Monday, June 25, 2012

Bloody Bloody Abe Lincoln

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

Abraham Lincoln is probably the greatest President the United States of America has ever or will ever have (sorry Ronnie, sorry Barry).  He saved the Union at a tremendously high cost.  He was both a defender of the Constitution and one who skirted if not violated the Constitution in his single-minded determination to hold the United States together.

He also did battle with the Undead.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is on the surface (and a little beneath the surface) a rather silly gimmick.  Still, having skipped Seth Grahame-Smith's novel (and casting a wary eye across his oeuvre of mash-ups of horror/comedy/literature/history a la Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and those who've imitated this style),  the film adaptation was on the whole remarkably entertaining, even well-acted, if not without flaws.

President Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) narrates his story.  As a child, he lost his mother when the vampire Jack Barts (Martin Csokas) takes revenge for both young Abe and Nancy Hanks Lincoln standing up to Barts when he beats up on free Negroes (to use the parlance of the times).  Abe has never forgotten the loss of his mother and his powerlessness over it. 

Many years pass, and now a young man, Abe seeks revenge.  Just as he is about to do murder (and himself be offed by Barts), enter Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).  He not only saves Young Mr. Lincoln from becoming a Nosferatu himself, but trains Abe in the ways of fighting the undead.  Henry makes it clear that Abe cannot be pursuing vengeance (in particular against Barts) but justice, to save the living from the evil of the Edward Cullens of the world.  Soon, Abe becomes a master of the ax to split those who would kill.

Despite Henry's insistence that he must remain apart, Abe soon falls for Southern belle Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who despite her engagement to Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk), also falls for the lanky lawyer.  Soon, with the encouragement of his friend Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) Lincoln not only proposes to Mary Todd but enters politics. 

Abe sees that the vampires are using the captured Africans as literal fuel, feasting on the slaves.  Chief among the undead is Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sister Vadoma (Erin Wasson), who have a tangled history with Henry himself.  We discover that Henry himself is a vampire, but one who was condemned to be so by Adam after being too successful in his own vampire hunting.  A vampire cannot kill one of his own kind, so now Henry has taken it upon himself to atone by training those among the living to kill the dead.

While Lincoln is remarkably good vampire hunter he puts away his ax to bring freedom to all.  Aided by his childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Lincoln begins his Administration with the horror of the Civil War.  At first he believes his vampire hunting days are long-past, but when the vampires strike in his very home, it is time for the President to take up his ax and save America from the Vampire Army, which has joined forces with Jefferson Davies to defeat the Union.

The climatic confrontation between Lincoln and Adam is also at the dramatic turning point of the Civil War itself: Gettysburg.  Even the First Lady gets in on the act, doing her part to arm the Union army to defeat the Confederate's unholy minions and taking revenge against those who caused misery in her life.

Sadly, history is what it is, and the President turned down Henry's offer for a form of immortality before he and the First Lady were to go to Ford's Theater.  We end Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with our modern-day setting, only now Henry reads from Lincoln's journal, and at a bar meets another young man in the same way he once met a young, tall man from Illinois...

I fail to see why so many people automatically tune out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Yes, the premise is silly.  However, in the oddest way, almost everything worked.  This film could have worked as both a straight biopic of the 16th President (if one removed the supernatural elements) and could have worked as a straight horror film (if one removed the historical elements).  Timur Bekmambetov blended them well enough to where one forgot we were watching an American icon slicing heads off or that the Battle of Gettysburg did not involve the use of silver cannon balls. 

In an odd way, I think ALVH actually humanized President Lincoln.  We get to see him on one hand as a young man, slowly rising in fame and conviction of the evil of slavery, being bumbling and hesitant in his courting of Mary Todd, and if one isn't move by the reading of the Gettysburg Address (regardless of the venue), one won't understand what is at the heart of American democracy and aspiration.

On the other hand, there is something amusing and even thrilling at seeing Lincoln as a kick-ass slayer, swinging his ax in perfect form as he takes down a cabal of evildoers.  So often we mummify our leaders to where they are no longer men or women like us but almost gods.  While it is absurd to think that the Great Emancipator was out there taking down vampires while fighting a war, there is something to be said about seeing a version of the man that is not passionately reverential.

As I've stated, ALVH could have easily been a straight biopic of Lincoln, and this is helped tremendously by the performances.  Walker was excellent as Lincoln, having to play him from his young days as a lawyer-in-training to his term as President, and we accept him as both a young man in a hurry and the wise leader we all learn about.  Windstead makes for a charming Mary Todd (before the crazy set in), a young girl in love who becomes a woman who will do all she can to protect her family.  Cooper is excellent as the conflicted (if albeit cranky) mentor, while Sewell excels as the villainous Adam.  Even smaller parts, like Tybuk's stuffy Douglas or Simpson's slightly comic-relief Speed did their parts well.

I know this will sound ridiculous, but I would argue there were historical liberties taken in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  The primary issue I have is with Mackie's character of Will Johnson.  In reality, President Lincoln did not believe that blacks were equal to whites and there is no evidence that he had any close African-Americans in his entourage (the closest would have been Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker/confidante Elizabeth Keckley).  It is true that Lincoln was horrified by what he saw of slavery when he travelled to New Orleans, but he was in most respects a product of his time and region in regards to his views on blacks: slavery was wrong but blacks were not on the same level as whites.  It was only as the war continued that his views on race began shifting to one that was more tolerant.  Therefore, one wonders why the character of Will was there (except perhaps as a motive for Barns to target Lincoln and his family which stood up for the free Johnsons). 

In terms of cinema, I had a few issues with some of the action sequences.  While the climatic train ride where Lincoln and Adam faced off was quite thrilling, the one where Barns and Lincoln confront each other among a stampede of wild horses was a bit hard to follow.  I also thought Henry Jackman's score was a bit overblown and predictable in queuing when I was suppose to be afraid.  Finally, while it is historically accurate that one of the President's sons died while he was in office, I personally get a little queasy when even hinting at the death of a child.  Just a personal issue.

However, Varvara Avdyusko and Carlo Poggioli's costumes were excellent, and Caleb Deschanel's cinematography worked well, in particular when the future President begins his training.

Abraham Lincoln, I imagine, would not have taken offense at being portrayed as a vampire hunter.  He might actually have been amused by the thought that a man in his fifties could be so agile.  He might even have seen a little symbolism: the Union fighting against a monstrous evil that would devour a nation.

I am a great admirer of President Lincoln and consider myself an amateur historian on the President.  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a silly idea and doesn't pretend to be anything deep. While not a perfect film, I found it entertaining, even thrilling at times, and also in its own way, respectful of his legacy and importance.  It is fun to see a man so mythologized take a human shape, even if it means making him a Buffy for the Nineteenth Century.       

Besides, can you really imagine making a movie like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter out of THIS wimp: 

DECISION: B-

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