequence where Van Helsing is visiting Rome. This and some other cues could have worked wonders to increase the listening experience. As it is now, the album will leave several people (including myself) very frustrated. To add insult to injury, there is no additional information or bonus in the booklet except for a useless poster. An unofficial 2-CD set of Van Helsing is rumoured to be floating around among hardcore score collectors which seems to offer a much better presentation of the score.

Presentation by the Label: 41%

 

Summary:

Van Helsing is Action-Alan in gothic mood. No other score of the composer is so big, fast pasted and gothic. There is hardly any moment to breath or relax and Alan Silvestri again managed to produce a good score which is much better than the film deserved it to be. Ironically, the bombardment of well crafted action music is the weak point of the CD which lacks of the few quiet moments from the score. Due to the lack of these moments, it feels like you are listening to an hour of music while it is actually just a little over 40 minutes. Several of the great moments from the action material could have worked much better if there would be some quiet moments in contrast to them. Fans of the composer as well as everyone who is unsatisfied with the album might want to keep an eye open for a 2-CD bootleg!

 

                                  Tracklisting:

01.  Transylvania 1887 (01:26)
02.  Burn it Down! (04:46)
03.  Werewolf Trap (01:53)
04.  Journey to Transylvania (01:33)
05.  Attacking Brides (05:02)
06.  Dracula's Nursery (05:46)
07.  Useless Crucifix (02:35)
08.  Transylvanian Horses (03:55)
09.  All Hallow's Eve Ball (03:01)
10.  Who Are They to Judge? (02:00)
11.  Final Battle (06:28)
12.  Reunited (04:23)