When a film explores a concept that sounds ridiculous on paper, people confer upon it the self-congratulating title of ‘unapologetic.’
More often than not, you’ll find filmmakers so keenly aware of their ridiculous premise that they feel the need to draw attention to it – whether it be through slapstick jokes or by constantly winking at the audience in one way or another. There is something about the practice that seems very much like making an apology; as if the filmmaker is saying ‘Look, we know it’s ridiculous, so just roll with it and we’ll have a good time.’
It’s the difference between Joel Schumacher’s Batman films and Christopher Nolan’s, or a Cameron Terminator film and the sequels that followed.
Timur Bekmambetov’s new film about the axe-wielding vampire hunter that would go on to become the sixteenth President of the United States looks like fun – but takes that fun very seriously, with no apologies to the audience as we saw first hand in a special preview of around thirty minutes of unfinished footage of the film.
Yep. That’s Abe’s top hat.
Last week author and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith was accompanied by the man who dons the top hat in the film – Ben Walker, as they came to Sydney with around half an hour of footage to show off.
The footage that we glimpsed saw Lincoln not as the immediately recognisable icon from the pages of history, but as a young man desperate to deliver justice upon the individual vampire that took his mother’s life. Not surprisingly, watching John Ford’s Young Lincoln formed part of Walker’s preparation for the film.
Having already played Andrew Jackson on Broadway in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (where the filmmakers saw him before casting him), it’s not surprising that he fits this role like a glove. There are shades of Christopher Reeve and Superman (1978) about his on-screen presence.
Anthony Mackie plays Will Johnson, Lincoln’s real-life valet.
The Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter footage was shown in two parts and presented by author of the original book, and screenwriter, Seth Graham-Smith. First up, material taken from the beginning of the film, and then a finale that was pretty spoileriffic for those lucky enough to see it on the day. Spoilers, sure, but totally worth it.
In the first montage of scenes, Lincoln comes under the sway of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) – who trains honest Abe in the art of vampire hunting – through a classic zero to hero montage, before sending him out into the world of stab, slash, chop, bury, and the quiet town of Springfield, where his first assignments await. He also meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is downright adorable, and Alan Tudyk’s Stephen A. Douglas, who looks great, no surprise to Whedonites there.
The hunting scenes introduce us to the realities of the blood-sucking undead of the nineteenth century of this particular world, and Seth Grahame-Smith‘s and Timur Bekmambetov’s take on the genre.
These realities – which include an increasing resistance to the once-damning sunlight over time, serve to make the vampires in the film more unassuming and, surprisingly, more dangerous than one might think.
No sparkles here.
Four score and…
Some of the confrontations we saw between Abe and the vampires were downright inspired and made all the more interesting by Bekmambetov’s unique eye for shooting action – which has the same visual flair as his 2008 action romp, Wanted.
Bekmambetov’s style translates very well to 3D. When the vampires jump out at you – they really jump out at you, and coupled with excellent creature design, (and with a few new vampire powers hitherto unexplored in previous films) you have a genuine response of fear – something very rare in a world saturated with True Blood and Twilight.
Surprisingly, the film was not shot in 3D, but was rather converted in post-production. This was surprising only because the 3D looked so very, very good – which is rare for any 3D conversion.
Grahame-Smith revealed that the film had been planned as a conversion long before shooting started, so that there was a conscious effort to frame subjects with that in mind.
Bekmambetov’s CG stylings also meant that a lot of the live-action filming was already designed around the 3D, making for some impressive special effects and some mind-twisting camera moves.
It’s not all CGI, however. Ben Walker explained that in addition to the exquisitely crafted period sets, he got very (literally) bloody making this film. He even revealed that the soon-to-be-famous axe-gun was a prop that actually fired, loving crafted by Kentuckian armourers. They even presented Walker with the knife that Lincoln had in his pocket the night he was assassinated – not a prop used in the film, but just to carry around – a testament to the level of authenticity that the film inspired in the crew.
In describing his approach to writing the story, author and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith explained that it was less about re-writing Lincoln’s life and more about filling in the gaps of that record, something that Walker concurred with. They’re both students of Lincoln, pouring out facts at any prompting.
In embracing the titular role, Walker even performed the Gettysburg Address for director Timur Bekmambetov and producer Tim Burton.
The film stays true to the historical timeline of events, whilst informing some of those well documented episodes with the never-before-seen vampirical context that historians have always been begging for.
The fight scenes are operatic, with dazzling camera moves.
When it came to the second piece of material, this focused on a major third act set piece, although not the absolute finale, Grahame-Smith assured us. If you’ve seen the footage of the burning train bridge in the trailer, you might be able to guess what we saw.
The result – truly epic. A fight sequence that twisted an turned, involving intimate moments and massive destruction, with both a flair for detail and a true sense of opera.
If you have read the book, fret not – the author explained that he penned entirely new scenes for the film, to the point where the third act of the story plays out very differently from his original novel, and Rufus Sewell plays an entirely new character, Adam.
From what we have been lucky enough to lay our eyes on, if you’re a fan of the any of the territory that the title of the film treads, then this film will give you more than enough to sink your teeth into.
- Adam Bustin
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter releases in Australia and New Zealand later this year on August 2nd. It’s released in the UK on June 20, Russia June 21, US on June 23, Hong Kong July 5 and poor old Germany has to wait till October 3.