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VAN HELSING – Alan Silvestri

vanhelsingOriginal Review by Peter Simons

We’ve said it several times now: 2004 was the year of big drums. Large percussion has dominated most of this year’s blockbusters, from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to King Arthur. Never one to buck a trend, Alan Silvestri was all too happy to jump on the bandwagon and deliver what may be the loudest score of the year: Van Helsing. Brass fanfares, chanting choruses and thundering drums dominate the score and its movie. What separates Silvestri from his lesser contemporaries is that, in spite of everything, he makes this kind of music sound good. As loud and overblown as it may be, the composer infuses the score with a textural richness and compositional quality that is quite rare these days.

For those who have not seen the movie – and what a smart you made there – it tells the story of bounty hunter Gabriel van Helsing (Hugh Jackman), a distant relative of Abraham van Helsing, the infamous and original vampire slayer from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After ridding the world of Mr. Hyde (from Jekyll and Hyde) in a Parisian prologue, Van Helsing is sent by a secret order of Vatican cardinals to investigate recent events in darkest Transylvania. It seems that Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) has been hatching plans for global domination, and in order to make his evil schemes work has enlisted the services of Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley). To stop him Van Helsing teams up with Transylvanian aristocrat Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), whose entire family was killed by Dracula, and who has sworn revenge so that she and her relatives will have peace in the afterlife.

If the film’s plot isn’t ridiculous enough then the way director Stephen Sommers brought it to the screen is. The acting is stiff, the dialogue is so bad it doesn’t even have any camp value, humor is painfully lacking, there aren’t any real scares, and the monsters simply look bad. Fans who were hoping to see a Gothic alternative to Indiana Jones were ‘treated’ to a film that is no more than a gimmick, putting a handful of classic literature icons together and turning them into bad jokes. Dracula and Frankenstein in the same movie? Sure! A handful of werewolves as well? Why not! It’s like Pinhead appearing on the Tonight Show; by the end, these classic monsters of Hollywood’s Golden Age have lost any credibility they once may have had.

As bad as the film was, it at lest gave Alan Silvestri an opportunity to have some fun with the material and let loose with several exciting themes. The album opens with “Transylvania 1887”, in which Silvestri presents his theme for Dracula: a cool anthem for chanting chorus over a layer of frantic strings and a pounding bass ostinato. This rhythmic approach is continued in “Burn It Down”, which features some particularly striking grinding celli, but also introduces the gentle, melancholy theme for Frankenstein’s monster. This theme sounds pleasantly ‘old fashioned,’ as if the composer is paying homage to the classic horror scores of the 1950s. Silvestri’s music has always had traces of these traditional stylistics and they serve him especially well on a film like this, which is intended to feel like a monster movie from yesteryear.

“Werewolf Trap” is a fast paced action track with pounding drums, whirling strings and plenty of blasts coming from the brass section. “Journey to Transylvania” sees Van Helsing’s theme performed for the first time, a powerful five-note motif for strings and brass augmented by large percussion, occasional choral chants and a fast, middle eastern-sounding guitar riff. It works well enough as the hero’s ‘travelling music’, although in the film it also oddly accompanies him calmly walking down the streets of Paris. It goes to show that this film and its score knows no subtlety. Knowing Silvestri’s large body of work, and knowing he can write subtle emotional cues all too well, one can only assume that the overblown heroics of Van Helsing have to be taken with a grain of salt. Unfortunately I’m not sure the same can be said of director Stephen Sommers, who may actually believe that louder is better.

“Dracula’s Nursery” contains a theme for strings and brass that is not unlike Patrick Doyle’s creation-music from his Frankenstein score. Considering the subject matter, the similarities may very well be deliberate. The second half of this cue is reserved for a reprise of Dracula’s theme, which is without a doubt the coolest theme on this album. And if ‘cool’ doesn’t sound like a professional enough description then I’m sorry, but this is undoubtedly what the composer was after while writing his material. Van Helsing is James Bond without the Martini, he’s Indiana Jones without the university, he’s Jack Sparrow without the Black Pearl. He’s a scruffy bearded bounty hunter, who wears a long, ragged leather coat and a hat to go with it and who uses the latest gadgets to kill his enemies. In his world there is no place for subtlety or even elegance. He is just doing his job; and he looks darn cool while doing it.

To describe the remainder of the tracks would be to repeat myself. The rest of score is orchestrated for fast paced string arpeggios, big brass, loud percussion and choral chants. The pace and the volume never ever let down. “Useless Crucifix” is an absolutely frenetic cue, which also contains a brief melody that is more swashbuckling than the score’s main themes, which makes one wonder if this is the kind of music Silvestri had in mind for Pirates of the Caribbean before Jerry Bruckheimer decided to go with Klaus Badelt.

“All Hallow’s Eve Ball” is a demonic waltz for strings, solo violin and solo female vocalist. The cue starts mysteriously, and hypnotically, before it turns into a lush orchestral piece; then the big drums take over once again. “Who Are They To Judge?” features a particularly heroic, yet somehow melancholic rendition of Van Helsing’s theme, while “Final Battle” is a six minute action piece – within a 42 minute action score – in which all the themes are reprised. “Reunited” offers a welcome subdued moment as Anna says her goodbyes to her family. It provides Silvestri with the opportunity to present a surprisingly beautiful theme for strings rivaling, but not matching, the stunning “Pandora’s Box” from the climax of Tomb Raider 2: Cradle of Life.

The album’s drawback is that Stephen Sommers demanded the musical material to be delivered in fairly even blocks so that he could cut and paste the score into the film the way he saw fit – not unlike how music was used in old video games. As a result of this technique there is not much room for Silvestri to develop any of his ideas in a satisfying way. This doesn’t mean that the various themes are underdeveloped; quite the contrary. It just sounds as if Silvestri was asked to skip the development and only present big, overblown versions of his material. As a result, the score is unbelievably loud and hyperactive with virtually no moments of rest. It also means that, while every single track is exciting and quite cleverly written in its own right, the album as a whole gets very tiresome. The continuous musical onslaught makes the score less than the sum of its individual cues. The CD booklet offers a free mini poster… a free bottle of aspirin may have been more appropriate.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Transylvania 1887 (1:26)
  • Burn It Down! (4:46)
  • Werewolf Trap (1:53)
  • Journey to Transylvania (1:33)
  • Attacking Brides (5:02)
  • Dracula’s Nursery (5:46)
  • Useless Crucifix (2:35)
  • Transylvanian Horses (3:55)
  • All Hallow’s Eve Ball (3:01)
  • Who Are They To Judge? (2:00)
  • Final Battle (6:28)
  • Reunited (4:23)

Running Time: 42 minutes 50 seconds

Decca 233112 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by Mark McKenzie, William Ross and David Slonaker. Special vocal performances by Deborah Dietrich. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Album produced by Alan Silvestri and David Bifano.

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