Monday, December 03, 2012

The Worse Demons of Our Natures


I knew going into it that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012, directed by Timur Bekmambetov) was going to hurt my head. How could it not? With a title and high concept that ridiculous? A few years ago, some people made a movie called Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, so this isn't even a novel idea. I thought that movie sucked, so I expected the pain from this one. I underestimated it.



The premise, of course, holds that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, vampires having been responsible for the deaths of his parents. Further, vampires have established themselves in the American South, where the institution of slavery makes it easy for them to slake their thirst without drawing undue attention. Lincoln is trained in the art of vampire hunting by the mysterious Henry Sturges, who acts as Lincoln's controller, sending him after his prey with discreet notes. When Lincoln discovers that Sturges is himself a vampire, Lincoln rethinks the effectiveness of killing vampires one on one and enters politics, where he views a great struggle for the future of humanity itself. This triggers the Civil War, in which the secret motivation for the Confederacy is the establishment of a vampire empire and a millennium of darkness...



There's a certain low cunning at work in this film in the way it reverse engineers the life of Abraham Lincoln to dovetail with a vampire narrative. It's the kind of "just so story" that is favored by conspiracy theorists, as it so happens, and it's just as ridiculous. I'll admit that it's kind of fun watching the filmmakers connect the dots, even if they do it in the most obvious and belabored way. I'll also admit that it's kind of fun watching Lincoln annihilating vampires with his silvered ax, even when he's the president of the United States. This, too, is sublimely stupid, but it's absurd enough to hold one's attention for the duration of the film. The cast is likeable, too, particularly Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln, though her portrayal in no way resembles the real Mary Lincoln except for a surface physical resemblance. Benjamin Walker has the harder task of playing Lincoln himself. The part, as written, does him no favors, so he too has to embody the man mostly through physical resemblance. Make-up and wardrobe are essential elements of both performances. The vampire characters have an easier time of it, particularly Rufus Sewell's vampire king. Without the onus of playing a famous historical personage, the vampires at least create things from the ground up.


So I don't necessarily hate the idea of this film, though I do think it's a piece of lazy writing that uses its high concept as a crutch.



I'm not as sanguine about the way in which this is filmed, though. It has a deliberate and annoying artifice to it, largely the result of placing this in a computer generated past. This is compounded by the style in which Timur Bekmanbetov works: a slow motion, over the top, hyper-action, in which most of the feats of daring do are accomplished with computers rather than with stunts. Most of this film's action sequences--one sequence involving stampeding horses in particular--have no weight of actual bodies in motion. I found this distracting. This film has world class cinematographer Caleb Deschanel behind the lens, so it's kind of a waste that so much of this film is created digitally. Deschanel is certainly capable of making an achingly beautiful movie from the light that's in the world. That this film hasn't done so is a tell-tale of its creative bankruptcy and directorial laziness.


More troubling, though, is the politics behind this film. The problem of race has been THE faultline of American politics since the founding of the Republic. The Civil War and Abraham Lincoln himself are the lynchpin of the nation groping toward some kind of enlightenment. By attributing the nation's sorry history of racism to the influence of vampires lets the actual flesh and blood racists in American history off the hook. If slavery was perpetrated and preserved at the behest of a vampire aristocracy, well, that absolves mere humans from their own barbarity. This is a dangerous kind of revisionism, even in a film as ridiculous as this one. This is a film that traffics in incendiary politics for trivial purposes.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"By attributing the nation's sorry history of racism to the influence of vampires lets the actual flesh and blood racists in American history off the hook. If slavery was perpetrated and preserved at the behest of a vampire aristocracy, well, that absolves mere humans from their own barbarity. This is a dangerous kind of revisionism, even in a film as ridiculous as this one."

I'm sure it wasn't intentional, there probably are regular human slavers in the film's universe too. And as for revisionistic, no, it wouldn't be, it is simply a film about Abraham Lincoln fighting freakin' VAMPIRES after all, the movie's main drive is only fun.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I read the book on which the film is based, and had the same problems with the historical revisionism that you outline here. The idea that Lincoln was less interested in the solvency of the Union and human rights than he was in personal revenge and vampire-killin' somewhat cheapens things, imo.

Of course the canned response to that criticism is to accuse a person of "taking it too seriously," and I guess that response has legs. Or would, were it not for the fact that the story (in the novel, at least) seems to take itself EXTREMELY seriously. There was very little of the humor and over-the-top-ness that made PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES marginally enjoyable (though to be fair, P&P by Austen is full of wry wit on its own). It was incredible to me that a book with such a title and premise would then go on to have almost NO fun with the concept, but such was the case in my reading.

Anonymous said...

Just to point out though, the film does improve on that failing of the book, since in the book, Lincoln's prime drive against slavery is vampires, but in the film, he at least wants to stop slavery to rid America of it, not just because a lot of the slavers are vamps.

Mykal said...

It's difficult to imagine that anyone, anywhere, anytime would absolve humans of the trials of slavery because this film puts the blame on vampires.

This piece of absurd plotting can't be called "revisionism." For it to warrant that charge, someone has to take it seriously as history.

Something about this film pisses me off, too, though. I guess, essentially, I feel that Abraham Lincoln should be off limits to these trendy fantasies. Somehow, supposing Christ as a vampire killer seems more appropriate.