Friday, August 31, 2012

There’s More Than One Railroad

Next week at Fantasy Matters, we will be featuring a number of pieces on vampires.  We thought we'd get things started early this Friday with Mark Schelske's review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Mark already reviewed the book for us earlier this summer, so this time, he tackles the movie.  But be warned--he pulls no punches, so if you want to avoid spoilers, beware.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a triumphant movie.  Literally.  The audience gets a taste of what the stakes (no pun intended) are at Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War.  This climax is a complete rewrite of the book, and I liked it.  The movie introduces Adam (also not in the book) as the vampire villain and he turns out to be the father of all vampires.  After Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the movie ends with Abraham and Mary Todd leaving the White House for Ford’s Theater.  But this is where the movie ends.  The audience does not see his assassination.  The movie cuts out the book’s villain, the vampire John Wilkes Booth, as if to reinforce the triumph of Gettysburg.  What a splendid end.

All my life I’ve seen Lincoln as a depressing story with the death of his mother, the death of his first love, the death of his child, the death of soldiers, and ultimately his own death by assassination.  Yet in this movie, Lincoln avenges his mother, falls for Mary Todd as if she’s the only love of his life, then Mary Todd avenges the death of her son, the soldiers are victorious over vampires, and John Wilkes Booth is completely ignored.  It’s enough to drive any historian to the grave, but for me it came across as a most welcome fantasy. 

In the review of the book I point out my failure to find the narrative as funny, but in the movie the whole theater laughed when Lincoln meets his life long friend Speed in Springfield, Illinois.  I forget what Speed said, but his description of his hometown was something like, “This is an odious place to live.”  That may not sound funny to you, but when you’re watching the movie in Springfield, Illinois ...

I live in an area that’s called “The Land of Lincoln.”  Just over a half hour drive from Jacksonville, where I live, is Springfield, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln practiced law before his election as the 16th President of the United States in 1860.  The entire tourism trade of Illinois’s state capital is based on Lincoln’s life.  There is the Old State Capitol where Lincoln argued cases, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, the train station where he gave his farewell address to Springfield, the Lincoln Tomb, and, of course, the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Presidential Library.  Fantasy Matters readers will love the “Ghost In The Library” holograph show in the museum.  You can get to town by airplane flight landing at ... the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.

And though I’m not a Lincoln scholar, I’ve picked up many tidbits over the years.  The most important of which is that Gettysburg is absolutely critical in the Civil War.  And in this movie the vampires make a pact with Jefferson Davis and join the fight.  Union troops are being slaughtered.  But in a major shift of vampire lore, the wooden stake is replaced with silver.  Thus Lincoln has all the silver in Washington D.C. melted down, but he needs to get it to the troops at Gettysburg to defeat the vampire rebels.  The train to Gettysburg carrying all that silver is attacked by the vampires.  Yet, the vampires are deceived.  All they find are rocks.

When Will (the fictitious friend of Abraham Lincoln) says to Adam (the father of all vampires) that there’s “more than one railroad,” he is referring to the Underground Railroad which smuggled slaves out of the South.  How fitting that the emancipated slaves prove to be the pivotal and unseen actors in the Union’s victory at Gettysburg, just as the vampires are the unseen menace who drive slavery.  Brilliant.

I felt an initial disappointment when the movie version skipped Lincoln’s formative period in New Salem.  A full hour from my home is Lincoln’s New Salem, a recreated community full of log cabin structures: houses, school/church, stores, and mills.  Volunteers dress in period clothing and give tours of each structure.  In October there’s even a candlelight evening event.  Can you imagine a place in the woods with no artificial light?  A perfect setting for vampires.  And this is the place in the book version where Lincoln met his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Nearby is the town of Petersburg which has signs pointing you to her gravesite.  Their true relationship, which historians question, is an excellent set-up for Lincoln’s heart to be broken by a vampire killer.  Yet the film focused on Lincoln’s love for Mary Todd, and it worked.  The movie does not acknowledge all kinds of historical facts, the most obvious being Abraham and Mary Todd having more than one child.  However, the movie just skips over these facts rather than rewriting them, so it works.

I strongly believe the thirty-five percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is unjustified.  And I am disappointed the movie only grossed $16.3 million on its opening weekend.  The July 6th Entertainment Weekly notes the following:

The R-rated film adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular novel was co-written by Grahame-Smith himself.  Unfortunately, it became the writer’s second bloodsucker-themed effort this year (after Dark Shadows) to underperform at the box office.

For my two cents, I think Grahame-Smith exceeded the creativity in his Lincoln book and wrote a fantastic script.  I expect a good fantasy to transport me from reality, and oh did this movie do that.  What an ingenious way to give the emancipated slaves a role in defeating the vampire rebels at Gettysburg.

Moreover, after all that focus on the assassination of Willie, who wouldn’t want to see Mary Todd take a gun and blow the vampire killer’s brains out.  That’s the essence of fantasy, and this movie is packed with it.  Much more so than the book.

With Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter there’s more than one railroad, and there’s also more than one way to tell an exciting story.

By Mark Schelske