Sunday, June 24, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a great joke. A brilliant one really. It trusts its audience enough to know that they - of their own free will - bought tickets to a movie called ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. So instead of obnoxiously winking at the audience, it plays it earnest (key difference from "serious"). Which is FUNNIER. For anyone who's seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (and if you haven't, stop reading and watch it now), you'll know that it never had an insipid character making "Hey, look at how funny it is that the normal people and the cartoons are IN THE SAME WORLD" comments toward the audience every 15 minutes. It expected the audience to be on board rather than transparently pointing out the obvious for a cheap gag. Ghostbusters had a similar attitude, as did Galaxy Quest - though those were comedies, the humor was character-based rather than trying to ridicule their own premise. Because again, that's funnier.

Abe Lincoln gets this, and it's rather refreshing.

Not that Abe Lincoln is a comedy, but the straight face it uses alongside its ludicrous events means it can have its cake and eat it too. It's got a sense of humor about itself, but it doesn't browbeat the viewer with it, and so it can be high drama AND high camp in the same movie, often times in the same scene. There's a part of the film that almost perfectly sums up the project's mission statement, and, not coincidentally, is one of the highlights of the whole thing. During this scene the viewer will either throw their hands in the air and just give up or be 100% on board for the duration, where - *****MINOR SPOILERS***** - Lincoln and a vampire are engaging in what I can only call Horse Fu. Yes, you read that right and no, I'm not making it up: Equine Martial Arts. And this is during a major part of Lincoln's arc and the cap to the entire first act. Huge character and story stuff going down. High dramatic stakes. Horse Fu.

Now, whether the movie is actually legitimately GOOD is another question entirely, and a bid harder to answer. It honestly shouldn't work, by most reasonable rules of cinema. "Show, don't tell" has been a golden tenet of film for a long time, and rightly so. AL:VH says "Fuck that, I'll do BOTH!" and proceeds to spend pretty much the whole movie telling you about what's going to happen, and then showing exactly that. It's part of what makes the pacing uneven and choppy, most of the scene transitions awkward and jarring, and means that any big "reveals" are telegraphed long before the audience is supposed to "get" them. It honestly shouldn't work.

Thing is, apparently no one clued the movie into that fact, because it kinda does anyway. It works in a brazen, self-assured and almost strutting way that few films even attempt these days. The cast is both obviously having a good time but also putting some serious elbow grease into their performances. Benjamin Walker is the obvious stand-out as Lincoln himself (from teenager to president by way of some impressive make-up) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's Mary Elizabeth Winstead shows a great range as Mary Todd. The rest of the supporting cast are equally memorable, from Captain America: The First Avenger's Dominic Cooper as Lincoln's mentor to Rufus Sewell as the villainous vampire "Father" Adam. Sewell in particular walks a very fine line, never gorging on the scenery but never appearing bored or apathetic while affecting a very casual approach to pure evil. He's gotten very good at this sort of role.

In spite of everything I enjoyed, I'm not wholly sure how I'd rate the movie - it's got definite flaws, pacing and structure problems, seriously painful dialogue at times, but I'm damned glad it was made. Partly because it might encourage a few people to crack a book or visit Wikipedia to delve into Lincoln's actual history (the film makes liberal use of historical figures from his life as supporting players), and partly because it's a great riff on it's "other" genre.

Most historical films - epic or otherwise - fictionalize their characters, events, and settings to such a ridiculous extent that they may as well go all out and add stuff as fantastic as this. If Russell Crowe can kill a Roman Emperor in the Coliseum and revert the Empire back to a Republic (never happened), if Mel Gibson can bed the French Princess of England (never happened) AND single-handedly turn the tide in the War for Independence (HA!), why can't Abraham Lincoln kill vampires? We already - literally - erected a monument to him. He's damn near mythic in our history as it is. Why not turn him into a literal superhero?

If any of this sounds appealing, it's probably directly up your alley. If nothing else, this movie is pulp done RIGHT. It's go-for-broke, totally unashamed and uncompromising on its outlandish premise, but never undermines it for a cheap laugh. Basically, it's the anti-John Carter.

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