Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the 2012 feature based on the bestselling historical fantasy/horror novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, casting the already-heroic 16th American president in the even more heroic role of a secret slayer of the undead.  Directed by Timur Bekmambetov and adapted by the novelist himself, it’s a movie that hinges on a bold juxtaposition of historical fact and supernatural adventure, with a flashy visual style and an emphasis on bloodshed and action.  The plot follows Lincoln from his childhood, when his mother is ostensibly poisoned by his father’s former employer; upon reaching manhood, he seeks to avenge her murder, only to discover that her killer is in fact an undead monster.  Narrowly escaping death himself, he is rescued by a mysterious stranger, who reveals to him the secret existence of vampires living in the midst of human society and offers to teach him the skills he needs to become a warrior in the ongoing battle against them.  He becomes a master hunter, and his discovery of an insidious connection between vampires and slavery fuels his parallel political career, culminating in his presidency and providing underlying motivation for the Civil War.

With such a blatantly ridiculous premise, one might expect a substantial amount of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery, coupled with a sense of goofy fun for its own sake.  These elements are definitely present, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes a decidedly serious tone in its approach to this genre-mashing mixture of history and hokum; Lincoln’s secret calling is no parenthetical side job, but is integrally woven into the events that shape both his private and public lives, as well as into the fabric of some of our nation’s still-most-painful memories.  It would be unforgivably glib of the film’s creators to make these connections without investing an appropriate amount of weight in the proceedings; accordingly, Lincoln’s dedication to vampire-killing stems from deeply personal motivation, rooted in the monsters’ victimization of his family, and their thirst for blood is linked directly to the most contentious and shameful issue ever to face the United States.  Of course, tying these various personal and national tragedies to a narrative about inhuman, bloodsucking parasites may have rich metaphoric possibilities- which, unfortunately, remain largely unexplored beyond the obvious implications of the situation- but it doesn’t do much for fueling the kind of escapist melodrama promised by the audaciously wacky concept.

Most of the critical unkindness towards this film has revolved around its insistence on anchoring its bloodlust-fulfillment fantasy in a sense of earnest importance, as if its purpose were to present a legitimate portrait of Honest Abe and his far-sighted principles.  Indeed, the world of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a place where lofty ethical considerations seem moot, a given condition of the larger political order, perhaps, but out of place with the more immediate conflicts of our hero’s secret occupation.  The situation cries out for the kind of unapologetic amorality found in a down-and-dirty exploitation film, contrasting Lincoln’s public face as a wise and compassionate leader with his role as a one-man boundary between the forces of darkness and the unknowing society he is sworn to protect.  The very title of this movie suggests a no-nonsense, merciless killing machine, and that is not only what we expect to see, it’s what we want.  Instead, we are given an idealized version of the real man, and a slice of his personal drama thrown in to boot- for which, presumably, we could easily wait until next year’s highly anticipated Spielberg biopic.

All of these problematic reservations can be attributed to the screenplay, written by Grahame-Smith with an eye towards keeping the emotional stakes high enough to keep viewers connected to the characters in the midst of all the slaughter.  By giving the plot a sense of purposeful noblilty and including a substantial dose of Lincoln’s private life as a lover, friend, husband, and father, the author hoped, presumably, to avoid turning the whole affair into a garish cartoon.  The effort is commendable, as is the attempt to maintain at least a tenuous connection to historical accuracy (with a few notable exceptions), in the use of names and relationships, actual events and chronology, etc., even if the details are rearranged considerably.  However well-intentioned he may have been, and however well these factors may have worked in his novel, the writer may have miscalculated; though normally I am adamantly in favor of the thoughtful, character-driven approach to storytelling for the screen, in this case I believe the film as a whole would have benefited from a lighter, less self-consciously sincere touch- and more scenes of Mr. President wielding his silver-edged axe.  The very notion which drives the plot demands a film which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thanks to its script, this one often does.

I have always, however, been an advocate of taking a movie on its own terms, and with that in mind, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a failure.  Though the weighty trappings of pseudo-biographical drama make for some slow going from time to time, when the movie does release the giddy adolescent joyride at its core, it takes off like a silver cannonball.  Director Bekmambetov delivers the same kind of flashy, multi-speed, computer-assisted action that helped to make his previous film, Wanted, a hit, transporting us decisively into the realm of superhuman feats, where we can at last get a taste of the thrills inherent in the idea of our chief executive moonlighting as a bad-ass monster-killer.  There are a number of these electrifying set pieces scattered throughout the film- a chase across the backs of a stampeding herd of horses, a gruesome monsters’ ball in a decrepit plantation, a climactic fight on the rooftop of a moving train- all saturated with grisly, blood-spattered, and deliciously satisfying violence.  It is in these segments that the movie really comes to life, and, like a true showman, Bekmambetov always leaves us wanting more; though everything in between often feels like filler, the payoff we receive from this kind of exciting screen action is almost worth the patience it takes to get there.

Bekmambetov ‘s slick modern style brings a contemporary edge to the movie that contrasts sharply with its period setting- which is firmly established with authenticity in the clothes and the physical surroundings, and further complemented by the effect of using muted, faux-sepia tones in the cinematography (possibly the film’s finest asset, accomplished by the legendary Caleb Deschanel).  This color palette has the odd benefit of seeming both old-fashioned and yet somehow very high-tech, a double-edged description that could be used to sum up the overall production design (by François Auduoy); the look and feel of the film, heavily reliant on computer graphics, creates a heightened reality, reminiscent of the dramatic visual style of a comic book.  Though this stylized environment adds a layer of artificiality to the proceedings, it also reinforces the supernatural atmosphere necessary to sustain the film’s absurd conceit.

The actors are more than adequate for the task at hand, with Dominic Cooper and Rufus Sewell standing out in the showiest of the supporting roles- Lincoln’s mentor and the vampires’ supreme leader, respectively.  Obviously, though, it’s the title character who must shoulder the heaviest burden here, and young Benjamin Walker’s shoulders are broad enough to do it.  He does a fine job of walking the thin line between Lincoln the man, Lincoln the statesman and Lincoln the terminator, and, on top of that, is convincing playing the great man from youth to weathered middle age.  He even bears a resemblance to Lincoln, though he is considerably more handsome- a requisite Hollywood touch.

There is something about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that draws me in.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for this kind of preposterous “what if?” speculation, or maybe I’m just a big kid at heart, but from the very moment I heard about this movie, I was excited to see it.  Though in the end it was not quite the kind of adrenaline-pumping silliness I was hoping for, I can’t say I was disappointed, either.  Sure, I would have liked a little more of the gory action that worked and a little less of the pedestrian costume drama that didn’t; but there is plenty in this movie to tickle my juvenile fancy and keep me interested throughout its running time.  Even if that weren’t the case, the final scene contains an amusing twist that left me fairly delighted as the end credits rolled- and if I can walk out of the theater with a smile on my face, I think that’s a good enough reason to recommend a film.  So consider it recommended, but with the following qualification: it’s a stupid movie, but perhaps not stupid enough.  If you can get past that, you’ll have a great time.


Cold Comfort Farm (1995)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cold Comfort Farm, the 1995 screen adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ popular 1932 novel parodying the English literary tradition of melodramatic rural fiction.  Directed by Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and produced by BBC television for broadcast in the UK, it was later released theatrically in America, adding the prestige of modest box office success to the critical acclaim it had already received.  The novel from which it was derived poked fun at the conventions used by such authors as D.H. Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, in which life in the English countryside was depicted as a grim and gothic affair, with characters in the grip of long-festering guilt or otherwise self-defeating psychological dysfunctions, usually in connection with some shameful or dishonorable act committed generations before.  The plot of Cold Comfort Farm turns this formula on its ear, as a cheerfully modern young woman comes to live on her relatives’ country estate and sets about applying common sense and psychology to the long-standing status quo that keeps them mired in old-fashioned and unnecessary gloom.

Kate Beckinsale stars as Flora, the heroine, bringing a smart, no-nonsense charm to the character and making us easily believe in her ability to brush aside decades-old stagnation as if it were the cobwebs in a doorway.  Surrounding her as the eccentric Doom-Starkadder clan are a host of veteran British thespians, all clearly relishing the chance to sink their teeth into these deliciously ludicrous roles.  Eileen Atkins is hilariously dour as Aunt Judith, fatalistic, terminally depressed and possessed of a somewhat unhealthy obsession for her libidinous son, Seth; and as the latter, Rufus Sewell strikes the perfect satirical balance to make his vainglorious, womanizing character likable instead of insufferable.  Ian McKellen enjoys an uncharacteristically rough-edged turn as Uncle Amos, an amateur preacher, sporting a ridiculous mash-up of a rural accent as he gleefully spews his fire-and-brimstone sermon from the pulpit.  Sheila Burrell is delightfully domineering as Aunt Ada Doom, the reclusive and tight-fisted matriarch of Cold Comfort Farm, ruling her family with brittle authority as the continually reminds them that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”  Rounding out the household are fine performances from Freddie Jones, Miriam Margolyes, and Ivan Kaye, among others; and in non-family roles, there is standout work from Stephen Fry as a pretentiously progressive writer enamored of Flora, and the always-magnificent Joanna Lumley as an impeccable London widow who serves as her friend and mentor.

The screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury captures the goofy sense of fun intended by author Gibbons, sending up the melodramatic conceits of this popular sub-genre of British literature with a smart, optimistic viewpoint and a healthy dose of subtly hilarious wordplay; there are some truly memorable lines (my favorite comes from Amos as he preaches before his quivering congregation: “There’ll be no butter in Hell!”) and the plotting, though ultimately just as unconvincingly tidy as the overwrought romances  being parodied, weaves cleverly enough through its pleasant course that we don’t really mind its unbelievability.  There is also plenty of authentic English scenery- idyllic woodlands and meadows, rustic villages and farmlands, elegantly-appointed estates and salons- to provide eye candy along the way, and director Schlesinger keeps things visually stimulating by keeping his camera moving and using a wide variety of angles and perspectives- as well, of course, as keeping us continually focused on the real meat of the matter, superb actors portraying delightful characters.

Cold Comfort Farm is not a deep movie, nor does it yield a lot of stimulating conversation regarding its themes or its technique, at least not in most circles.  It does, however, yield a lot of fun; it’s smart and literate enough to satisfy those seeking intellectual diversion, yet completely accessible for the viewer with no connection to the English Lit crowd, and it provides plenty of hearty laughs for both kinds of audiences (as well as the rest of us who probably fall somewhere in between).  After all, outrageous behavior is outrageous behavior, whether or not you have read any of Thomas Hardy’s books, and in Cold Comfort Farm, there is no shortage of it.