Abraham Licoln: Vampire Hunter (US - BD RA)
Gabe didn't think Bekmambetov's latest to be great, but boring is unexpected...
Spurred on by his desire to avenge the gruesome death of his mother, this white-knuckle adventure follows Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) as he is thrust into an epic fight against vicious creatures that threatening the future of the United States. Aided by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) in his quest to rid the country of the undead and, in particular, their diabolical leader Adam (Rufus Sewell), Lincoln risks his presidency, his family and his life to protect America from an uprising of blood-thirsty vampires. (Taken from Fox’s PR release)
Director Timur Bekmambetov earned a lot of capital with me when he made Night Watch and Day Watch, two films that fulfilled all my silly action movie needs with a proper dollop of horror, a smattering of wit, and a dash of originality in character and story. Perhaps the key element that pushes the Night Watch movies over the edge is their shared oddball mythology and almost fetishistic supernatural rules, which I’m sure have their basis in Sergei Lukyanenko’s original novels. Bekmambetov has a rare ability to treat such strange material quite seriously without being humourless about the material’s goofier qualities. His Night Watch series follow-up and first Hollywood release was Wanted, which took Mark Millar’s high concept R-rated comic book and added a whole bunch of positively ridiculous mythology and even more fetishistic supernatural rules. Wanted wasn’t very good, but Bekmambetov continued honing his daft yet fun action style (daft yet fun seems to fit) and proving his talent with actors, despite something of a language barrier since arriving in the United States.
Meanwhile, a new fad has developed among trashy paperbacks – parody mash-ups of classic novels/historical stories and modern horror sensibilities. Without having read a single book in the genre, I find the new trend of sliding historical figures and literary characters in with popular (read: overused) horror movie creatures cute, but mostly uninteresting. Like the post- Grindhouse ‘trailer movies,’ it seems to me that the joke is best served by the title, cover art, and a brief synopsis and that an entire novel would become excessive. However, there are some filmmakers out there that can work within the trailer movie subgenre, so I’m willing to believe that mash-up novel adaptations aren’t a loss right out of the gate. Author Seth Grahame-Smith scored two huge mash-up hits with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which has been festering in development hell for quite some time) and the basis for this film, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Without reading either book, but understand that the latter sits within Bekmambetov’s wheelhouse due to a serious treatment of a spoof mythology. There’s also plenty of excuse for over-the-top action sequences that spit in the face of the laws of physics.
Bekmambetov actually reels his style in quite a bit for material this outrageous, which is, at first, a pleasant surprise, but soon gives way to something resembling cheap. I imagine the big screen, 3D treatment could give the film a bit of a boost in terms of production value, but there are many scenes here that verge on boring and the quickened pace of William Hoy’s editing (a valuable asset, otherwise) doesn’t allow the audience much time to absorb the good stuff. Finally, around the 40-minute point, the director cuts loose with the kind of CG enhanced, utterly impossible action sequences we’ve come to expect from the guy that tried to make bending bullets a cinematic reality. Here, Abe chases his (im)mortal enemy as they jump over the backs of stampeding horses. But the real Bekmambetov-esque cherry on top is the playful manner he cuts to the next sequence – by having Lincoln’s axe literally carve out the walls that create an alleyway set-piece. There are other surprises and highlights, but, even here, the director tends to sabotage himself with weird lighting choices and color schemes. He continues to keep away from shaky-cam, over-edited madness, but it doesn’t matter if the smoky/dusty landscapes are being littered by sunbeams or an utter lack of light. Bekmambetov also largely drops the ball in terms of including horror amid his action and oddly adept historical drama. Much of my affection for the Night Watch movies pertains to the gruesome violence and authentic creepy factor, which is blended throughout the genre tapestry without overwhelming it. Day Watch, in particular, excelled at toeing the line between awesome and utterly stupid. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does very little to earn its R-rating, leaving me to wonder why no one bothered cutting things down for a more audience-friendly PG-13.
Grahame-Smith wrote this screenplay from his book and does a decent job of getting down to business. This is a very efficient screenplay at the very least, which gives it a bit of an edge over its problems, chiefly its lack of originality. It seems that Grahame-Smith didn’t have many ideas beyond the admittedly cool idea that the Civil War era South was kinda-sorta ruled by vampires, not just slave owners. There are occasional hints at story-specific vampiric elements and he has a little fun with the true history of the characters. Revisionist history has a long, fine tradition in horror movie literature (Nazi werewolves and Frankenstein monsters, anyone?) – but the basics here are simply snagged from other films. Grahame-Smith grabs a wide range of genres (vampire movies, action movies that require a training montage, historical dramas, costume romances), but doesn’t do much to invert the tropes in his favour. The biggest issue structurally, however, is that the stuff I’m sure most audiences are going to care about, the vampiric civil war stuff, doesn’t start until almost an hour into the film. It would likely be more expensive to make a fully war-based film, but the story anatomy is such that the first two acts feel more like an elongated pre-credit sequence than a build up to something more spectacular. I blame Batman Begins for making movie studios think everything has to be an origin story, myself.
I much prefer the straight-faced approach to ridiculous material in situations like this. Spoofs are boring and satire often requires a level of smarts the average blockbuster is incapable of. The emotional character moments and dramatic bits don’t hit very often, but among the silly bits are some genuinely affecting interactions. Despite some seriously underwhelming dialogue, Bekmambetov’s underrated abilities with actors gives way to likeable, if not particularly multi-faceted characters and most of the acting staff appears to be having fun with the material. The biggest surprises are the scenes between Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays the rather thankless role of Mary Todd. They are shockingly believable as a couple moving throughout different phases of their relationship, despite a relatively brief runtime.
Bekmambetov has never been above exploiting a good digital gimmick, so I’m kind of surprised it took him until Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to mess around with the format. Besides the cash-in on popular historical mash-up literature, this film was sold heavily as a 3D experience, one I personally missed. This review pertains to the 2D Blu-ray release, which is presented in gorgeous 1080p video and 2.40:1 widescreen (1080/24p AVC). This film was shot using the RED system’s biggest competitor, Arri Alexa cameras. My non-expert eyes see more soft blending abilities in the RED system, while the Arri Alexa does a slightly better job exacting the look of 35mm film. Bekmambetov and Caleb Deschanel pull out all the stops in terms of digital capabilities – pulling focus, desaturating and super-saturating the colours accordingly, and embracing both the sharp and satiny possibilities of the format. I’m not entirely fond of Bekmambetov and Deschanel’s use of diffused glows (maybe they look cool in 3D?), but can’t say they do anything to sully the clarity of the image here. And when important, fine details and textures are very well represented without a hint of sharpening or enhancement effects. The basic palette is mostly divided by daylight and nighttime sequences, though the entire movie is pretty dark. Daytime is cast in desaturated browns with similarly dulled reds and greens. These hues are properly supported by deep, hard-lined blacks and the aforementioned diffused whites, and every once and a while, by a nice, smooth, blue highlight. The night sequences are usually a mix of rich blue and the oranges leftover from the daylight sequences. In one particularly cool moment, a trap is set and the palette literally changes from orange to blue and back to orange as the fight is instigated and completed. Flashbacks tend to be more stylized, including an incredibly blurry-along-the-edges look at Lincoln’s childhood and a duotoned (green and orange) look at Henry Sturges’ tragic back-story, neither of which reveal any major digital noise or compression artefacts.
If Bekmambetov’s comparatively cheap Russian releases feature incredibly rich and aggressive digital surround sound mixes, one can only assume that the healthily budgeted (though still comparatively modest) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will sound spectacular. This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix doesn’t disappoint. This track features quite a bit of dynamic range without ever sacrificing a channel of the mix, including subtle ambience to maintain the illusion of immersion during the important lower-impact moments. It is, of course, the bigger blasts of sound that will delight most listeners and many of these are demo disc-worthy. Nice examples of the more aggressive sound include a training regiment in a blackened room, the room-filling sound of a bellows Abe uses to burn the hell out of an unnamed vampire, the multi-channel horse stampede battle, a handful of Civil War sequences, dozens of extremely loud vampiric roars and abstract supernatural sounds that create unexpected stereo and surround flourishes. The climactic train sequence alone is a master class in modern sound design. Henry Jackman’s score is par for the action/horror course, but the familiarity makes sense for the material and is given the proper dynamic and directional support throughout. The music often lies quietly on the track, waiting to spring a jump scare cue, but also features some large blasts during action-heavy moments. These threaten to muddy the already noises sequences, but never overwhelm the important dialogue or effects and never exhibit distortion. The LFE channel is given a huge boost anytime electronic drums and bass effects come into play.
The extras start with a solo commentary track from book writer/screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith. He starts off with an early warning that this is his first commentary track, in hopes of covering some of his commentating shortcomings. He’s not a bad commentator; at worst, he spends a bit too much time describing the on-screen action, rather than explaining the behind the scenes process. He’s most comfortable discussing his part writing the film, including his inspirations and surprising adherence to historical fact, but obviously paid attention throughout production (despite working on Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows as well) to let fill his audience in on some basic details. He’s also good at crediting Bekmambetov and the producers with story elements where such credit is due, and finds good places to insert personal stories without moving too far from on-screen descriptions. Most telling are his descriptions of the very messy screenplay, which didn’t feature a villain or climax until well into pre-production.
The Making of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (1:15:20, HD) is divided into five parts – Dark Secrets: Book to Screen, which covers selling the book to the producers before it was even written and adapting it to film; On Location: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which covers location shooting, cinematography and production design; Vampire Hunting: Fight Choreography, The Art of Transformations: Make-Up Effects, and A Visual Feast: Timur Bekmambetov’s Visual Style. Interview subjects include Bekmambetov, Grahame-Smith, producer Jim Lemley, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, producer Tim Burton, production designer Francois Audouy, producer/production manager John Kelley, set decorator Cheryl Carasik, costume designers Carlo Poggioli and Varvara Avdyushko, reenactment coordinator Christopher A. Petro II, Civil War reenactor Dave Sullivan, stunt coordinator Mic Rogers, fight choreographers Don L. Lee and Igor Tsay, property master Guillaume DeLouche, make-up department head Fionagh Cush, make-up artists Steven E. Anderson and Elvis Jones, storyboard artist Indar Dzhendubaev, effects supervisor Michael Owens, and actors Benjamin Walker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jimmi Simpson, Anthony Mackie, Rufus Sewell, Erin Wasson, Alan Tudyk and Dominic Cooper.
Next up is The Great Calamity (7:40, HD), a computer animated short (it’s listed as a ‘graphic novel,’ but it moves a whole lot better than a motion comic) that parallels the events of the film. Here, Honest Abe is told the story of Elizabeth Báthory (via Joseph Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla) by none other than Edgar Allan Poe, in perhaps an understated bit of synergy with Fox’s other 2012 historical/supernatural mash-up – The Raven. The disc is completed with a Linkin Park music video, a trailer, and trailers for other Fox releases.
My anticipation levels for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter were about as low as could be expected, based on the silliness of the concept, but I was more than willing to embrace the silly concept, especially since director Timor Bekmambetov was involved. In the end it seems that silliness was not the problem – the problem is lack of real identity that makes for a surprisingly dull movie. Perhaps a bit more Bekmambetov and a bit less costume drama would’ve worked. Oh well. Anyway, this disc looks and sounds great (assuming you’re all right with a heavily digitally augmented image) and the extras cover quite a bit of ground throughout a feature-length commentary and behind the scenes documentary.
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 23rd October 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish and French
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Writer's Commentary, The Making-Of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Animated Graphic Novel, Music Video, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson
Genre: Action, Adventure and Horror
Length: 105 minutes
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