21 June 2012

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER- Review

Last summer, Cowboys & Aliens was met with critical disdain and underwhelming box-office returns, attributed largely to the fact that it wasn't a comedy, despite the ludicrous-sounding title. I don't know whether this is what prompted Fox to bump Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter from its October release date to this summer, but whatever changed during that period, they haven't fixed it.

Comfortably scooping whatever award there may be for the most ridiculously high-concept title of 2012, the film is based on the fictional secret journals of the 16th President of the United States. At a young age, his mother was a casualty in a feud between his family and a vampire, and he swears vengeance. In getting his own back, he attracts the ire of Adam, the original vampire, but finds an ally in Henry Sturges, who teaches him how to kill bloodsuckers by night, while uniting the nation by day.

The trailer for this film pretty much washed over me, every time I saw it. Literally, the only thing I registered from each trailer I saw was the title. I'm not saying that a film called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter must necessarily be a comedy. I'm just saying that it shouldn't be so dull. The director is Timur Bekmambetov, but the producer is Tim Burton, and the writer is Seth Grahame-Smith, adapting his own novel, and those two are on their second offence of this summer, after Dark Shadows.

My favourite parts of this movie all owe something to either the macabre humour of Burton's work or, actually, to the comedic horror that Sam Raimi perfected. These scenes all come early on, when Honest Abe is taking on vampires alone and not always gaining the upper hand right away. Vampires are dispatched inventively in these scenes, and Benjamin Walker's stern statesman makes a nice deadpan substitute for Bruce Campbell, who I could imagine in the title role if this film were made in the 1990s, with a much lower budget.

The problem is that the filmmakers obviously don't think the idea is funny, and any moments of humour seem to be purely coincidental. One of the funniest moments of the film, during a chase within a heavily CGI'd horse stampede, sees a vampire pick up a horse and throw it at Lincoln. But it's played straight, much like the rest of the film. More than that, it feels like the intervening time between the original release and now has been spent on extensive reshoots.

When it's announced that a film has been held back for reshoots, you can usually see the joins in the finished product. I haven't heard for definite that this had any reshoots, but from watching it alone, I suspect that it did. The plot moves very quickly, but has no real drive, and no connecting tissue between scenes and set pieces that feel very disparate. Although the latter half of the film is more sequential, I suspect that this is the part of the film that was most extensively refitted, because the vampire killings are less inventive, and there's a lot more Tab A in Slot B storytelling.

I should, once again, praise Benjamin Walker's performance, because he makes a magnificent straight man, and it's not his fault that nobody else gets the joke. The best testament to his performance is that he looks a bit like Liam Neeson when he's aged up by prosthetics, but Walker is actually good enough, as both the young adventurer and the elder, more iconic version of Lincoln, that you don't think the film would have been any more lively with Neeson in the role. The rest of the cast is solid, but has much less to do, which is a shame if you're a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Anthony Mackie.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter doesn't seem to be in on the joke as much as the audience who wants to see it would expect. By co-opting more of Van Helsing than of Army of Darkness, it winds up trundling through its alternative history with tired set pieces and ugly, saturated visuals, but it's manfully elevated by Benjamin Walker- I don't know if he's headed for stardom, but on the strength of this, I'd definitely watch him play Lincoln every week. At the same time, I'm not unhappy that this is unlikely to start another franchise.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, why not share your comments below? Do we think that Benjamin Walker is a better Lincoln than Daniel Day Lewis will be, in Spielberg's biopic of Lincoln?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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