MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Quantum of Solace; Secret Beyond the Door




U. S.: Timur Bekmambetov, 2012 (20th Century Fox)

 2012 I

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a movie of almost stupefying idiocy — though not enough, unfortunately, to make it funny, or even to make it stupefyigly amusing. With a straight face, this hopelessly ridiculous movie suggests (tongue-in-cheek, of course) that history’s beloved 16th American president, in the spare time lhe had eft over from running the country and fighting the Civil War,  not to mention abolishing slavery, had a secret life in which he pursued vampires with a huge silver ax with James Bond “hidden gun” gimmicks, and chopped their heads off.

Vampires, it seems, had killed Abe’s mother and infested America, especially the South, where they lived in bloody plantation mansions, ate their slaves, were in cahoots with Jefferson Davis, and supplied most or all of the Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg — which was won by Abe when he smelted and sent over enough silver bullets to kill the vast companies of the undead, just in time for the little speech he scribbled down for the occasion.

More shocking revelations await. The ax-swinging Abe Lincoln (played very soberly and seriously by Benjamin Walker) — who stole his future wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from talkative senator Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) — used to stroll around Springfield and elsewhere, waving his ax and looking for action. And he was schooled in vampire detection and demolition by the legendary Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who picked Abe up in a bar, taught him how to wield his weapon and eventually revealed his own terrible secret. (No, not that terrible secret. Another one.)

Unfortunately, Henry’s name has been lost to conventional history, as have the names of Abe’s two closest Washington advisors (revealed here), his boyhood freed-slave pal Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and his old general store boss Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson). Both of them  took over all presidential counselling duties when the entire Cabinet and the White House staff were apparently fired (or revealed as vampires) by Abe shortly into his first term. So too have vanished the names (accursed be their memories!) of Abe’s principal scourges in the world of the quick and the undead: fancy-dan vampire muckety-muck Adam (Rufus Sewell), his dominatrix-clad cohort Vadoma (Erin Wasson) and the evil mother-murdering minion Jack Barts (Martin Csokas).  And as  Abe’s might have vanished too, had he not been sold to us, as he is here, as a fellow who ran around waving and twirling axes like nunchucks. decapitating people, rescuing prostitutes, leaping across the backs of a stampeding herd of horses, or fighting supernatural bad guys in a runaway train full of vampire-slaying silver bullets, while barreling over exploding bridges — or any of the other asinine things screenwriter Grahame-Smith and director Bekmambetov have dreamed up for him to do.

I didn’t read the book — and believe me, I never will — but it seems to me that the only way you could possibly make an entertaining show out of a title and a concept as dumb as this, is to do it as a five minute sketch for “Saturday Night Live,” maybe starring Will Ferrell as Lincoln, Tina Fey as Mary Todd Lincoln and Adam Sandler as Adam, the vampire. Get in and get out, fast. Unfortunately the people who made Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — including Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the novel, which probably makes him a repeat offender), most of the actors, and especially director Bekmambetov (who directs this movie the way this movie‘s Abe Lincoln fights the Battle of Gettysburg) — seem to either lack a sense of humor or to have temporarily mislaid it, or to have decided that making a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is enough of a joke for one year.

Despite the seemingly golden comic potential of  the grotesque and dopey things I’ve synopsized, much of the movie is actually played straight, ruinously straight — just like your average clichéd bad action movie, interspersed with gaudy action scenes. And Walker plays Abe mostly straight too — as straight as you can play a two fisted, rail-splitting, vampire-bashing Great Emancipator who every once in a while dashes off something like The Gettysburg Address before hopping aboard another train and chopping off another head. Think of Stallone or Schwarzenegger in a black stove pipe hat and fringe beard, muttering “Four Score and six years ago… No, four score and seven…” and you’re closet to an entertaining movie than anything you get here.

I like Tim Burton. But he really drove a stake through his own heart when he decided to make a movie out of this ridiculous material.  And he nailed up his own coffin, rolled it uphill, and threw it into an active volcano when he hired Bekmanbetov (the other Tim) to direct. Bekmanbetov’s previous movies — the Russian horror hits Night Watch and Day Watch — were not exactly laugh riots, but at least they held your attention. I wanted to walk out of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, almost as soon as I walked in, and it was that deadening sobriety that ruined the movie for me. Lincoln: Hunter actually tries for a mixed tone at times, part serious, part jokey, a mashup of Masterpiece Theater and Shock Theatre, but it’s awful anyway. There wasn‘t one funny joke in the entire show and if there was and I missed it, and well Hell, Abe, what can I say, I’m sorry. But you see, Grahame-Smith left all the punch-lines for the critics.

The whole movie is nervous and over-loud and expensive-looking, full of tacky jump-at-you 3D effects; and watching it sometimes makes you feel as if the country was under attack by a conspiracy of blood-sucking imbeciles. The soundtrack is a din of iniquity. This has been a bad time, in some ways, for literature or history in movies. This ludicrous show gives us the great Abraham Lincoln reduced to a Nicolas Cage pick-up role in an action-horror monstrosity. The Raven put Edgar Allan Poe through the serial killer wringer. (The Ra7en?) In the nauseating Anonymous, director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff gave credence to all those inane snob theorists who think Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written his own plays because he wasn‘t rich or toney or aristocratic enough. He was too ordinary, too human (too Shakespearean?) — so it must have been somebody posh, like Edward De Vere, The Earl of Oxford. And I won’t even mention what others have done to Sherlock Holmes. As for Grahame-Smith, his literary leg-up to this cinematic coup was a successful commission to write something called “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” which led him to “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” which may open the door for “David Copperfield and the Living Dead,” for “Andrew Jackson: Werewolf of Washington,” for ” War and Peace and the Wolf Man,” for “George Washington: RoboCop,” or perhaps for “Hamlet and Grover Cleveland Meets Frankenstein.” (Eat your heart out, Kenneth Branagh.)

I suppose we should be happy that some moviemakers and moviegoers are reading, or at least thinking about reading, or going to movies that are about books that were once read. But I refuse to believe the ugly rumor that everything signed recently by Seth Grahame-Smith was actually written (and hidden away in a castle) by the Earl of Oxford. The stuff isn’t aristocratic-sounding

enough. And the Earl of O., I here, never carried an ax.


Quantum of Solace (Also Blu-ray)  (Three Stars)

U.K.-U.S.; Marc Forster, 2008 (MGM)

Quantum of Solace, eh?

The first James Bond picture I saw was Goldfinger,” uring its first national release, at the Orpheum Theater in Madison Wisconsin. The theater was packed from stem to stern, and the audience, many of them probably University of Wisconsin students like me, was alive to the movie — to every crinkled smile and steely quip of Sean Connery as 007, to every cliffhanger and laser-to-the-crotch that threatened him. That movie connected with the crowd like few shows I’ve ever seen. Goldfinger knocked me out back then — because of the intense audience response, but also because it was exciting and funny. (Remember that last word.) I‘ve never had that juicy a ride with any 007 bash since, though The Spy Who Loved Me came close.

Now, on to the most recent Bond on my dance card: Quantum of Solace. (The title comes from an otherwise unrelated Ian Fleming short story.) It has a good director (Marc Forster of The Kite Runner), good or semi-good writers (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade of three previous Bonds and, more impressively, Paul Haggis of Million Dollar Baby and Crash). And it’s one of the biggest grossing Bonds ever. But truth to tell, it didn’t do as much for me as Goldfinger — or for the spotty 10:30 a.m. crowd with whom I first saw it.

It‘s not bad. It‘s certainly formula Bond. Daniel Craig’s new, more sullen Bond beds the tart, bossy Camille (Olga Kurylenko), while pursuing her nefarious lover, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), owner of the duplicitous Greene Planet, an eco-corporation that’s actually a criminal enterprise, and winds up foiling a Bolivian water swindle. Given its goals — aesthetic, commercial and otherwise, Quantum is a success. Craig has clearly sealed the deal as the new Bond, grimmer and less bemused than Connery (still the best, in my “Goldfinger“-gilt mind), but capable of leaping from rooftop to rooftop and displaying casual sadism like few spy-killer-loverboys you could name.

Yet, despite strenuous efforts in  the Bourne Identity vein, it’s not as entertaining as the second Casino Royale, Goldfinger or, for that matter, From Russia, With Love, which is the movie I would advise the designated writers to watch carefully, again, before embarking on their next Bond script.

The 1963 From Russia, With Love was the favorite Bond film of writer Richard Maibaum, who wrote or co-wrote most of them from 1962’s Dr. No to 1989‘s Licence to Kill. (cq) Maibaum probably liked Russia so much because it gave him a formula and a franchise and a very good living for three decades. It was the movie that established the mode and style that made the movie series such a hit: a mix of the grim sadism and elegant wish fulfillment of Fleming‘s novels and the cool, inside humor that Maibaum and the others injected, and which Connery was so expert at delivering. (“Shocking!” Bond/Connery wryly says in Goldfinger’s opening scenes, right after electrocuting a foe.) Bond without humor is a hamburger without catsup, an Aston-Martin without steering, a gourmet dinner without wine, Abbott without Costello. The 007 crew rediscovered something interesting in the last “Casino“: the elitist sadism of the books. But humor is what makes the movie Bond tick. Remember Dick Maibaum.

Extras: Documentaries; Featurettes; Vignettes; Trailers; Music videos.



U.S.; Fritz Lang, 1947 (Olive/Paramount)

Fritz Lang” classic 40’s film noirs, including masterpieces like Scarlet Street and Hangmen Also Die,  tend to be a little  moody and crazy — and one of the moodiest and craziest of them all is 1947’s Secret Beyond the Door, an ultra-weird psychological thriller starring Michael Redgrave and Lang’s favorite ‘40s femme fatale, Joan Bennett. The movie has one of the strangest premises of any Lang film since his often bizarre ‘20s silent melodramas; it sometimes plays as if Hitchcock’s Rebecca had been re-imagined, with Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter not as a brooding romantic but as  a loony, but possibly curable, psychopath and possible murderer. (To tell the truth, that’s closer in some ways to what Daphne du Maurier originally wrote.)

Bennett plays a beautiful heiress, but also a tougher cookie than Rebecca’s Joan Fontaine. In Lang’s movie, she is seduced by Redgrave’s arty magazine publisher/editor/author while on a Latin American holiday, and brought back as the new bride to a mansion seemingly haunted by Redgrave’s late wife, but plagued as well with his bizarre obsession with recreating in his own home the rooms where famous murders were committed. Redgrave’s strange household includes later black list victim  Anne Revere (as a sort of non-menacing Judith Anderson equivalent) and Barbara O‘Neill. The evocative score and cinematography are by Miklos Rosza (The Killers) and Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter). This is the sort of movie that triumphs over its script — by Sylvia Richards from a story by mystery specialist Rufus King — if you let it. Lang is really in his element, even if the story is kind of mad.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon