Monday, July 9, 2012
Rarely does the cinematic adaptation of a novel surpass its literary source. Happily, "Wanted" director Timur Bekmambetov's movie "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" proves the exception to the rule. Author Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the epistolary bestseller, also penned the imaginative screenplay. Incidentally, Grahame-Smith forged the monster-mash-up literary genre. In 2009, he spliced elements of a zombie story into a revised version of Jane Austin's classic masterpiece "Pride and Prejudice." The result was the "New York Times" bestseller "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Afterward, he wrote "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" and added vampire slaying to Lincoln's list of accomplishments. Compared with Grahame-Smith's 2010 bestseller, the celluloid version of "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" (**** out of ****) is ten times better. Primarily, Bekmambetov's chiller dispenses with all the plodding biographical parts of Grahame-Smith's bestseller and pits the eponymous hero against a thoroughly evil chief villain. Anybody who has read the novel knows that the journal Lincoln kept about his efforts to eradicate fangsters is what prompts a 21st century writer into reassemble Lincoln's real life with his fantasy exploits. Meantime, Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith adopt a serious approach to their bizarre subject matter. Nothing about the vampire hunting deeds of Lincoln is depicted with a wink and a nudge. If you saw director Tim Burton's abominably campy "Dark Shadows," neither Burton nor Grahame-Smith treated the venerable Gothic day-time soap opera with anything resembling either respect or sobriety. Instead, "Dark Shadows" owed more to Burton's "Beetlejuice" than Dan Curtis' soaper. Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith didn't commit the same mistake. They play “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” straight-up, seriously, with spectacle to spare.
"Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" unfolds in the year 1818, in Indiana. Our hero (newcomer Lux Haney-Jardine) witnesses first-hand the immorality of slavery. A slaver lashes one of young Abe's friends, William Johnson (Curtis Harris of "Touched"), with a whip and leaves a scar on his cheek for life. We learn that the youth was struggling to prevent his family from being split up and sold down river. Lincoln's father intervenes, and his boss, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas of "Æon Flux"), fires him and then demands immediate payment of his debts. The defiant Lincoln refuses to pay up. Later, that night, Barts slips into their isolated wooden house and bites Nancy Lincoln. Young Abe witnessed this murderous deed and vows to avenge his mom's demise. The legendary rails splitter has grown up considerably when he tries to kill Bart by shooting him at point blank range with a cap and ball black powder pistol. Miraculously, at least to Abe's way of thinking, his quarry survives the bullet that lodges permanently in his right eye. Barts retaliates, but another individual, Henry Sturgess ((Dominic Cooper of "Captain America: The First Avenger"), comes to Abe's rescue. Lincoln manages to escape, and Sturgess explains why Barts didn't bite the dust. Thereafter, Sturgess trains Lincoln in the art of killing vampires. Since our hero is an incredibly terrible marksman, he falls back onto his own weapon of preference—an ax. Lincoln accepts Sturgess' Vampires 101 tutelage, but the lessons come with a condition. Lincoln must kill other vampires who constitute a greater menace before Sturgess will allow him to dispatch with Barts.
Abe relocates to Springfield, Illinois, becomes a clerk in a general store and studies law in his spare time when he isn't pursuing his vampire prey. Of course, nobody can know anything about his secret. Honest Abe's best laid plans backfire when Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of "The Thing") enters the store with an order for him to fill. Abe doesn't classify himself as a ladies' man so he is surprised when Mary takes an interest in him. Abe's employer and best friend, Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson of "Zodiac"), wrangles them an invitation to a dance where Abe meets Mary again. Despite Henry Sturgess' warnings that Abe should shun companionship since it might interfere with his nocturnal hunting, Abe starts dating Mary. Meanwhile, Abe carries out Henry's orders and becomes such a proficient vampire killer, eventually slaughtering Jack Barts, that he arouses the wrath of the oldest of all vampires, Adam (Rufus Sewell of "Dark City"), who lives in the South. According to Adam, vampires have roamed the earth for 5000 years searching for a place that they can call home. They like the south because slavery provides them with a steady flow of blood. Adam exploits Abe's friendship with William (Anthony Mackie of "Real Steel"), who is still searching for his relatives. Adam invites Abe and William to his Louisiana Plantation, and plans to eliminate the vampire hunter. Of course, Abe thwarts Adam's plans, wipes out a number of vampires, and then marries Mary and embarks on his prestigious career as the Great Emancipator until Adam and vampires take sides with Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy.
“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is the first time that Hollywood has appropriated a venerable figure such as Lincoln since the 2001 spoof “Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter.” This ultra low-budget, Canadian-produced, musical comedy with chopsocky combat sequences paired the Messiah with Mexican wrestling sensation El Santos to battle lesbian vampires! Comparatively, Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith take themselves and the Great Emancipator much more seriously in their radical make-over of the politician. The concept that Lincoln carried out cold-blooded executions of vampires during the 19th century would turn anybody's head, including Mr. Lincoln. The discrepancy between the real-life warrior and his audacious literary alter-ego may be more than some audiences can wrap their heads around. Mind you, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" doesn't turn Lincoln into a figure of ridicule. Tastefully, Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith have refrained from covering all the tragedy in Lincoln's life during his tenure in the Oval Office. Unlike the novel, the film deals only partially with everything before Lincoln accompanies his wife to the Ford Theater. The writer and the director have eliminated anything that doesn't propel the action forward, and they have replaced dull scenes with exciting ones. Lincoln emerges as Brue Lee with an ax to grind. You won't find the flaming trestle that a munitions train must cross in the novel, and the book lacks a central villain. Happily, Rufus Sewell delivers an impeccable performance as the chief vampire villain. The vampires appear rather frightening. Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith have conjured up some new rules that aren't universal for the genre. First, vampires can rough up other vampires, but they are not allowed to kill each other. Second, these vampires can become invisible in the blink of an eye. Third, the secret weapon that our heroes must stockpile to thwart their evil designs is silver. A human can drop a vampire stone-dead in its tracks with a silver bullet. Although it clocks in at 105 minutes, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" never wears out its welcome.