Talk about historical fiction. Fox has released the first atmospheric, action-packed trailer for its "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," a 3-D summer spectacle film starring relative newcomer Benjamin Walker as a very different incarnation of our venerable 16th president. The trademark beard and stovepipe hat are there, sure, but where in the history books did it say that young Lincoln was a strapping, ax-wielding action hero chopping down vampires with gusto?
The idea for this hodgepodge of history and horror sprang from the mind of Seth Grahame-Smith, a struggling screenwriter turned novelist whose 2009 book “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” sparked the trend of draping genre trappings over classic literature (“Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” “Android Karenina,” et al.). For his follow-up, Grahame-Smith reimagined the life of Lincoln through a B-movie lens, penning the manuscript for “Vampire Hunter” in just four months.
The book recounts roughly 45 years of Lincoln’s life, from about 1820 to 1865, tracing his evolution from a poor young man devastated by the loss of his mother, up through his burgeoning interest in politics, his presidency and his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. While the tale is rooted in factual history, it also posits the fantastic conceit that Lincoln’s secret crusade to drive blood-drinking monsters into extinction influenced nearly every important decision in his life.
In his quest, he finds an unlikely ally and companion in a mysterious man named Henry Sturges (portrayed on screen by Dominic Cooper), who helps him defeat the supernatural foes who seek to uphold the institution of slavery for their own despicable ends.
The film is directed by "Wanted" filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, and another fantastically minded soul, Tim Burton, is one of the movie's producers. Burton told The Times last year that he immediately sparked to the idea for the film as soon as he heard about the premise.
“Something hit me inside that said I just wanted to see that movie,” Burton said. “I don’t know why. I grew up on weird, perverse movies, and it just seemed like one of those kind of movies that just tapped into my subconscious. I remember going to the Cornell Theater in Burbank, where they’d do like three movies for 50 cents, and that would have been the kind of movie I would have seen there.”
As "Breaking Dawn" dominates the box office, cultural critics continue to offer all sorts of reasons for the trend, but few theories have the kind of bold novelty as the one suggested by Tomas Alfredson, director of the 2008 Swedish vampire pic "Let the Right One In."
"It does seem to be a subject that attracts people year after year," Alfredson mulled in a recent interview with 24 Frames. "I guess maybe it's the animalistic side of ourselves." Then he said, "I’ve always thought maybe there’s a connection between women and their periods, something that has been very taboo." He paused. "I can't exactly put words on it, but I've always wondered that."
Alfredson, who as we documented in a recent profile has a quirky and deliberate professional style that makes him a sort of Swedish Terrence Malick, returns to American cinemas this weekend with his follow-up, the John le Carré adaptation “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
When it comes to vampires, the filmmaker knows of what he speaks. Though he downplays his bona fides (he says he’s never seen “Twilight” or any other vampire films, save for a few Bela Lugosi movies in his childhood), “Let the Right One In” is among the most critically acclaimed of the current bloodsucker batch.
The movie became a well-regarded English-language film too, a coming-of-age story set in Reagan’s U.S. titled “Let Me In.” Alfredson wasn’t entirely thrilled with the notion of a remake — he questioned “reproducing stuff in another language” and added that he hadn’t seen it.
“I felt like I owned it and I possessed it, as one does when they create something," he said of his feelings when he learned of the film. "It felt a little too fast after my interpretation.” Then he added, reflectively, “You get childish with these things.”
Fans will get a chance to see Alfredson's work again with “Tinker Tailor.” We can only wonder with curiosity what his explanation might be for the popularity of the spy genre.
The fans who lined up over the weekend to see "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" — and there were a lot of them, considering that the fourth installment in the franchise adapted from Stephenie Meyer's bestselling young-adult novels raked in an estimated $139.5 million — witnessed some pretty radical upheaval in the lives of young Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire beau Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).
The couple marries, and during a romantic honeymoon getaway, they finally consummate their relationship. But Bella unexpectedly becomes pregnant and fights to carry the child to term, though the fetus is seemingly incompatible with her body.
To depict the great physical toll the pregnancy takes on Bella's body — she's unable to eat and essentially is withering away as her stomach swells — the "Breaking Dawn" filmmakers looked to Lola Visual Effects, the company responsible for downsizing muscular Chris Evans to a pre-transformation weakling in this summer's comic book superhero film "Captain America." The results are certainly eyebrow-raising, with Bella becoming increasingly pale and extremely gaunt.
"The idea was to leave you with a question mark about how they did it," said the film's director, Bill Condon. "We wanted you to think it was possible that Kristen actually lost a lot of weight for it."
The visual-effects team added prosthetics to Stewart's face (a process that took three hours of application) to make her eyes look more sunken and her ears larger. Stewart likened wearing the prosthetics to having a "big, skinny head" for the scenes. Still, the 21-year old actress was game for the transformation.
"I'm so happy that they were not afraid of it — to have your main character look so awful for half of the movie is a bold choice for a huge film," Stewart said. "It was the one thing I wasn't fully responsible for concerning Bella and it made me really nervous. I didn't know what it would look like until I saw the movie."
Francis Ford Coppola's 3-D vampire movie "Twixt" made its world premiere Sunday afternoon at the Toronto International Film Festival, giving audiences a look at how the celebrated director of "Apocalypse Now" and "The Godfather" transformed a booze-soaked dream into a very dream-like film.
The film stars Val Kilmer as a washed-up writer of books about witches and Elle Fanning as a young female vampire; its conceit came to Coppola in a vivid sleep he had while in Istanbul, after a night of imbibing the strong Turkish liquor known as raki.
Filmed close to Coppola's wine country stamping grounds in Northern California, in towns such as Guerneville and in Clear Lake County, "Twixt" is set in a place that is likely to please fans of "Twin Peaks."
Kilmer's Hall Baltimore is a "bargain-basement Stephen King" who's on a self-run book tour, with a box of novels and a case of whisky in the back of his station wagon. He comes to the town of Swann Valley, a strange little place inhabited by off-kilter characters, including Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern).
It was a bestselling book that's now a highly anticipated movie, but can "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," a story that has the 16th president exacting revenge on the vampires who killed members of his family, also be a teaching tool?
Anthony Mackie, who stars in next year's Fox film opposite Benjamin Walker, says the tale will contain plenty of nutritional value. "It's not so much fictional as it is a recontextualization of history," Mackie, who plays Lincoln valet and friend William Johnson, told 24 Frames. "There are actual moments and things that happened in the annals of time. Abraham Lincoln's friend William Johnson really was a freed man of color."
Like Seth Grahame-Smith's book, the movie -- which will be directed by Timur Bekmambetov and produced by Tim Burton -- assumes the existence of vampires in the 19th century as the nation was on the brink of Civil War. As the story progresses, we learn that the creatures have a sinister investment in keeping slavery legal. Lincoln's personal animus toward the vampires for what they did to his family drives him to hunt them down, a crusade he continues even from the White House as he pursues an abolitionist agenda.
"This movie will tell us what pre-Emancipation Proclamation America was like," Mackie said. "It puts you in a position where you want to go back and read a book about 1860-1925 America." (More on the up-and-comer, who stars as an angel with a conscience in this weekend's "The Adjustment Bureau," coming shortly.)
Mackie said that despite the whimsical premise, "Vampire Hunter" doesn't take the liberties with history that skeptics might expect. "It's not like Abraham Lincoln is going to have a top hat and dreadlocks. No, he's going to look like Abraham ... Lincoln."
The actor added that there a lot of misconceptions about how much the book was inspired by true events. "It's interesting reading the blogs, saying 'Look at this token thing -- they're going to put Abraham Lincoln with a black guy.' No you dumb ... one of his best friends was a black dude."
Mackie is set to shoot the movie shortly in New Orleans opposite his Juilliard classmate Walker, who plays Lincoln. While the film was, of course, conceived as entertainment, Mackie says he feels a responsibility to turn it into something more.
"We as entertainers have to make this stuff interesting," he said. "We have to give kids in the next generation a reason to go and do the work. Otherwise they wouldn't want to."
The commercial failure of "Let Me In" at the box office this weekend likely won't deter Hammer Films, the resurrected genre label that produced the picture, from pushing forward on several new movies.
The company has been mining its library and is still keen on reboots of several genre projects that could wend their way to screens.
Among Hammer's priorities at the moment are two other vampire films: "Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter," the story of a man who pursues vampires that are mysteriously stalking young women (the original was directed by "Avengers" television writer Brian Clemens) and "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires," an Eastern-flavored tale that starred monster-movie staple Peter Cushing and was released in this country as "The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula."
Hammer is also developing a movie based on the Professor Bernard Quatermass character, a principled scientist who must fight ominous alien forces, which figured into three of its movies as well as numerous BBC programs.
All three of these titles are in early development -- they're at the stage of locking down writers -- so don't expect them at the multiplex next month. Still, for the many cult fans of Hammer's genre catalog, the development momentum is encouraging news. Rights issues can bog down library remakes, and certainly have done that to Hammer's films, many of which have had complicated chains-of-title in the 35 years since Hammer was last active. But all legal snags have been removed for at least these three pictures, executives say.
The company, incidentally, also has several new, non-remakes in development, including Daniel Radcliffe's post-"Harry Potter" picture "The Woman in Black" and an Irish supernatural story titled "Wake Wood." There's also remake movement on "The Nanny," the little-seen Bette Davis horror movie, though that title is not as far along.
Hammer finds itself in an interesting but complicated position -- it holds rights to coveted titles that generate goodwill among a cadre of horror fans. But many of them are also cult films, which raises questions about the size of their audience. And a remake can touch off sensitivities among the hard-core fan base.
A middling box-office performance also has a way of slowing down development, even for companies that can finance their own films, as Hammer can. At the very least, it can make for hesitancy about a given genre, so don't be surprised if the vampire movies get lapped by some of the others.
Hammer executives today declined to comment on their current mind-set in the wake of the strong reviews but weak domestic box office for "Let Me In" -- though did say last week, even as it was becoming clear that the movie would not be a success, that they were making a long-term play.
"People have a strong expectation in the U.K. that Hammer means something special," said Nigel Sinclair, co-chairman and chief executive of Hammer parent company Exclusive Media Group. " 'Let Me In' has given a lot of people reason to believe in our mission."
As fan interest in, and backlash to, the American remake of "Let the Right One In" has streamed in over the past year, its principals have said that fans of the original should hold their judgment. "If I didn't feel a personal connection and feel it could be its own film, I wouldn't be doing [a remake]," director Matt Reeves told my colleague Mark Olsen last year. "I hope people give us a chance."
Here's hoping they have the opportunity.
The major management shakeup at Overture last week threw a number of previously ironclad realities into question. Chief among them was the status of "Let Me In," Reeves' take on the Tomas Alfredson coming-of-age-vampire movie that bowled over art house and genre audiences in 2008.
The original, which examined a loner named Oskar and his tender friendship with the oddball vampire Eli, created an exquisite mood and even more exquisite ending. It picked up a hard-core cadre of fans and also caught the attention of Hammer Films, a sales agent and producer that came on board to remake the Swedish hit it long before the film developed a cult following in the U.S. Reeves, hot off his "Cloverfield" debut, soon joined too. Scenes were shot, trailers were cut, and one of the many in-development foreign-language remakes finally was on its way to the screen.
But last week, in something of a surprise, it was announced that Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett, Overture's top dogs and co-founders, would be leaving the company. Overture had been on the sales block for nearly a year, as owner John Malone and Liberty Media looked to exit the film business (and a buyer who would help them achieve that). Without that, Malone decided to retool, slim down, other euphemisms reserved for people who don't want to be in a business anymore. Chris Albrecht, the head of Overture parent Starz, was stepping in to oversee the film division.
All these moves threw into question several upcoming releases, most notably the Oct. 1 roll-out of "Let Me In."
Sources say that Overture, which declined comment for this story, is still planning to release the film along the lines of its initial plan of 1,200-plus screens. Reeves and the film's stars are still planning on coming to Comic-Con, so the publicity wheels are in motion, and so are the marketing ones. At the very least, the film won't get lost on the watch of Peter Adee, the canny marketing veteran who has been bumped up to run Overture's day-to-day operations in the wake of the McGurk-Rosett departure.
But sources with knowledge of the Overture situation also say that nothing is certain when it comes to the banner's upcoming films, much less for "Let Me In." The fate of the vampire film and two other finished movies (Philip Seymour Hoffman's directorial debut, "Jack Goes Boating," and Robert DeNiro crime drama titled "Stone") will depend heavily on Albrecht, who has several options before him.
Holding back "Let Me In" would be one possible, but not likely, move, as Liberty uses the film as a bargaining chip of sorts for the several suitors who have circled Overture. (We say not likely because when you have the gun ready to fire, as the "Let Me In" marketing team does, you don't take your hand off the trigger. And it Liberty can't find a buyer by October, it probably won't find one anyway.)
More likely, "Let Me In" comes out on schedule in October, but without as much marketing support as it might have gotten when Malone was actually keen to stay in the film business. That would keep the film confined to a narrow audience, creating a particularly ironic situation since one of the main reasons you remake "Let the Right One In" in the first place is to broaden its audience.
It's also possible that Albrecht decides to hold back "Let Me In" so that the company could raise some cash for its release. (P&A investors, as these people are called, are usually among the easiest moneymen to find.) That could mean the movie indeed gets the marketing support it deserves -- it just doesn't come out in October.
In LeBron-like fashion, Albrecht has yet to make a decision about the film on the slate in general, say people familiar with his thought processes, though in his previous life as HBO chief he developed "True Blood," so at the very least has a soft spot for vampire movies.
Long before the latest business drama, there were reasons for fans to be worried when Hammer and its distribution/co-financing partner Overture stepped in. Could you replicate the Gothic mood created by Alfredson and screenwriter-novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist -- and if you could, why would you? A trailer that highlights the horror elements instead of teasing out the metaphors for adolescent sexuality, as the first one did, gave reason for pause. ("Among ordinary people...something wicked lives" is part of the tagline here, and there are a couple of "Omen"-like shots that suggest the horror but not the heart.)
Then again, Chloe Moretz as Eli should hearten anyone who wants to see some sensitive but tough-minded acting, providing she doesn't overdo her wiseacre persona made popular in "Kick-Ass" and "(500) Days of Summer." Richard Jenkins, who plays a kind of father-figure/manipulator figure, is always a joy to watch. And Overture/Hammer should get credit for not aging up the characters in the scurrilous hope of piggybacking on "Twilight" interest.
Even if it's a shaky effort, the passion with which the filmmakers defended it was a reason to want to see this one through. And if nothing else, a large-scale release would call more attention to the original, an entirely welcome and necessary development -- assuming that large-scale is still possible. As Oskar could tell you, sometimes justice is a cruel monster.
Overture Films chiefs Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett Exit
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In their heyday, Hollywood westerns were famous for their ability to attract moviegoers even when they weren't t trying very hard. During the fertile period of the 1950's, the genre extracted hits not only from acclaimed, enduring material such as "High Noon" and "The Searchers" but more degradable cultural monuments like "The Cowboy and the Prizefighter, "Moonlighter" and the classic of every self-respecting DVD collection, "Trigger Jr.", a Roy Rogers concoction about a killer horse.
There are plenty of creative similarities between the mid-20th century western and the modern-day vampire film, with their shared focus on a lone outlier's fight for justice, the culture-clash between a seemingly enlightened majority and primitive natives and other ideas that are the stuff of graduate-school theses. Like the western, the modern-day vampire movie of course also both attracts and creates some of the era's biggest stars (though we'll stop short of calling Taylor Lautner this generation's John Wayne).
But even as the vampire film, like all genres that go through a renaissance, continues to flower and fracture into variants (the latest is Ethan Hawke's "Daybreakers," which gives the category a refreshing survivalist spin by turning the vampires into everyday Americans in search of sustenance), it's falling short in that key respect -- getting people to notice more than just the A-list titles. It's now fair to ask if, outside the very particular case of the "Twilight" franchise, any other vampire movie will become a hit, let alone a phenomenon.
The modestly blood-drawing performance of "Daybreakers" at the box office this weekend gives further voice to the claim — the Lionsgate movie was the biggest wide-opener of the weekend and did well enough given its costs, but had a fourth-place finish, a weak Cinema Score rating and earned a not-overwhelming $15 million on 2500 screens.
Since the supposed vampire revival began several years ago, no non-Twilight film (and there have been plenty) has come close to breaking out. "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" was an unabashed failure. "30 Days of Night" had one decent weekend and faded faster than a bloodsucker at sunrise. A more auteur-driven attempt, "Thirst," couldn't even muster $500,000 at the domestic box office this summer.
All failed to register the resonance or receipts that similar vampire movies did in other periods friendly to the form — not only the salad days of the "Blades" and "Underworlds" earlier this decade but even the campy films of previous generations, such as the 1979 George Hamilton spoof "Love at First Bite," which earned more than any of the current non-Twilight films.
In fact, other than "Twilight," no vampire movie in the current revival has even earned $40 million. (Unless it enjoys a miraculous surge, "Daybreakers" won't change that.)
We suppose it's OK for the trend to thrive mainly on television and elsewhere in pop-culture. And when it finally and mercifully wraps up, the "Twilight" films alone will have made practically as much money as entire standalone genres.
But resurgences are supposed to lift derivative and spin-off properties too, and in such a way that we even forget a little why we like the conventions and just accept them as cinematic fact. To be considered a thriving category, you need not only John Wayne and Gary Cooper but Roy Rogers and his horses too.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photos: "Daybreakers" poster, Credit: Lionsgate; "The Searchers" poster, Credit: Warner Home Video
It's been one of the biggest questions surrounding Summit Entertainment's uber-successful "Twilight" franchise (apart, of course, from whether stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really are a couple off-screen) -- just how the producers are going to manage to pull off a big-screen adaptation of "Breaking Dawn." The fourth book in Stephenie Meyer's juggernaut of a young adult fiction series about the epic love affair between high school student Bella Swan and her good-guy vampire beau Edward Cullen has plenty of heft, clocking in at upward of 750 pages, but it also has the distinction of being the most controversial entry in the saga.
When it was released in August 2008, fan reaction was intense and divided with some "Twi-hards" expressing confusion and dismay over a plot that involved *SPOILER ALERT* a recently graduated 19-year-old Bella giving birth to a half-human/half-vamp daughter named Renesmee, who grows much faster than the average mortal child and who possesses a unique way of communicating with those around her, clearly inherited from Dad's side of the family.
Wyck Godfrey, the producer of all the films in the "Twilight" saga, admits that the creative team still doesn't know how they'll handle the character in the "Breaking Dawn" movie, but said that the plan is absolutely for the production to go forward -- as either one or two installments -- with an eye toward beginning to shoot in Vancouver this fall. All three stars are signed for "Breaking Dawn," he said, meaning that Stewart and Pattinson will be dealing with the joys and woes of interspecies parenting and newly minted heartthrob Taylor Lautner will return as often-shirtless shape-shifter Jacob Black.
At the moment, screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who's penned all the "Twilight" movies, is working on the "Breaking Dawn" script(s). "It's a work in process," Godfrey said in an interview Friday. "The issue [of whether there will be one or two movies] is not going to be resolved until we get the full treatment and see whether it's organic. If it's not organic, I don't think it will be done, and if it is, it will be. It really has to do with how much level of detail from the books there is, with all of these new vampires that appear in 'Breaking Dawn,' the whole section about Jacob... It's a very long single movie if it does become a single movie."
Although there's been a great deal of online chatter about whether Chris Weitz, director of the second and most recent movie, "New Moon," would return to helm "Breaking Dawn," Godfrey downplayed that possibility, saying, "I think everyone would be happy and excited if he came back, but I don't think it's going to happen."
He and the other principals are formulating a list of potential directors, "but right now," Godfrey said, "we're just focused on the treatment and getting that right. At that point, we're going to see who's available and who's appropriate. It's such a complicated book because you have the emotions and the intensity of the love story -- so you need somebody who's just a wonderful director of actors -- and yet it's really complicated from an action and visual effects standpoint. They've got to have both tools in their kit."
A visual effects background might be particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with the character of Renesmee.
"I keep having visions of '[The Curious Case of] Benjamin Button' in my head," Godfrey said, referring to David Fincher's Oscar-nominated 2008 fantasy about a man who becomes physically younger as he ages. "It's certainly going to be visual effects in some capacity along with an actor. I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being a full CG creation, but it also may be a human shot on a soundstage that then is used to shrink down. I don't know. We need a director. When we get a director, that director will need to come with a point of view of how they want to tackle it."
The third movie in the series, "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," is due in theaters June 30.