Last Sunday, after publishing my article on President Barack Obama’s ideological influences, my wife April and I caught a matinee of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, a traditional family film you shouldn’t miss. Today, having swallowed last night’s bitter pill, I really want to go back and watch it again. The film’s fantasy — to bring your best friend back to life — speaks to a need many of us feel today as we recognize the America of years past no longer exists. We are not a “center-right” nation any more.
The black and white, stop-motion film remakes an early Burton short of Frankenstein reinvented into ’50s suburbia. Clever references to classic horror abound from the visual style to the characters’ names and designs. Victor, Burton’s adolescent alter ego, spends his days shooting amateur monster movies in his back yard with his dog Sparky. He’s an oddball amongst the picket fences and perfect lawns but he has his loving dog and a drive to create.
Then Sparky dies and Victor’s life collapses.
He goes to school, bored and depressed until his science teacher, a Vincent Price-inspired, Martin Landau-voiced Mr. Rzykruski, shows what happens to a dead frog with a few zaps of electricity. This moves Victor to attempt the dog-version of the classic 1931 Frankenstein sequence:
What if the American Civil War was not two conflicts, one settling the human rights questions presented in the Declaration of Independence and the other resolving federal versus state powers carved out in the Constitution, but three, the third being a war between living and undead states? Benjamin Walker stars in what has to be the most absurd, over-the-top Gothic horror action movie ever made, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, opening nationwide today. In this film’s alternative rendering of history, buried somewhere on the bloody battlefield of Gettsyburg is a silver fork bearing the initials “A.L.” that came from the White House via an unorthodox railroad, played a small part in driving back Pickett’s infamous charge, and helped usher in a new birth of living freedom in the United States.
As crazy as that sounds, the movie is crazier still. Vampire Hunter begins when the boy who would become our 16th president is about 10 years old. An encounter on an Indiana dock with an evil local business baron leads to the death of Lincoln’s mother, which in turn leads to young Abe’s discovery that vampires are real and one of them is his mother’s killer. These vampires are not the twinkly teen heartthrobs of Twilight. They are ravenous, evil monsters thriving in the antebellum American south to build themselves a slave empire. The peculiar institution of slavery provides the vampires with a captive population on which to feed, as well as build commercial and political wealth. Young Abe, already turned abolitionist by his mother’s anti-slavery beliefs and by his friendship with a free black boy named Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), becomes an axe-wielding action hero at first bent on avenging his mother’s death, and later on eradicating slavery itself to break the power of the vampire empire. Abe meets Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a mysterious man who saves him from a vampire, offers to train Abe in killing what is already dead, and provides him with targets upon whom to wield his trusty, silver-edged axe.
Gothic design fetishist Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov team up to deliver the film adaption of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same title, which itself was a fun, page-turning romp that takes actual events in the life of Lincoln and drapes them in a massive layer of vampire violence and horror. The novel worked far better than it had any right to, and Graheme-Smith wrote the film, so it preserves the spirit of the novel quite well. Burton adds his larger-than-life design flair, and Bekmambetov brings bullet time effects, 3D blood splatters, flying decapitations and a visceral visual energy to the film, which never lets up once the killing starts. Quentin Tarantino would have a hard time surpassing the surreal level of violence that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter delivers, but with higher-minded dialogue and ideas driving the bizarre plot forward.