RIORI Vol 3, Installment 63: Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012)


The Players…

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie and Rufus Sewell, with Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson and Erin Wasson.

The Story…

Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe. Our 16th president. The Great Emancipator. And with his mystical axe a righteous slayer of the undead demons in the night, too.

Say what?

But what would drive the Rail-Splitter to take up his version of a oaken stake and hack his way through the evil droves of nocturnal blood sucking freaks?

Well, a vampire killed Abe’s mom, duh. That and protecting the Union. So how would you react?

Correct. Cleave a great swath through the corruption. It is for…the living rather to be dedicated…to the unfinished work which they who fought…have thus far so nobly advanced.

That’s from the Gettysburg Address. Proving Abe knew his sh*t about battling vampires. The end.

The Rant…

Ah, the vampire movie. A perennial Hollywood favorite. Seems like one graces America’s silver screens every other year (which I guess is why they’re called perennial). There’ve been so many iterations of the vampire flick that I don’t think any sub-genre of the movie hasn’t been tackled. Well, maybe not a musical. Some undead La-La Land.

…Hang on there.

*flip flip, click click*

Sh*t. We gots two, at least. I Kissed A Vampire and Suck: A Vampire Rock Musical Comedy. I kid you not and creep on over to the IMDb if you doubt me. Just not yet. Read on. I’m bleeding here (get it?).

So yeah, vampire flicks have been all over the movie landscape since FW Murnau’s fired the first shot with his seminal Nosferatu almost a century ago. There now must be thousands of undead cinematic offspring lurking in the shadows, and all with their own unique stamps, spins and sucks. Some good, like the original, uber-creepy Dracula starring uber-creepy Bela Lugosi as our beloved Count. Or the snappy, Brat Pack-esque The Lost Boys featuring both Coreys (this matters to certain factions of Gen X. Mostly the lonely ones)! And the punky, funky yin to Jack Bauer’s yang Near Dark. We had the cheeky and silly Fright Night (the original one. I’ve been finding myself using that quantifier a lot these days). Or the ludicrous actioner Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire hunter is all his martial arts/pre-tax trouble glory. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

Right. Now the other side of the coin. Y’know how it goes, folks: for every clean wipe you suffer a bout of explosive diarrhea, Kenny. You’re welcome.

The schlocky Dracula 2000, illustrating what a hot commodity Gerard Butler became (for a single film). Eddie Murphy’s turn in Vampire In Brooklyn, foreshadowing his decline as a Hollywood commodity (with no end in sight. Sigh). The incongruent Underworld franchise. Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead And Loving It was a super-duper waste of potential. I guess Breaking Dawn, pt 2 falls in there somewhere, too. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

So now here’s the biggie: why are there quite literally thousands of vampire movies? I know what you’re thinking. It’s them appealing details about eternal life, sexual freedom, blood and guts, bats and givin’ ya a good scare or three. All that truck adds up to “no sh*t, Sherlock” to the thinking vampire movie buffs. All twelve of you.

What I’m driving at is with a vamp flick those above facets are freakin’ mandatory by Federal law (that’s a joke, but perhaps a truth, too). You’re gonna get a taste of a few, if not all of them in your average undead fest. Like that old Prego pasta sauce ad said: it’s in there. Now all the filmmakers had to do was couch the goodies in a plot that kept your attention. If you were lucky, it’d be entertaining.

Here’s the thing. The “couching.” As far as drama goes there are only two kinds of plots: tragic and comic. Some writers have extended the count to 20. It doesn’t really matter what the plots reflect; the number simply invites this cinematic question. It’s the question that all—all—directors and scenarists ask when they undertake a movie:

“What can I bring to the table?”

The random list above of good and not so good vampire flicks is a fine example of this. Again, we know what to expect from a vamp movie. Sex and blood and guts are sovereign. It’s how it’s delivered. It’s what’s brought to the table. It’s not about re-spoking the wagon wheel. It’s about thoughtful innovation.

Considering the vampire movie template, such films are no different than your average western. Or spy flick. Or crime caper. Or Adam Sandler scatological comedy, farts—I mean warts and all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that old, trashy joke: we’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over a price. Attempting to overturn an almost century old formula is an exercise in futility. Might be why some vamp movies soar and others sink. Sure, acting, direction, story, dancing horses all come into play. That’s a given. It’s what’s brought to the table, the latest idea—no matter how Hollywood hair-brained—about how to spin a tried and true formula into something fresh. Again.

Me? I figure why the vampire theme is so attractive and potent—separate from the tropes—is that the canvas has been spread so wide any director worth their salt and is interested in the genre will say, “Sh*t, can do that!” Directors far and wide, esteemed ones like Francis Coppola and schlockmeisters like Roger Corman have taken a stab (ha!) at vampire-as-movie challenge. Like above, some good, some not so much. Again, the appeal beyond the obvious? You got a whole mythos to cull from. Keep the king and queen in set and let the pawns charge up the board. One space at a time. Add your spin. Take the tired tropes and turn them on their ears. Mix it up. Give it a personal stamp. Sign your signature. Make gravy with the lumps.

Above all, make a well-trod warhorse trot again. Take the well established archetype of the vampire movie and give it clever spin; use a device more original that how fast to build the body count. Very few have done that. Shadow Of The Vampire did it. Near Dark did it. Hell, Mel Brooks’ anti-epic tried and failed gloriously. Nowadays (and those nowadays have been nowadays for over 50 years, if not longer) it’s all about the stamp and the twist. Despite the clutch of vampire movies that have came along since the turn of the century (e.g.: Underworld, Byzantium, 30 Days Of Night, etc), precious few have really cleared the tabletop for their feast for the senses. I mean that dishing it out when it comes to being innovative with the formula. Few and far between.

Small wonder why it took so long for this blogger to cover one…

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) was born into humble means. At an early age he learned about and fast understood the values of hard work, justice and family. Bright kid. Might be destined for great things someday. Growing up poor does set a determined spirit in motion, after all.

So does the death of one’s mother.

Naturally such a loss would change the course of thinking in a young boy’s mind and a more rapid step in his heart. Especially when said boy was witness to how his beloved mother met her fate. The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was not incorrect; young Abe spied the pestilence that took his mother. An intruder skulked into their log cabin home and…bit her. The next morning she was at death’s door, which opened wide swiftly.

The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was so right.

Fast forward many years. Lincoln is an aspiring lawyer and has made his way to Springfield, Illinois to set about future plans. Whilst setting up stakes, a curious stranger named Henry Sturges (Cooper) confronts Lincoln. He’s a man who…knows things. Knows things like how Lincoln’s mother met her fate. Like how Abraham has a burning need to solve the mystery…and exact revenge on her toothy killer.

With no pretense, Henry tells Abraham a vampire took his mother.

Ridiculous. There’s no such thing as vampires. But then again, how else could Abraham explain away what he saw done to his mother all those years ago? Henry goads him, believes his story and offers some “training” to Abraham to battle these nasties of the night.

Fueled by revenge and justice also, Henry takes him under his wing, learning the tricks and trade of hunting the undead. But Lincoln fast learns that it takes a lot more than skill with a blessed axe to take out these beasties. It takes a certain prowess. A kind of diplomatic one. Henry informs Abraham that there is a great deal more to the vampires’ agendum than merely feeding.

Simply put, politics breed strange bedfellows. Especially when there’s the whole of the Union to be under siege in the name of power.

And sustenance…

Recall again what I said about bringing life to the vacant table that is the vampire movie. I never figured a fresh breath would come from a bastardized History Channel miniseries. Circa 2005, naturally. Well, okay, regarding the current programming codswallop of a once proud network. We do have one axe man here.

Aw, shut it. That was the best gag you’ve read here in a fortnight. Moving on.

Big surprise here, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter definitely brought something different to the table at the vampire feast. Heck, with a title like that what’d you expect? I bet folks came in droves to catch it at the local multiplex by the title alone, even if they didn’t like vampire movies.

Well, that didn’t happen, hence why it’s in the canon of The Standard. However many movies taken to task here to try and improve/expand on Dracula’s legacy, sh*tty returns does not a boring movie make. Moreover, an interesting movie, even within the confines of the well-worn vampire movie blueprint. Even if the movie in question didn’t exactly light up the night.

The point I’ve been meandering towards for the past decade from that whole table discussion is thus: same old story, unique execution. Lincoln pulls this trick off almost brilliantly. Adapted for the screen from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, director Bekmambetov (how’s that for a mouthful?) execution of the story is nothing short of miraculous. C’mon, consider the premise. Hell, consider the freakin’ title. Our esteemed 16th president is a statesman by day and Buffy by night. Timur (gonna refer to him by that from here on out) had some stones to cut what he did. Kinda like Abe’s trusty axe.

It worked, amazingly enough. If only just.

A lot of it had to do with the acting. More like the casting. For instance, Ben Walker as Abe was a find, akin to a low-level discovery of Chris Reeve portraying the Man of Steel. I enjoyed how earnest and naive Walker’s manner was. He also looks like Lincoln, and carries himself as the president we (think) we know in an uncanny fashion. This is especially true as the movie stretches. Walker divides himself between modest and dedicated politician against pure action hero when it comes to slaying the evils of the night. Well, Honest Abe was a man of action, so we have that, which is nice.

One might regard such a role—such a performance—as schizo as they come. But it works, barely. A lot of things in Lincoln barely work, and again I think it comes down to the acting by a very eclectic cast. The casting director earned his pay with their roundup. Apart from Walker, the supporting cast was a weird, delightful melange of folks who did not belong together in the same movie. Yet they were, and proved to be the glue that (just) held the film together.

I really dug Sewell as vampire leader/lord of the manse. He seemed so logical, so gentle in his demeanor (a Southern gentleman vampire. Why not?) as well as his scheming. His Adam was one cool character, not the occasionally hot-headed Abe. Sewell was an ideal foil to, well the idealistic Walker. Another good piece of a good vampire flick? Make the lead bad guy charismatic, always more so than the hero.

Cooper as the ruffian Van Helsing element in another instance. Of course we gotta have the guy behind the guy as expert in destroying vampires. But it’s a nice twist that Cooper’s Henry REDACTED as the opposite of the somewhat gallant Walker’s Lincoln. Another vamp trope; you just gotta have the keen-eyed, seasoned hunter in the film somewhere to pass on his legacy. It’s always fun to see how the sausage is made (unless it’s actual sausage). It’s also kinda fun to watch lanky Walker try to  learn anti-vampire ninjutsu as the hands of scruffy, dandy Cooper. He was fun, teetering on hammy. Cooper has the tendency to overplay his hand though (despite trying keep it close to his chest) like why I REDACTED his cachet above. You kinda want a guy like Henry to keep the cards close to his chest, but like the whole atmosphere of Lincoln you just—must—go along with it. Embrace the absurdity. Keep a pokerface like no doubt Timur and the rest of the crew had to.

We’ll tackle those details later. Now let’s tug at the tapestry proper. Lincoln, at its core has a cozy, subtle B-movie flavor (regardless of the title). Despite a (most likely) hefty budget, the thing plays out as if shoestring. We have corny dialogue, but it’s fitting. Charming even. All the settings appear pulled off the Gone With The Wind backlot with a little bit of Glory thrown in. Even the dusky costumes seem hack and stereotypical, like what you were expecting to see. This whole “barely works” charm binds the film together. Again, barely. Threadbare sometimes.

This may sound like bitching. Not really. Moaning maybe, but then again that’s a sound you want to hear in bed. That’s what I’m getting at: Lincoln is a made-to-order guilty pleasure. There is so much off with this movie that you can’t help but watch and wait on baited breath for the whole sh*tstorm to collapse. But it never does, and that’s a really odd way to hold an audience’s attention. Despite all the action and intrigue I watched the thing perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Incredibly it never did. The laces must’ve been too snug.

That tightness results from a constant, palpable tension running through the whole flick. All the way through Abe is either hunting or fleeing from the demons—literally and figuratively—that drive him. It’s constant, almost relentless. Tension is what drives a story after all. But then again, there’s this goofy undercurrent that distracts us enough to lend a “what the heck?” aspect in and erstwhile action-cum-history lesson. That alone keeps one glued. It’s all very byzantine, and trying to describe it’ll make you sound as nuts as an almond grove.

Still I’ll try. Further.

I think I’ll call this whole affair “frontier Fringe.” You like that? We have an interesting alt-history at work here, a malleable tableau. Supernatural activity in the prebellum South. Undead nasties attempting to usurp power from the Union via the Civil War. And the director and scenarist having keen eyes and ears considering the historical record and how it can be properly twisted to suit the narrative. No easy feat, then again not something invited by your fire sale vampire movie. It allows just enough breathing room political science to temper all the craziness. Call the whole wad Ken Burns meets Tim Burton (he co-produced the damned thing BTW). It’s what is brought to the table personified. And it works well. Mostly.

I keep saying that. It’s an insistence that Lincoln is not a good movie. It isn’t, but it’s also not lousier than the sum of its yadda yadda. It has the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster and was released in June, but smells like a September leftover and the returns reflected that. It’s a vampire movie, but smeared with a bit too much commentary to really take off. We have a lot of cool action scenes, staggered between Edward Herrmann-esque narrated History Channel outtakes. Lincoln is entertaining to be sure, but often bewildering.

It’s a chimera, but not like it’s better than the sum of its parts. It’s Lincoln‘s determination to be straight-faced and utterly entrenched in its execution and conviction. It’s a vamp film with a pokerface, and after all my ribbing it’s a better film for it. Kinda like Evil Dead 2 or Big Trouble In Little China (admittedly one of my fave films. Get off me; my blog, my rules), it’s a mash up of several genres, all surprisingly well intertwined. I know I’ve been smacking Lincoln around for the past 80 paragraphs, but that’s mostly out of the aforementioned bewilderment that the thing worked. Again barely. The whole “barely” thing stems from my expectations that the movie will fall flat on its ass for the duration of the viewing. It never did. Pokerface. Grim determination. You will f*cking accept and like what we’re doing here. Either that or the Bog of Eternal Stench for you!

You gotta respect a filmmaker who does that. Someone who shoves the chloroform-soaked celluloid in you face and makes you submit to a ridiculous premise. Sure one dappled with a stellar cast, crazy action, nods to history, Civil War battles, a revenge story and vampires vampires vampires, but crazy nonetheless. It often results in some rather curious technical things.

For instance, remember my muse? That cagey bitch whose always testing my patience: the pacing. It’s  a kinda slow, if not creeping build up. The story really only catches fire in the second act, and even then there’s this lugubrious feeling crawling around, all drab and listless. Another aspect of the “barely” descriptor. Such sludge actually works despite itself. It holds the serious action back, so when the sh*t gets real, you’re glued to the screen. I suppose it’s all about trickery courtesy of Timur and Co.

And what would a vampire flick be without blood and guts? Right, an aerobics video. Lincoln can get stylishly gruesome at times. Violent, yes, but with flair. Timur smartly holds back on the vampires chomping on necks. Instead we get vamps as viruses, surreptitiously sneaking around, draining life and only baring fangs for a menacing effect, like who’s the boss here. It sure ain’t Tony Danza, thank goodness.

This clever device really stirs the blood (so to speak). It’s cool to have intrigue over immediate action in a vampire flick. It worked quite we in the 1931 Dracula. What’s going on? There’s more going down than just Abe hacking away and trying manage a war torn republic. The scenarists were pretty smart in incorporating the politics of the day (or properly lifting sh*t from the source novel) to set up the stage in the third act. I dug the “slaves vs masters” allegory regarding humans vs vampires. The war between the states became the war between the “states” if you catch my drift. It’s clearly disguised as a history lesson (consider the Gettysburg Address scene, which was beautiful, BTW). All the key facts are in place, just dressed up in a different skin. It adds a little weight to the scattershot execution, forgiving some faults.

I guess that’s the whole deal to enjoying Lincoln, besides the action and the acting. Forgiving faults is just another piece of suspending belief. Like I kept hammering, this film barely worked. But it did work. The premise was ludicrous. The acting, though good, was stone-faced as if daring you to defy the gravity of this work. The action grew so over the top that it dared you to join the ride. All this sh*t tempted you to throw up your arms and give up (or simply throw up). Didn’t play that way for me, and since I’m so terribly cynical you should surrender to the absurd and give Lincoln a chance.

Take a bite, if you will.

Okay, now that is the best gag you’ve heard in a fortnight.

BTW, what’s a fortnight?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. It’s not that Lincoln teetered on crappy, but came across as rather fragile at times. That was distracting. Still, it was stupid fun and that counts for something. Barely.

Stray Observations…

  • Nice shot there, Abe. Your quest has begun.
  • “That hat makes you ridiculous.”
  • It’s tough to watch Simpson act and not think of the McPoyle brothers. Want some milk?
  • New Orleans? Really? Despite actual historical significance did Anne Rice catch a whiff of this movie?
  • “I work nights.”
  • Nice out, Will.
  • And nice out, Abe.
  • The burning trestle scene was over the top. Way over the top.

Next Installment…

For the uninformed, “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (switch the italicized words around for our next feature) is a tune by Vaughan Mason and the Crew, celebrating the joys of rollerskating. Also for the uninformed, roller skates were the precursor to rollerblades. Um, again for the uninformed…

Leave a Reply