It's not often that I give a film score ten points out of ten - remember that I rate them in terms of entertainment value, rather than in terms of how well they fit their film. To date, actually, only two have managed to gain that honor. The first is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, by Hans Zimmer.
The second is Van Helsing, by Alan Silvestri.
I can think of only two reasons why you shouldn't go get this score - either you have cranky neighbors or you're prone to migraines. And all film music collectors know the first is a completely pointless reason.
In the 1990s, Alan Silvestri's action career was sporadic at best - following the early successes of Back to the Future, Predator and The Abyss, Silvestri turned to lighter projects (such as Forrest Gump), with only a few enjoyable exceptions (Judge Dredd, Volcano). In 2001, Stephen Sommers' The Mummy Returns re-kick-started Silvestri's action career with a bang. The composer provided an immensely orchestral, swashbuckling score that touches on Erich Wolfgang Korngold and rivals (and, in my opinion, surpasses (sacrilege!)) John Debney's Cutthroat Island. As a result of this, film music collectors found themselves howling in dismay two years later when Silvestri was fired off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
In Van Helsing, Silvestri takes the bombast of The Mummy Returns and, somehow, manages to elevate it to even more epic levels. In addition to a full and brass-heavy orchestra, not to mention a massive percussion section including some extremely deep, pounding taiko-like drums, Silvestri employs an enormous adult choir to emphasize the film's Gothic nature. This choir is at work almost instantly in the album's powerful first track, "Journey to Transylvania," in which a very prominent theme representing Count Dracula is introduced. It's one hell of a motif, instantly recognizable not only by its brazen, staccato notes performed by brass and choir, but the relentlessly pounding rhythm beneath.
The next two tracks, "Burn it Down" and "Werewolf Trap" continue in a similar, action-driven fashion, introducing a few more themes (notably a bittersweet, heroic one for Frankenstein's Monster in "Burn it Down" that is accompanied by wonderful swooshing string arpeggios).
It's the fourth track that really convinced me at first listen that this would be an exceptional score. "Journey to Transylvania" introduces Van Helsing's primary theme, which, even more so than Dracula's, is instantly recognizable by its rhythm rather than its primary melody. It's in 5/4, an uncommon meter, and is accompanied by frenetic drums, choral chanting (sometimes) and a rambling acoustic guitar (an interesting choice, as there are no Spanish or Latin American influences in the film to speak of, but it works well and adds a level of complexity to the theme that would otherwise be missing).
"Attacking Brides" is an action piece in classic Silvestri style, with chopping strings, pounding drums, brassy themes and choral majesty. The following track, "Dracula's Nursery," offers a few respites from the action to touch on some suspenseful non-music that may remind Silvestri collectors of the spookier tracks in Predator and The Abyss. In between the suspense, a theme is glimpsed that, sadly, is given little airtime on the album (though it is used quite generously in the film). It's a motif that represents Dracula's attempt to bring his children to life, and its waltz-like structure reflects quite well the demonically playful nature of Count Dracula himself. The theme conjures up memories of Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal's similarly Gothic efforts for the Batman franchise.
"Useless Crucifix" and "Transylvanian Horses", the latter especially, offer some of the best action music on the CD. Yet another theme is introduced here (for a summer blockbuster score, this is a thematically surprisingly complex effort), more bright and brassy than the others. It has the same adventurous energy as Rick O'Connell's theme from The Mummy Returns, and would have sounded perfect had it accompanied Jack Sparrow and company (I'm convinced that this theme was originally written for Pirates of the Caribbean).
"All Hallows' Eve Ball" opens with a wonderful touch, a slow waltz whose playful darkness again reminds of Danny Elfman. It's got tantalizing little solos hidden all through it - flute, cello and solo female voice - and after a minute and a half, breaks out into a true waltz, a wonderful outburst of orchestral and choral majesty. Sadly, the waltz runs for less than half a minute before the track ends with a bit of action music that, by now, seems weak in comparison.
"Who Are They to Judge?" offers little new material, excepting a minute or so of more romantic material that reminds of Judge Dredd. Neither, to be honest, does "Final Battle", but that six-minute suite is a very decent summary of Silvestri's action themes for Van Helsing.
Up until now, Van Helsing seemed like it would be a nine out of ten - very strong action material, but a little repetitive and VERY relentless. Then, "Reunited" hit me, and I instantly notched Van Helsing up to ten out of ten, because here we are introduced to a love theme that, in terms of pure emotional power, rivals John Williams' "Across the Stars" for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This four-minute suite offers lots of orchestral variations on that theme, each better than the next - horn, strings, flute solo, harp and tutti - before the track, and score, ends with the choral variant on Van Helsing's theme.
Fans of large-scale action, adventure and epic love themes, grab a CD, crank the volume and hold on to your armrest, because Van Helsing is van hel (aren't I funny?) of a thrill ride. No Silvestri collection is complete without it. It's a real shame that the glorious waltzes Silvestri wrote for Dracula, not to mention that wonderful love theme, aren't given more attention, but those complaints aren't enough to diminish my esteem for this effort.
At the time of The Mummy, Stephen Sommers looked to be a reasonable low brow imitation Steven Spielberg, who could produce decent popcorn entertainment of the kind the bearded one made to such great acclaim earlier in his career. However, with The Mummy Returns and now Van Helsing, Sommers has gone all George Lucas and become too enamoured of the technical possibilities to produce visually orgasmic, but otherwise unengaging light and sound shows. It's not that Van Helsing has any specific bad points - the acting is solid enough, the plot almost makes sense, but for all that, I just couldn't care less about anything that was going on or what happened to anyone. I just could find nothing to really engage with, aside from the occasional fairly reasonable scare and the artistry of the digital creatures and some superbly exaggerated landscapes. However, the actors largely seem just be going through the motions and therefore spent half the time wishing I was somewhere quieter and the other half thanking the movie gods that Peter Jackson got to Lord of the Rings first.
In the blazing sound mix, Alan Silvestri's robust score actually fares quite well. Yes, the action sequences suppress it to another layer of background noise, but for the travelling sequences, it takes pride of place adding another layer of mock gothic gravitas. In truth, Van Helsing strikes me as the kind of film that the 1990 version of Danny Elfman, or perhaps the Howard Shore of Ed Wood, was born to score and while Silvestri does some grandiose tub thumping, it doesn't quite summon up the spirit of Franz Waxman in a way that might have given Sommer's film a little less self importance. True, his Mummy Returns score didn't tap into that feeling either, but the Jarre-esque landscape melodies and rousing action melodies all coalesced into a sonic orgy, but Van Helsing has fewer hooks and so bits feel like they could be replaceable with parts of The Mummy Returns or Judge Dredd, just Silvestri blazing with the brass, but not driving things along with any dramatic purpose.
That the main theme isn't up to much is rather a surprise. Trevor Jones' main theme for the similarly styled League of Extraordinary Gentleman may not be the most memorable on record, but at least it has a darkly satisfying hue; Silvestri's melody for Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing isn't much more than a variant on minor Mummy Returns motifs, rousing and semi-heroic though it is. Its only saving grace is when accompanied by a bouncing guitar motif which lifts it briefly from being a trifle mundane into something a little more engaging. The action sequences are filled with Silvestri's modern bombastic melodrama, complete with choir, swathes of brass and percussion, but the incidental pleasure are generally more gratifying, notably the All Hallow's Eve Ball waltz (which I'm convinced is shorter than the cue in the film itself) which prances about with a delightful malevolence. Like the film itself, Silvestri's Van Helsing is largely superficial enjoyment, well wrought and exciting, but without the depth and melodic delights of his best epics.
Director Stephen Sommers once again teams up with composer Alan Silvestri for the first big 2004 summer spectacle, Van Helsing. Silvestri wrote the highly entertaining, powerful and really good score for the director's The Mummy Returns, so to say that many have been looking forward to Silvestri's score for Van Helsing is somewhat of an understatement. It's one of the most awaited scores of 2004.
Van Helsing is a loud score. Really loud. From start to finish, the soundtrack CD is brimful with fast paced action music. There's lots of brass and percussion, with some electronics thrown into the mix. And since this is some kind of gothic vehicle there's the required choir as well. And not surprisingly, the appearances of the choir are some of the score's absolute highlights. It starts out promising, with pounding percussion, swirling strings, mighty brass and chanting choir in "Transylvania 1887", where Silvestri focuses on one of the score's more important building blocks - rythm. Van Helsing is a very rythmic score, dominated by repeated brass and percussion figures - sometimes just a repeated note. At times these elements actually overshadow the rest of the score's building blocks. It's themes, for example, which have a tendency to get buried beneath the unusually large percussion section of the orchestra.
Compared to the composer's score for The Mummy Returns there are two major differences - Van Helsing is a much more serious score, lacking a lot of the playful, adventurous music which made The Mummy Returns such a wonderful score. And it also lacks the large number of memorable themes. Although there are several themes used throughout the score, none of them is especially memorable or good. Which is a pity. The only really good theme is the one mostly performed by the choir - an exciting staccato dominated ditty, which is just perfect for a film like this. Gothic to the max.
This actually makes Van Helsing somewhat of a disappointment. I certainly expected something as melodic, entertaining and adventurous as The Mummy Returns, but what we got on CD is too dominated by fast paced, chaotic action music. Now, I love action music, but this is nothing special. There are highlights, such as the already mentioned opening cue, "Journey to Transylvania" and the dark waltz in "All Hallow's Eve Ball" and these sections could probably be edited together to form a really good suite, but the rest is pretty bland. Unfortunately.
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