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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-

Dark Shadows (2012)

by Steve Habrat

After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.

Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.

The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.

In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.

Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.

I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.

Grade: C-