Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

It's a little known fact that the International Committee for Weights and Measures has been deadlocked since 2004 over proposals to nominate an international standard unit of cinematic lunacy; while everyone is agreed that it should be the Bekmambetov, the committee still hasn't figured out how to  get past the fact that no-one would ever be able to spell it.

In 2004, Bekmambetov more or less redefined screen mania with Nightwatch, a marvellous welter of incoherent stunts masquerading as the adaptation of a brooding Russian horror novel. He followed it up with Daywatch and then went Hollywood with Wanted. I've seen 'em all, and man, they're fun. Stupid, but fun. 

So, I was kind of looking forward to Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter. It seemed like a shockingly stupid one-joke notion, but I figured Timur would just throw lunacy at it till you couldn't see the underlying stupidity past the stunts. It wasn't like I was planning to watch it as a double bill with Lincoln or anything. Turns out that sometimes, even lunacy won't quite cut it. I'm not sure quite why Timur didn't pull this one off, but I'm tilting towards the idea that preposterous computer assisted stunts somehow don't look right in period dress. Most of Timur's best work in other movies has involved cars and machine guns and shiny stuff which we're using to seeing move very very fast. Maybe that stuff is easier to CGI. Whatevs, it doesn't quite work. Though Timur did get to destroy a train out of all recognition, which is something he has form on. It just wasn't remotely as cool as the last time he did it.

Although the charisma deficit doesn't help. Benjamin Walker is no Daniel Day Lewis. Sadly, he isn't even Damien Lewis. He isn't even any of these guys; Tom Hardy, Eric Bana, Timothy Olyphant, Adrien Brody or James D'Arcy, all of whom had a shot at it and apparently couldn't find the time. Raylan Givens as Abraham Lincoln. With an axe. That would have been something. Instead the charisma war is fought between poor old Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper, playing bad and good vampires respectively. Clash of the Titans, it ain't. 

Stunts not quite firing, leads not quite setting world alight; better place our faith in the writing. Well, maybe not. Seth Grahame-Smith had to follow Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with something, and deserves points for not just dropping some other monster into some other classic, but instead writing a somewhat different kind of alternative historical horror. But it's still, in essence, one of those ideas which sounds great in the pub. You could talk about it for ten minutes and it would be the funniest idea ever, but you wouldn't want to take it home and live with it. Lincoln's early years are a little sparsely documented for a whole President of the USA, so there's some wiggle room in his youth for a flirtation with vampire hunting, but then you have to stretch the hell out of it to keep him in play once there's a public career. And the movie keeps it simple and just has him retire from active hunting to win the fight through politics, where I suspect the book could do the more interesting thing and show us intrigue through those years as well. Only so much you can do in two hours of screen time and Timur needs to blow stuff up, so we just get the action stuff.

It's a shame. A lot of writers have mined the intersection between chattel slavery and vampire malevolence, with one of the best books being the slow and chilling Fevre Dream from back in the days when George Martin knew how to finish books. And there's always Anne Rice, if you like that kind of thing. And the way one evil could blend into another is caught nicely in Rufus Sewell's best line of the movie "Men have enslaved each other... since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it." (That it sounds rehearsed is perfect, since Sewell's character is exactly the kind of guy who'd have honed that line over time before a parade of victims until he'd got it just so). Of course, once it was Timur and Tim Burton throwing it together, you were never going to get a slow and subtle walk through the corruption of the soul. Not that I expected to; I was just hoping it would be dumb fun with lots of stunts. 

In the end, though, I find myself niggling the small stuff. The movie climaxes with Lincoln faking out the vampire leaders to save the day for the battle of Gettysburg, which has been going badly what with the Johnny Reb vampire mercenaries making mincemeat out of the Union. Quite how Lincoln could have a chat with his wife on the evening of the first day of Gettysburg and know that it was the first day of the battle and how it had gone - well, I thought, maybe telegraphs. But then he can pull together a cunning plot which involves grabbing all the loose silver in Washington and putting it on a train, and get that all done so that the silver arrives, after many adventures, in time for the climactic third day of the battle? Vampires were starting to look positively plausible by comparison.

And about that silver. I liked it that they had a well thought out notion under which silver was bad for vampires (not for the first time, it got brought back to Judas, and his thirty pieces of silver), so that they couldn't abide its touch, and wouldn't reflect in silver mirrors. But there's a patently ridiculous anachronism early in the movie where Abe's vampire mentor is showing him magic lantern slides of his principal vampiric adversaries. People have ragged on how there were no magic lantern slides as early as that, or how it came to pass that posed studio portraits of people who can't stand still in sunlight somehow came into the keeping of their enemies, but what bugged me was; photos? Which depend entirely on the chemistry of silver salts? How could you ever take a picture of a vampire under your own rules? Oh, let's just put the cool scene in anyhow. It's the little things…..

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