Friday, 28 June 2013

Letterboxd: ABRAHAM LINCOLN - VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012), THE NAKED GUN 2½ - THE SMELL OF FEAR (1991) & SIGHTSEERS (2013)

Friday, 28 June 2013
I fear for our children's sense of the world, when crap like ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER teaches them the 16th President of the United States slaughtered the undead with an axe in his spare time. The poor tykes already believe the Apollo space program was an excuse to search for an extra-terrestrial robot, according to a TRANSFORMERS sequel. If you're going to churn out these 'what if?' scenarios, I prefer fiction mixing with fiction. That's the sole reason the long-gestating PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES doesn't bother me as a similarly insane concept.

Seth Grahame-Smith, the ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER screenwriter adapting his own book, also penned the aforementioned Jane Austen mashup, so he's clearly one of those people whose creativity only stretches to chimeras. And if you're going to do that, you really need to know your stuff and have something refreshing to bring to the equation—just ask comic-book maestro Alan Moore, who's dabbled with this sub-genre in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and LOST GIRLS.

Timur Bekmambetov is the director tasked with bringing Grahame-Smith's idea to life, and does so in the manner you expect from the "visionary" behind superficially flashy movies like NIGHT WATCH, DAY WATCH, and WANTED. He's the Kazakh version of Zak Snyder, only less interested in crafting something of dramatic worth. (I'm not a complete Snyder apologist, but you do get the sense he wants to be better than he is.)

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER lives up to its ludicrously prosperous title. You expect to see Abe Lincoln killing creatures of the night in 19th-century garb, and that's exactly what happens. Lincoln's already an iconic figure visually (given his gaunt face, tall height, thin build, beard, and stovepipe hate), so this film adds an axe drizzled in vampire-poisoning silver. I can see the appeal of concocting a crazy alternate history where Abe's mother was killed by a vampire, leading him to becoming the protégé of a vampire slayer (Dominic Cooper), and swearing to eradicate the undead while simultaneously rising up the political ladder. It doesn't really work, of course. The film treats Lincoln's politics as an afterthought, so it's oddly bizarre when the phase of the film begins where an older Abe's in the White House with his wife (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And then it just gets a little insulting to all the soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg. There's a way to do these alternate-universe films, and I prefer the heightened impertinence of Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS over this god-awful X meets Y mess.

Bekmambetov's skills boil down to an ability to create images, perfect to lure people in via a well-cut trailer, but there isn't much in this movie that works even on that level. There's an action sequence where Lincoln fights a vampire in the midst of a stampede of wild horses, that ultimately proves ludicrous and distancing once Abe's surviving having horses flung at him. A climax with a high-speed steam train crossing a wooden bridge that's ablaze is much better, but good luck caring about anything that's happening on an emotional level. The film's only merit is populating itself with vampires that appear genuinely scary (albeit with CGI-assisted jaws), although some of the supernatural lore didn't impress me. Vampires that can also turn invisible? Too much. And why, after making it clear in a flashback that vampires physically can't kill their own kind, do we get a 'vampire vs vampire' climax where that limitation doesn't seem to be an issue? I really hate films that forget their own internal logic.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is forgettable tripe that turned a profit because, as the best-selling novel's unfortunately proved, there's a market out there of people who'll buy anything with a crazy title. An attention-grabbing title is the new 'outrageous video cover artwork'.


I recall THE NAKED GUN sequel being a lesser film than the original, but still funny overall. Now with two decades distance from first watching THE NAKED GUN 2½: THE SMELL OF FEAR as a teenager, I was surprised by just how much weaker it is.

The plot this time is somehow even more simplistic than before, with wheelchair-bound scientist Dr Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths) due to give an important speech on America's energy policy, only to be replaced by an imposter employed to promote nasty fossil fuels. Lt Frank Drebin's (Leslie Nielsen) on the case, reacquainted with ex-girlfriend Jane (Priscilla Presley) along the way, facing off against oil baron Quentin Hapsburg (Robert Goulet), who'll benefit when his Meinheimer doppelanger tells President Bush (John Roarke) to shun green energy.

Almost everything about NAKED GUN is inferior to the fantastic original, although the drop in quality isn't too bad for the most part. It helps that there are still some very funny moments and a handful of inspired sequences and gags, but the story is much less interesting; while the rekindled romance between Frank and Jane just doesn't have much appeal, and OJ Simpson's role is expanded. This is a movie that has dropped in my estimation, which was worrying to realise, and particularly suffers from a climax that's too small-scale—especially compared to the fun baseball game that ended THE NAKED GUN in a rousing manner. This sequel ends and you're almost surprised the credits are rolling.

Taken as a stream of hit-and-miss jokes, more gags hit their targets than not, and NAKED GUN 2½ is unquestionably superior to every contemporary spoof you care to mention. It's just noticeable how the first movie's plot and characters felt more substantial and rewarding. THE NAKED GUN 2½ feels like a frail skeleton on which to hang all the jokes they didn't have time for the first time around.


Ben Wheatley's third film continues his exploration of quintessentially English weirdness and damaged outsiders; but perhaps because SIGHTSEERS originated as a television project by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, it's his most accessible movie yet. That said, it still revolves around a thirty-something Midlands couple going on a caravan holiday around tedious parochial attractions, their hands quickly becoming stained with the blood of innocent public nuisances.

I've yet to sign up to Ben Wheatley's growing fan club, although I can see he has talent and appreciate his dedication to a very British milieu. I just find the characters he directs to be almost impossible to feel much sympathy for, and that's a particular problem in SIGHTSEERS because Chris (Oram) and Tina (Lowe) are so resolutely dull and dislikeable I didn't take much pleasure in their odd relationship.

More importantly for a film with this concept, I didn't feel any vicarious pleasure in seeing them kill people... because nobody ever 'had it coming'. A fat litterbug and a middle-class man upset about dog crap? It wasn't enough to have me secretly hoping to see Chris and Tina deal out some brutal justice. This is no FALLING DOWN, in other words. Neither is it the hybrid of HEAVENLY CREATURES and NUTS IN MAY that it could have been with better writing.

When deaths do come in SIGHTSEERS, at least they're unflinchingly portrayed and the repercussions feel raw and unpleasant. Wheatley, to his credit, doesn't find much pleasure in any of the murders, and the final scene is beautifully poetic and abrupt. There are things to like in this well-observed tale, for sure, but it just wasn't deep enough for me. Or even that funny.

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