Monday, June 25, 2012

Too Many Vampires

Over the weekend my wife and I saw two movies at the drive-in*: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Dark Shadows. Both vampire-based films, they combined them together as a double bill. Sadly, my review for both of them ends up a mediocre "meh."

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was a book by Seth Graham-Smith; I reviewed it last year. It was a pretty good book. However, upon hearing the plot line of the movie, I was a bit worried, because it didn't really seem to fit how the book itself progressed. In the book, the focus is on Abraham's pre-Presidency days, only converting to his role as commander in chief once the true nature of the Confederacy became clear. All of the summaries seemed to indicate that this was primarily a war movie, which didn't bode well for the most fun in the book, which was the Dracula-slayin'.

Well, thankfully, that's not the case--but, sadly, it's not much better, either. The movie splits the pre- and post-Presidency roughly in half, and everything more or less makes logical sense with how they did it. That said, the movie is an absolute mess. They try to cram as much as they can into as few scenes as possible, and things progress much too quickly to make much sense. Enemies appear out of nowhere, new weapons get crafted without the viewer's knowledge, and we can't care that much about any characters because they come and go to quickly (or they get so little screen time as to be superfluous.) And the climax of the film (spoiler alert) is a train wreck that seems to go on for about six hours and is the least exciting explosion in the history of film. 

And, of course, the movie takes itself waaaay too seriously. This is the sort of action/fantasy flick that can still be "serious" while offering a bit of well-crafted levity; sadly, this film is written with a remarkably somber tone. (To be fair, the book was also written this way, but it was written in such a manner that it made sense.) Since they took out all of the character development to add unnecessary explosions, you'd think they would also take the opportunity to make it what it really is: a slightly campy mashup of historical fiction and fantasy.

Of course, that's more or less what they did with Dark Shadows. I've never watched the amazingly shitty fantasy soap opera it was based off of, but I was at least aware of it. And I've always had a lukewarm appreciation for Tim Burton; while I find most of his movies to be visually stunning, the movies themselves are never quite right and I always leave feeling disappointed. And so it was with Dark Shadows. I was expecting a solid vampire story laced with humor and action. And while that's been provided, it does end up being an uneasy mix of culture-shock humor and deadpan pretentiousness. Also--more importantly--the plot is a mess. (Again, spoilers.) While the base story makes sense, we're supposed to care about who owns the fishing industry in a small Maine town? I get that it's a proxy for their competitive personalities and a frame for their overall conflict, but they spend an awful lot of time showing people doing fish-related activities for no reason.

None of the characters are set up properly, because there are too many of them and the movie isn't given enough time for us to do much with them. We are introduced to Victoria Winters at the start of the movie, and then she is effectively forgotten until the final scene. Likewise, Michelle Pfeiffer's character starts off promisingly, but then simply vanishes in importance once Angelique arrives. (Thankfully, once Angelique is introduced, her character is somewhat interesting and starts moving things along.)  A subplot about seeing the youngest child's mother in the form of a ghost is repeatedly revisited, but the resolution is cringingly unsatisfying and isn't worth the amount of screen time they devoted to it in the first half of the movie. (All that BS just to drop a chandelier on someone? Like that's some major thing?) And the final battle scene has more deus ex machinas than should be legally permitted. It's a huge letdown and there are so many logical missteps that it's actually somewhat embarrassing.

The movie operates best when it's trying to be humorous. The culture shock of spending two centuries in a box, and then our own culture shock of revisiting the early 70s, is done well (if a little too much). But, sadly, not enough of the movie is like this, and is largely a combination of the Tim Burton special: throw a bunch of half-formed but pretty ideas at the screen, and then let Johnny Depp (and/or Helena Bonham Carter) run around being creepy.

Neither of these movies are bad movies. But they are both very sloppy movies, and it's clear they were made to cash in on the current vampire craze. The fact that both were based off of existing property makes it a shame that they turned out poorly. I can't recommend either to see in a theater, but they'll be good enough for the Redbox or Netflix. (Or, better yet, read the book.)

*Yes, these still exist.

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