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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I should have the rest of last week's films reviewed very shortly but for now here's my take on what is arguably this week's biggest release. 

Check the review out at Channel 24 as well.

What it's about

Abraham Lincoln may spend his days as president of the United States of America but his nights are devoted to an even stranger cause: hunting and destroying the vampires who lives among us. Thing becomes especially complicated once he uncovers a brewing threat from the slave-taking vampires of the American South and he soon finds himself heading his country into a war for its very soul.

What we thought

Another year, another fantastically titled film that fails spectacularly to live up to the promise of its name and its basic premise. We've already had the decidedly lackluster Cowboys vs Aliens and a trip to the bottom shelf of your local video store should reveal such recent gems as Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and Zombie Strippers but, even I haven't seen many, if not most, of these low-rent odes to trash cinema, I would be very surprised if any of them are as crushingly disappointing as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

This isn't to say that Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a terribly made film. Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov knows how to shoot a terrific looking piece of cinema and, despite the lack of big-name stars, he has surrounded himself with a number of really rather good character actors – including the likes of Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Scott Pilgrim's magnetic lead actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (why isn't she a bigger star yet?) and, as the titular prez himself, a very convincing Benjamin Walker. And really, take a look at that plot synopsis: when is the last time you came across a big-budget B-movie with so potentially interesting a plot?

Throw all these elements together and what we should have is a truly inventive, smart, incisive and cut-above-the-rest Hollywood blockbuster. What we get instead is a terribly misjudged dud that always keeps its promising premise alive just enough to constantly remind us just how badly it is betraying all of its good intentions.

Its problems are many fold, but the biggest hurdle that it smacks into head-first, time and time again, is one of tone. There is a way to mix the b-movie shlockiness of the film's title with heady ideas, humour, emotional resonance and enough metaphors to keep an English lit. class busy for quite some time. Joss Whedon all but wrote the book on this with Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the TV show, of course, not the movie) and I couldn't help but wish all the way through Abe Lincoln that someone had sat Bekmambetov down to watch all seven seasons of Buffy in the hope that some of that show's smarts, irreverence and humanity would rub off on him.

As it is, what we have here is a film that takes itself too seriously to be campy fun, is too humourless to work as effective satire, too silly to be taken seriously and too coolly artificial to ever resonate. Admittedly, it doesn't help that the wonderful comic book series, American Vampire is currently being published, as that tackles similar-ish subject matter far, far more effectively and with a far greater understanding of tonal consistency than Abe does in even its best moments. Still, regardless of how familiar you are with similar material, I can't imagine anyone but the most undemanding of action-junkies walking away from the film truly satisfied.

Most defenders of the film will, however, undoubtedly point towards its very definite visual style and high-octane action scenes as being worth the price of admission alone – and admittedly, they would have a point. Say what you want about his storytelling abilities, Bekmambetov does have plenty of visual style and his action scenes do always look cool. It's just a pity that “cool” as it looks, the film is so thoroughly uncaptivating on even the most superficial of surface levels.

Bekmambetov loves his CGI. He loves it so much that he clearly doesn't give a second thought to the fact that it renders the entire look of the film entirely artificial, which means that there is no peril, physicality or sense of danger in any of the film's many action scenes and that the vampires look less like walking, undead nightmares and more like nicely rendered video game baddies. CG is great as a complement to physical effects, imaginative costume design and creepy prosthetics but, like the otherwise enjoyable Fright Night remake, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is pretty definitive proof that reliance on nothing but CGI leaves your film looking like nothing more than an unplayable video game.

It's not often that I wish for remakes of films but someone in Hollywood – preferably, and I know this is a long shot, someone with an eye for storytelling talent – really needs to greenlight a remake of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as soon as humanly possible. A premise this brilliant simply demands to be done properly and it would be a shameful waste if it never gets to be the epochal genre film that is so righteously deserves to be. Until that happens though, feel free to give the endlessly frustrating Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a miss.

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