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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

There are a few movies that should have been amazing as soon as the title was cooked up. Alien Vs. Predator is one of those movies. Cowboys & Aliens is another. This week’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is yet another, but like those movies that came before, it fails to live up to its intriguing premise, though “fail” may not be a strong enough word. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is as incompetent as movies come. It does maybe a couple things right while it botches a couple hundred others. From the largest of problems to the tiniest of nitpicks, the film is so well rounded in its ineptitude that it’s almost kind of impressive. I’m not sure the filmmakers could make a worse movie if they tried.

The story begins in 1818 where a young Abraham Lincoln watches as his mother is murdered in the middle of the night by Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Years later, an all grown up and still angry Abe (Benjamin Walker) sets out to take his revenge. He soon learns, however, that Jack isn’t what he appears to be. He’s actually a vampire. After a bullet in the eye fails to kill him, it looks like he’s about to face certain death, but luckily, he’s saved by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) who begins to train him in the art of vampire hunting. He takes many out over the years, but as the nation continues to march towards Civil War, he decides to put down his axe and fight with words. His actions aren’t easily forgotten, though, and the vampires, including their leader Adam (Rufus Sewell), are coming for him.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a campy idea given a serious treatment, which may be its biggest problem. Though not impossible to make a serious movie with this subject, it’s undoubtedly the harder of the two paths to take. There won’t be many who approach the film looking for hard hitting drama or emotional highs and lows. Most will simply want to see Abe murder as many vampires as possible, a reasonable expectation given the title, but the film focuses more on family dynamic and character relationships than anything else, which wouldn’t be a bad thing had that focus not been so laughably misguided. The dialogue in the film consists of lines like, “Real power comes not from hate, but from truth,” which makes the characters come off like prophetic caricatures (the kind that only exist in screenplays). These lines aren’t carried out in jest, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, nor are the moments where Abe develops superhuman abilities like cutting down a tree in one swing.

There are a few humorous moments, like when Abe’s eventual wife, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) remarks how she thought he was an “honest” man, but moments like this are too on-the-nose to be effective. In fact, nearly every facet of the movie is like this. For instance, Abe’s eventual desire to free the slaves comes from numerous moments in his life where he witnesses the harm brought upon African Americans by their slave owners. The screenplay has to give him a reason to want to free the slaves, as if the fact that they’re not free isn’t enough. Another great example comes when the Civil War finally begins and the vampires decide to join the Confederates in their fight. But vampires are inherently evil; such a plot turn is unnecessary. The film goes to great lengths to make us care about or hate certain characters and its desperation is clearly evident.

Further proof comes when the filmmakers force in a late scene where Mary becomes angry at Abe for lying to her all these years about his vampire hunting hobby, which would be okay, maybe even dramatically interesting, had Abe not already told her earlier in the movie. It’s these kinds of egregious oversights that show the film’s lack of polish, though it’s really a small example when compared to its horribly choreographed fight scenes. For the majority of the movie, Abe does little but twirl his axe around while the vampires charge him. Once they get within proximity, he either kicks them or takes a swing. These scenes are filled to the brim with stylized techniques like slow motion, shaky cam and close-ups as he makes contact with his victim to hide the fact that what’s happening simply isn’t very interesting. A late scene on top of a train shows more promise, thought that too succumbs to similar deficiencies, like an excessive use of fog (and later smoke brought on by a fire) to mask its pathetic special effects.

There are a few moments that are so absurd as to be somewhat amusing, like when a vampire grabs the leg of a stampeding horse, swings it around and throws it at Abe, or when Abe’s sidekick Joshua (Jimmi Simpson) somehow manages to drift a horse drawn buggy, but they certainly don’t make up for a film so lousy it manages to elicit physical anger upon its completion. It should be near impossible to make such a terrible movie based on such an awesome title and idea, but somehow, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter manages it.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter receives 0.5/5


The Cabin in the Woods

I’ll be completely honest. I have no idea how to review The Cabin in the Woods. After struggling to come up with an opening that puts into perspective what the film is about without giving any key plot points away, I decided to just be upfront. Frankly, discussing even the most basic aspect of the plot is a spoiler and this is a movie that is best to walk into blind. The trailers, surprisingly enough in a day and age where everything is ruined in a short 30 second TV spot, have done a good job of keeping things mysterious and it’s best to keep it that way. The easy thing to say is that I absolutely adored The Cabin in the Woods and I rank it among the top two or three films of the year so far, but elaboration of why seems impossible. The typical movie critic plot synopsis paragraph follows. Let’s see how it goes.

The film follows a group of teenagers as they venture into a cabin in the woods where strange things begin to happen.

Although obvious, that’s about as deep as a responsible writer should go in explaining the movie’s plot. To go further would completely ruin the experience. When watching the film and taking notes, I jotted down the off kilter opening and planned on explaining why the place, time and characters that were present in it were so odd for a horror movie, but doing even that would take away from its impact. What the film does so brilliantly is set up a horror story that we’ve seen a dozen times, complete with your typical “dead teenager” horror movie characters like the jock, the slut, the stoner and the virtuous heroine, and then goes in a completely different direction. The Cabin in the Woods spoofs the construction of horror films by, well, constructing a horror film. That description may be a bit cryptic, but it will all make sense after you see it.

Some critics have been comparing The Cabin in the Woods to the first couple Evil Dead films. First of all (and most obviously), they both take place at a remote cabin in the woods. Where they compare more thematically and creatively is in the places they go and the things the characters do. Such a comparison is not unwarranted and may even be welcome by writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, who throw in what must be a dozen Evil Dead references, including one that they affectionately refer to as the “angry molesting tree,” but The Cabin in the Woods goes much further than Evil Dead ever did. If anybody tells you they saw coming the way the events in this movie transpire, they’re lying through their teeth.

The references to horror don’t stop at Evil Dead, though. Horror buffs will spot a plethora of them throughout, especially near the unspoken ending, and they encompass video games as well, like a hilarious sight gag pertaining to Valve’s hit Xbox 360 game, Left 4 Dead. I hesitate to list more because half of the fun is spotting these references (and only video game nerds like myself will notice the nods to the games), but it’s a major component to the fun.

It must be said that The Cabin in the Woods isn’t particularly scary because it utilizes the same tricks many other horror films do, but that’s precisely the point and in the context of the story, it makes sense. Things we may scoff at in other films are fondly used here to celebrate the horror genre while also pointing out just how stupid it can be. You’ll more often feel like smiling than shielding your eyes because of its clever skewering of horror movie clichés.

No horror fan should walk out of The Cabin in the Woods unpleased. It’s a love letter to them and the genre they love. It wears its adoration for the genre on its sleeve while also bringing it back to its roots and away from the steady stream of so called “torture porn” films that have invaded the theaters in recent years. It’s destined to go down alongside films like the aforementioned Evil Dead and the original Scream as a horror movie classic. It’s just that good. It’s not safe to talk about right now, so as not to deny moviegoers the right to see it as intended, but after a few weeks, when interested parties have already sat down with it, The Cabin in the Woods will be all that is talked about. See it now before it’s ruined.

The Cabin in the Woods receives 4.5/5


Silent House

The horror genre is quickly becoming a gimmick. It seems that actual scares don’t really matter, just so long as the film is shot in a quirky way. Found footage is all the rage these days, but for every solid Paranormal Activity, you have a Grave Encounters or The Devil Inside. Films are simply imitating others, riding their coattails if you will, rather than coming up with a new and interesting idea to gain exposure. This week’s Silent House isn’t a found footage film, but the point remains. The 88 minute movie is meant to look like it was done all in one take with zero cuts so the events occur in real time and the end result is a gimmick in search of a story.

The film begins with Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) sitting on some rocks near a creek outside of a rickety old house. She is there along with her father, John (Adam Trese), to fix the place up for sale, but once they get inside, she hears a noise coming from upstairs. Her father goes up to investigate, but then disappears. She later finds him bloody and bruised, but still breathing, so she begins to look for a way out. Unfortunately, the windows are boarded up (for no discernible reason), all the doors are locked and the one key that would let her out has mysteriously vanished.

Silent House is a remake of the 2010 Spanish film, La Casa Muda, and much of what was done in that film remains here. The one shot gimmick is ever present, the basic story remains the same and many of the scares are recreated practically down to the letter. Aside from the gimmick (both do a pretty good job of hiding probable cuts), the original film does everything better, which certainly doesn’t say much for Silent House given that the majority of its source material’s moments culminated in a bewildered “that’s it?”

Both do a good job of building suspense, but their eventual revelations are hardly frightening, which effectively makes those builds moot. Creepy little girl apparitions, slamming doors and an overused twist are clichéd and boring. The twist in question (which I will, of course, not give away) differs a bit in this movie from the original, but its unreservedness in its clue dropping, which include blatant musical cues and barely cryptic dialogue, make what is to come fairly obvious. What the two twists from each movie do have in common is that once they are revealed, they bring into question the legitimacy of everything you saw leading up to it. The specifics of what happens may be different, but the effect is the same: they don’t make sense.

Aside from its technical prowess (that one shot illusion sure is convincing), the biggest thing Silent House has going for it is its lead star. Elizabeth Olsen, who many claim was snubbed of an Oscar nomination for her powerhouse performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is very good here, even if the occasional tweak of her supposedly frightened face in close-up makes her look more constipated than afraid. She plays the perfect vulnerable girl and she manages to make us care about her, but a movie like this needs more than just a performance. It needs ideas. Without ideas, it becomes the same old song and dance we’ve sat through countless times. The horror genre is in trouble and needs fixing. Silent House is evidence enough of that.

Silent House receives 2/5


The Woman in Black

Sometimes I wonder how I’d react if I saw a ghost. Mind you, I don’t plan on seeing one any time soon. It’s just that characters in movies always seem to approach a paranormal encounter with curiosity. When they hear a strange noise or see a shadowy figure standing in the hall, they walk towards it with intent to decipher whatever mystery is behind the apparition’s presence rather than book it the hell out of there. Their intense interest is always a bit hard to swallow—I’d be willing to bet the majority of people would choose the latter option over the former—but The Woman in Black takes that disbelief to a whole new level. If the interest of characters in other movies is a bit hard to swallow, watching The Woman in Black is like having a giant jawbreaker stuck in your throat. There’s nothing in particular keeping the protagonist of the film in the old, decrepit haunted house, just some paperwork he could easily pack up and take with him, but he stays there nonetheless and even dares to return after leaving. There are some chills to be had in The Woman in Black, enough that I have no problem recommending it, but its contrivances and liberal borrowing from the book of horror movie clichés will undoubtedly keep it from producing too many nightmares.

The film stars Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who is sent off to a remote village in London to settle the legal affairs of a recently deceased woman. However, when he arrives, he learns the legend of the Woman in Black, a vengeful spirit who takes the life of a child whenever she is seen in retaliation for the death of her own son years ago. Odd things begin to happen, turning skeptics into believers, and Arthur decides it’s his duty to stop her from striking again.

Like many ghost movies, The Woman in Black hasn’t an original thought in its head. If you’ve seen a good amount of similar films, you’ve seen this one. There’s fog, creepy looking dolls, ghostly reflections, gothic architecture, eerie paintings, cobwebs, creaky floorboards, random birds flying out of nowhere, ominous footsteps from the upstairs hallway and, of course, jittery townspeople who know more than they are letting on. And that’s only the beginning of a list that would undoubtedly bleed over into multiple pages if someone were to take up the daunting task of tallying them off. However, The Woman in Black uses them well. It combines them to an effective degree and the early moments, where it’s more about quick glimpses and what you don’t see rather than what you do, will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

Those early moments remind very much of classic chillers like 1961’s The Innocents or the George C. Scott film, The Changeling. It’s minimalism at its finest, using very little to achieve a maximum effect. Unfortunately, The Woman in Black is one of those movies that gets progressively worse as it goes on. It gets far too showy for a picture that initially relied so heavily on the unseen. Those quick, far off glimpses eventually turn into detailed, close-up stares and though the design of the apparition is top notch and frightening, you can never shake the feeling that the film lost faith in itself and decided to amp up the spectacle in fear of losing its audience.

A feeling of disappointment lingers on after the credits roll, but those early images will be stuck in your head for days, and that’s precisely why The Woman in Black is worth seeing. It doesn’t live up to its full potential and it certainly doesn’t redefine the genre, but it will make you glance over your shoulder the next time you’re walking down the hallway and, as far as horror movies go at least, that’s an impressive accomplishment.

The Woman in Black receives 3/5


The Devil Inside

A lot of people these days criticize mockumentaries and “found footage” films. I’ve always been one of their defenders. I think the style allow for more realism. Conventional horror movie techniques are overshadowed in favor of simple, subtle frights, not exaggerated violence and “Boo!” scares. After watching The Devil Inside, though, I’m quickly changing my tune. This subgenre of film has presented only a small number of tricks and after The Blair Witch Project, The Last Exorcism, REC and three Paranormal Activity films, I think we’ve just about seen them all.

The story of The Devil Inside revolves around a young woman named Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) who wishes to know whether her mother (Suzan Crowley), who was institutionalized after murdering three people years ago, is simply crazy or possessed by the devil (take a guess which one it is). So she employs the help of two Catholic priests-in-training named Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) who agree to let her and her documentary filmmaker film them as they perform an exorcism without the church’s permission.

Of course, that begs the question, why in the world would they do that? As the film so kindly points out, performing an exorcism without the church’s permission is grounds for excommunication, but they let them keep right on filming anyway. “All media coverage is banned,” one of the priests even says as they drive to perform an exorcism while the documentarian lugs his camera around, as if a documentary is somehow more acceptable. It’s a lapse of logic so huge that it’s impossible to get past. Watching this movie is like watching someone accidentally walk into a glass door, pause for a second and then do it again. You can’t help but throw your hands up and laugh at what I feel I can safely say is the most poorly planned out movie I’ve seen in years.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Paramount Pictures snatched up the rights to this movie with the hopes that it would turn into their next Paranormal Activity. There are clearly hints of that film (and about a dozen others) in this one, but there’s a difference between using it as inspiration and simply riding its coattails. The Devil Inside clearly does the latter. One can’t help but get the sneaking suspicion that if horror mockumentaries hadn’t gained so much popularity over the last few years, this never would have been made. In a strange way, it makes all the great movies that have come before seem redundant.

Think of your five favorite foods in the world. Then think about blending them together and choking them down. So much good has suddenly become bad. The Devil Inside is kind of like that. It begins like the brilliant Australian horror mockumentary, Lake Mungo, complete with talking heads and back story akin to an actual documentary. It’s also very much like the aforementioned Paranormal Activity, with a number of cameras set up during the actual exorcisms, so as to provide fresh perspectives. At times, it even reminds of the underrated sequel, The Exorcist III, during its dialogue heavy asylum scenes. But whereas all three of those movies are great, The Devil Inside is garbage. Lake Mungo actually had an interesting story to tell with plot turns and an interesting twist. At 77 minutes without credits, this barely has a story at all and it offers no surprises. Paranormal Activity was all about minimalism and letting your imagination do all the scary work. This throws its supposed frights in your face. The dialogue in The Exorcist III was gripping and thought provoking. The Devil Inside was written by the same guys who wrote Stay Alive, which should be all I need to say about that.

If that’s not enough, you have story points that are said in passing, but never explored, like Ben’s haunted past involving the death of, I don’t know, someone and contrived scene set-ups, like when a parent says they needed to move their possessed daughter into the basement for no other reason I could ascertain than because it’s dark, decrepit, scary looking and a perfect fit for a horror film. Its worst offense, however, is its inability to maintain the documentary illusion. This thing uses film techniques that simply aren’t feasible in actual documentaries. Most of the time, it’s small things that most people won’t notice, like a sequence of shot reverse shots where the camera operators would have to be sharing the same space to pull off without time skips, and other times it’s something stupidly obvious, like a long shot that suddenly jumps forward to the object or person in the distance without missing a beat.

The Devil Inside is horribly sloppy. It feels like a college video project, with actors that only strengthen that feeling, and it’s entirely ineffective. If it had come out a week ago, it would have easily made my worst of the year list. It may very well indeed make my list this year, but if it’s lucky, by the time the end of 2012 rolls around, I’ll have completely forgotten about it.

The Devil Inside receives 0/5