Friday, June 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter screenplay written by Seth Grahame-Smith [IMDb] based on his novel by the same name as the film and directed by the Russian-Kazakh-American film director Timur Bekmambetov (Sasha Baron Cohen who randomly, viciously and gratuitously made fun of "Kazakhs" in Borat [2006] eat your heart out ;-) is ... well ... "an experience."  I'm certain that the film is going to be enjoyed by many, generally, younger viewers even as it will probably disturb a great many older ones.

Indeed, I would discourage anyone who has an aversion to seeing gore (blood, decapitations, rotting flesh, etc ...) on the screen from seeing this film.  It will simply not be for you.  I would also note that this film isn't exactly "The Apocalypse" either.  Though certainly gory, there's nothing in this film that one would not see at any of number of "haunted houses" that spring-up each year across the United States each year around Halloween-time.  And I do know something of this as I've been responsible for my parish's youth group over the years and have therefore been to a fair number of such "haunted exhibits" during that time ... ;-)

Now how does one even come-up with the idea of "re-imagining" the revered American President Abraham Lincoln [IMDb] as a "vampire hunter?" ;-)  Well, Seth Grahame-Smith caused something of stir a number of years back by publishing a novel called Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, where 90% of the text was Jane Austen's [IMDb] celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice with Seth Grahame-Smith adding the other 10% (including, of course, the zombies).   Overall, the critical reaction to his works has been that of bemusement and grudging admiration.  And the claim has been, and one that I am somewhat willing to believe ... that the addition of "zombies" to Jane Austen's work (and "vampires" to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln) has worked to revitalize interest in both Jane Austen [IMDb] and now Abraham Lincoln [IMDb].

And while I can certainly imagine Seth Grahame-Smith "having beers" with Franz Kafka and Salvador Dalí I do have to admit that on Carl Jung's "deep psychological" / "archetypical level" I kinda get him.

Pride and Prejudice was, after all, in part about class distinctions and, well "pride and prejudices." So re-casting the novel in a manner that brings to fore a "fear" on the part of  "polite society" of late 18th-early 19th century England that it was going to be overwhelmed by terrifying and perhaps not particularly educated/intelligent "new comers" ("zombies"...) actually makes some sense ;-).  Remember that was the time of the American and French Revolutions as well as the Napoleonic Wars.

Similarly the re-casting here of the whole American Civil War as basically a war between human beings from the North fighting blood-sucking vampires from the South (yes, folks, that's the basic premise of the current film...), while certainly loud and arguably _over-the-top_ propagandistic, does make some sense as well.  After all, while a fair number of American Southerners today would not necessarily like the imagery here, the whole American Civil War was largely about a whole lot of poor-white people being convinced to fight and die to protect the right of a far smaller group of rich-white people to own (and do utterly what they willed with) black-people.   So arguably, those "rich white people" were "akin to vampires" feeding on (and sucking the blood out) of _both_ black people and poor white people.

Again, folks like Franz Kafka and Salvador Dalí would understand the analogy completely ... to the consternation/anger of the great dictators and proponents of the totalitarian ideologies of their time.  (Hitler apparently absolutely hated the "degenerate Jew writer" Kafka. And Salvador Dalí was actually thrown out of the Surrealist movement that he was instrumental in founding by left-wing French intellectuals after he painted picture of "Lenin with a fat butt playing a piano.").  One would imagine that a fair number of Southern whites wouldn't necessarily like the sweeping (and ridiculing) imagery of this film.  Nevertheless, slavery and really the racist assumptions underlying it as well as underlying the post-Civil War "Jim Crow" laws and the racist bickering that continues to this day (as well as the once more _race-driven_ obliteration of the Native American populations indigenous to what eventually became the United States by European (white) settlers in both the North and the South) has been the United States' "original sin."  So we may cringe when we see rich Southern "patriots" portrayed as seemingly "hard to kill" yet blood-sucking "vampires."  BUT it's _not_ an image or analogy that "comes out of nowhere."

Okay, to the story...  Seth Grahame-Smith uses a heck of a lot of "imagination" to string together a number of historical facts (and personages) surrounding Abraham Lincoln [IMDb] to recast his story as that of a "vampire hunter."

Abe Lincoln's aversion to slavery is explained as the result of a childhood incident when a he (played by Lux Haney-Jardine) witnesses the capture and deportation from his hometown in Illinois back to the South of a black childhood playmate named Will (played as a child by Curtis Harris).  Lincoln's aversion/hatred for "vampires" is explained by the death of his mother Nancy (played by Robin McLeavy).  She had come forward to try to defend Lincoln's childhood friend.  In retribution, little Abe Lincoln watched a strange man, come to their home a few nights later and _bite_ Nancy in the arm.  She died shortly thereafter of disease (in reality, Lincoln's mother Nancy died when Abe was 8-9 years old of "milk sickness").

In the story, Abe Lincoln grows-up determined to eventually find and kill the man who had bitten his mother (who, in the story, he believed was responsible for her death).  In seeking who he believed to be her mother's killer, Abe Lincoln meets a strange figure named Henry Sturgess (played by Dominic Cooper).  He tells Abe that killing the man who killed his mother would prove much harder than he thought.  Abe does not believe him.  But after shooting his mother's killer, Jack Barts (played by Marton Csokas), in the eye (with a normal lead bullet from his revolver) and finding to his horror that this didn't kill him but just got him angrier, the good old, and still quite naive Abe was willing to listen to Henry.

Henry tells him that Abe's mother's killer was a vampire, that there were many vampires both in the North and at the South, and that the only way to kill a vampire was with silver.  So from now on, Abraham Lincoln would carry silver coated bullets, and (certainly for dramatic effect in the movie...) an _axe_ with a silver coated blade (Abe Lincoln's first job was famously that of an "axeman" or "rail splitter.")  Henry tells him that the life of a "Vampire Slayer" was fraught with danger and that it'd be best if he lived quietly and never married.

However, the young Lincoln as naive and quiet/to himself as he was, nevertheless seemed to have bigger ambitions.  So he eventually comes to Springfield, Illinois' capital to study to become a lawyer.  There he is shown meeting the _then_ young and vivacious Mary Todd [IMDb] his future wife, as well a young Illinois congressman named Stephen Douglas [IMDb] (played by Alan Tudyk) who became Abraham Lincoln's [IMDb] primary pre-Civil War political rival.  (In the story, Lincoln and Douglas don't merely spar in a series of now famous pre-Civil War debates.  In the first place, they are shown here as competing for Mary Todd's affections. I doubt that there's any historical basis to this but certainly adds drama/romance to the story.  Mary, of course, chooses the quieter and more honest Abe in the end).

As Lincoln is getting himself established in Springfield, his childhood friend Will (played by Anthony Mackie) returns to Illinois as a "Fugitive Slave."  Lincoln resolves to defend him despite the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision and the Fugitive Slave Act.  This sets Lincoln on a course for getting involved in public political action to the consternation of Henry who would have preferred that he just remain in the shadows quietly "killing vampires." 

All comes to a head, when Lincoln, the candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party is elected President.  The Southern States, of course, secede and the American Civil War begins.  To Lincoln's horror, the vampires take the side of the South and the North's fortunes in the War only change when Lincoln remembers that vampires can be killed with silver.  So according to the story, the North's bullets and cannon balls come to be coated in silver, and from that point on, the North starts winning the war... ;-)

Obviously this is a highly imaginative tale.  But as one realizes what the story describes, I think one can start to understand the connections that writer and film-director are making.

Finally, while I'm not sure that a lot of folks from the Southern United States would particularly appreciate the way the "vampiric South" was being portrayed, I am personally exhausted with people like Southern General Robert E. Lee being portrayed in "heroic terms" in American history.  He went to war to defend an Evil cause (the right of human beings to _own_ other human beings) and I do think that Lincoln was absolutely correct in taking Lee's Plantation (on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington D.C.) and converting it into the gigantic Arlington National Cemetery.

A lot of people in the United States needlessly died in the Civil War before all its people could finally be free:

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
    He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
    His truth is marching on.

        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        His truth is marching on.

    I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
    They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
    I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
    His day is marching on.

        Glory, glory, hallelujah! ...

    In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
    With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
    As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
    While God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! ...

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  1. The screenplay - plot as you have described bears little relation to the "Novel". Some of the plot points such as Lincoln's birthplace - location where his mother dies is NOT Illinois but in Kentucky. The novel makes much of his resentment of Thomas his father and even brings in peripheral characters like Edgar Allan Poe and a 17th Century Vampire - Mentor who was "turned as a vampire" during the English colonization of Virginia.

    The book likewise is a cauldron of gore -- I do not recommend it even as a satire. I am rather confused since the book made it out that the Vampires were divided into a kind of hell-bent party of human-haters and another group that insisted on coexistence or non-involvement.

    Thanks for this posting -- I will heed your words to keep in mind the shock and repulsion factors.
    from a fellow blogger -- Tim Shaw

  2. Hi Tim, thanks for your comment. I heard an interview with Seth Grahame-Smith in the lead-up to the movie and he did say that the movie was going to be significantly different from the book, notably in that the film was going to have a more central villain than the book. I don't even mention him above. His name is Adam, and though he's sort of plotting in the background the various "vampire related things" in the story, I didn't actually all that important to the way that the story actually played out. Maybe if there's a sequel ... but then the vampires would have to leave Lincoln behind because, after all, Lincoln dies in 1865 ...

  3. The premise is ridiculous, but so is this movie and that's what makes it a lot of fun. Still, could have been a whole lot crazier like I was expecting. Good review Dennis.

  4. Dennis, if you think this is silly, I recently saw in the Baltimore library -- I kid you not -- a novel called "Henry VIII -- Werewolf"! Coming to "Masterpiece Theater" any day now, I'm sure!