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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

by Steve Habrat

In the past few years, many critics and horror fans have complained about the sorry state of the vampire genre, which has embraced soap opera melodrama, bloodless confrontations, and abstinence. To me, vampires are not overly emotional, glittery-skinned models who drive their supped-up cars around like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. So, you can understand my frustration with all the negative reviews of director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a vampire film that re-imagines the greatest president of all time as an axe-swinging bloodsucker slayer. Also present in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter credits is Tim “Dark Shadows” Burton, taking the role of producer here, who recently seems hell-bent on restoring some honor to the vampire genre. You have to hand it to Burton and Bekmambetov as they dream up a moving graphic novel that isn’t afraid to bare its fangs and put its 3D effects to work. They also don’t forget to add a small bit of self-aware fun to all of the limb severing brutality.

After he sees his mother attacked by a bloodsucker, the young Abraham Lincoln (Played by Benjamin Walker) seeks out the help of a mysterious vampire hunter named Henry Sturgess (Played by Dominic Cooper), who reluctantly begins training Lincoln in the art of hacking up vamps. After ten years of training, Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he begins snooping out vampires for Sturgess. He shacks up with a local shopkeeper named Joshua Speed (Played by Jimmi Simpson), who gives Lincoln a money making job to fill his time in between swinging around an axe and reading law books. Lincoln soon gets the pleasure of meeting Mary Todd (Played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he quickly falls for despite warnings from Sturgess that he have “no friends or family.” Eager to find the vampire who killed his mother, Lincoln finally gets the order to confront and kill the man responsible, but he also catches the attention of Adam (Played by Rufus Sewell), an extremely deadly vampire who owns a plantation in New Orleans. Along with his sister Vadoma (Played by Erin Wasson), Adam sets out to find and kill Lincoln at any cost.

Throughout much of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film had been cropped down and condensed into a brief hour and forty-five minute runtime. It seems like Bekmambetov and Burton didn’t want the film to overstay its welcome but I honestly never grew tired of it. It felt like Bekmambetov took the Cliff Notes version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and made a film out of those rather than the actual book. I’d be curious to see what they left on the cutting room floor. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter moves at a breakneck pace and it springs the action on us almost instantly. Before you know it, our 16th president is prowling the misty landscapes searching for demons to hack into bloody chunks. The film has been accused of not stopping to laugh at itself and that it takes the action too seriously. While it does keep a somber tone firmly in place, Bekmambetov and Burton know that you have already laughed at the premise before the trailers have ended so why continue to harp on the joke. It would only run it into the group and then people would be complaining that the film falls back on its B-movie premise rather than getting serious.

While it is not as heavy on the horror, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turns up the action and delivers some seriously bloody battle scenes that will hold your attention. When Lincoln isn’t chopping down a tree with one swing of an axe, he is out spinning the axe around his hands like an airplane propeller and finding new ways to stylishly chop off a vamp’s limb. While Bekmambetov provides countless slow motion shots of bodies twirling through the air, he showers the audience is streams of blood erupting from slit throats and decapitations. The highlight showdown is a smack down on train that has Lincoln and his best friend William Johnson (Played by Anthony Mackie) teaming up against a swarm of roaring killers. They toss the silver laced axe back and forth to each other while Lincoln uses his bare fists and William wields dual pistols with silver bullets. There is also a nifty scene on a Civil War battlefield that has Confederate vampires charging into battle against terrified Union soldiers, who are massacred by the undead terrors in the blink of an eye.

Surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is filled with above avergae acting from its cast. It takes Walker a few minutes to really stand firmly in Lincoln’s shoes but once he does, he disappears into the role. Later in the film, Bekmambetov hides Walker behind the silliest fake beard ever captured on film. Dominic Cooper gets to have flamboyant fun as a vampire hunter with a secret. Sturgess always seems to be in the right place at the right time, always yanking Lincoln out of a tight spot. B-movie princess Winstead shows up as Lincoln’s first lady Mary Todd, who late in the game gets to play hardened griever whose eyes show the signs of a woman loosing faith in her husband. The only two characters that I felt there should have been more from were Simpson’s Speed and Mackie’s William, both who are likeable enough characters, but a tad embryonic, especially Speed. Rufus Sewell is fairly drab as the undead plantation owner Adam, especially when we see him next to smirking creep Jack Barts (Played by Marton Csokas), the man who killed Lincoln’s mother.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does have a few slip-ups in the production department. At times, we can clearly see the make-up smeared all over the faces of the characters and the contacts stuck in the eyes of Mary Todd. Bekmambetov uses a combination of CGI and authentic make-up applied to the undead antagonists, which makes them look pretty ferocious, especially when they erupt into shrieks that reveal rows of razor sharp fangs. There is also a far-fetched action sequence set in the middle of a thundering stampede of frightened horses. Yet Smith, who serves as the screenwriter here, doesn’t forget to add the clever little touch of the vampires being the ones supporting slavery, literally sucking the life out of helpless and innocent men, women, and children. It might be slightly obvious but at least they found an intriguing way of working the supernatural into historical events. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a perfect piece of filmmaking but in an age where Edward Cullen is a more prolific bloodsucker than Dracula, the B-movie thrills and gory winks found here are enough to make us forget about the sensitive skinny jean vamps with sparkly skin.

Grade: B-

The Hurt Locker (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Despite what you may think of the Academy Awards, I think most who saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker can agree that it was indeed the best film of 2009. Paranoid and frantic while taking absolutely no stance on the Iraq War, Bigelow masterfully sculpts a beast of a film, leaving us just as shaken up as one of the soldiers is after a bomb blast. It’s tough to wrap your head around the idea that a film dealing with a war that was as unpopular as the Iraq War would have no comments about the war itself. Instead, this is a boys being boys film, one where Bigelow presents three radical personalities (one timid, one by the books, and one who relentlessly lives on the edge), puts them in a bomb suit, and shakes them up violently to see what makes them tick. The film begins with the quote “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. The Hurt Locker turns out to be more than just a psychological study of the toll urban warfare takes on a soldier, but is also a movie about the crippling addiction of pushing the envelop and tempting death.

The Hurt Locker begins in 2004, just shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the grisly death of Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Played by Guy Pearce), the reckless and testy Sergeant First Class William James (Played by Jeremy Renner) comes in to take his place as a bomb diffuser. James joins Sergeant JT Sanborn (Played by Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Played by Brian Geraghty) and the group sets out on a string of missions including suicide bombers, car bombs, roadside bombs, etc. Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep their small group together and guarded where anything and anyone can become a threat. As James relentlessly tests the patience of Sanborn and Eldridge with his irresponsible behavior, Sanborn and Eldridge begin to fear for their own safety as well as begin to entertain ideas of finding a way to get rid of James. James, on the other hand, gets a thrill out of tempting death and his addiction to the “rush of battle” has caused him to become an outsider when playing the role of civilian.

Bigelow shies away from using familiar faces in her film, allowing the soldiers to seem like actual soldiers serving a tour of duty rather than a bunch of pampered actors sipping bottled Fiji water. This approach gives The Hurt Locker a heavy does of realism and randomness that can’t be matched by many other war films. Her fidgety camera that will unexpectedly zoom in on possible threats adds another layer of anxiety to the experience. Anyone can die at any second and Bigelow doesn’t want you to escape that nail biting dread. Pearce was the only recognizable actor in The Hurt Locker and he is knocked off in the first ten minutes of the film. Hell, if Pearce can get it, than any of these soldiers can bite the dust at any time! The Hurt Locker posses a documentary feeling throughout the course of its runtime, sometimes making you forget that you’re watching a movie. When snipers open fire on the group in one particular scene, you are practically ducking behind your coach and hugging the ground for dear life. Every battle doesn’t descend into quick cut gunfights, but rather embraces drawn out tension mixed with anticipatory trepidation of where the threat will come from next. Can you trust that man holding that cell phone? Is that car loaded with explosives? Are the citizens watching from their windows carrying a detonator or gun?

The Hurt Lockers presents three radical forms of the soldier. Eldridge represents the skittish soldier who fears death above all else, where every day could be his last. Sanborn is the by the books man who views his duty as just another day on the job. James is the one addicted to the “rush of battle” and views war as a drug. He can’t escape the thrill of it. Each performance is heavy and the relationship between the three main characters is never firing on all cylinders. Very rarely do they all click and work hand-in-hand, when they do they are alarmingly efficient. The most complexity lies in James, who cares more about the corpse of a boy who is currently having his guts ripped out and having them replaced with explosives over his own child back on American shores. Rarely does he talk about his wife, only when he is probed and had a little to drink. He struts towards bombs with his chin and helmet held high, loving every step he takes towards possible death. When he finds a bomb that could wipe out a large area, he rips off his bomb suit and goes about disarming the bomb comfortably. If it blows up, the suit won’t save him. But you have to wonder if he would really care if it did blow up. James also symbolically serves as the bottle that Eldridge and Sanborn are dropped into. When a rush shakes up James, the worst and the weakest points emerge from Sanborn and Eldrige

There is never a down moment in The Hurt Locker, one that doesn’t enthrall and hold your eyes to the screen. From the directing all the way to the script, the film is absolutely perfect, an atypical accomplishment for any film that makes its way out of Hollywood. The film opened the eyes of mainstream audiences to the talents of Jeremy Renner, who is finally becoming a household name. I firmly believe that The Hurt Locker is an instant classic, a film that will join the ranks of classics like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In fact, the movie stills impacts me every time I see it, leaving a crater in stomach. It is a film I will never forget seeing in theaters for the first time and walking out of absolutely silent, verbally paralyzed by the sheer intensity of it. If you have never seen The Hurt Locker before, it may be wise to experience it with someone who already did just so they can have 911 ready. Why? Because you may pass out from holding your breath.

Grade: A+

The Hurt Locker is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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