Cowboys and Aliens was a B.O. dud, unable to overcome the incongruity factor, possibly because the hybrid generic seam it mined was at once so rich and yet so poorly exploited. You could tell from the trailer–and the audience reaction–that the the film wouldn’t fly.
A year later, just in time for Summer Blockbuster season, another generic mash up wends its way into theaters, this one carrying the imprimatur of the movie alchemist Tim Burton in a producer role and a cast devoid of marquee titans. I’m speaking of course, of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, as the trailer above will have already suggested to the alert reader of and visitor to this blog.
Unlike the earnest, formulaic and descriptive trailer for Cowboys et. al., the 1:06 official trailer for ALVH is sly, adventurous and impressionistic. Although storytelling is not its focus, its historical pastiche, axe-wielding, ass kicking action, apocalyptic tone, and virtuoso editing should inspire the next generation of leaders, loggers and Vampire slayers to explore a fascinating (if apocryphal) side of Honest Abe (as recounted by author Seth Grahame-Smith) that fuddy-duddy scholars appear to have excised from American History texts.
In short, it works. The trailer is moody, thrilling and convincing in arguing that the film, though ambitious in concept and presumption, will nevertheless make the suspension of disbelief worthwhile.
After the 20th Century Fox logo, the trailer opens with a fog horn, which blasts at regular intervals. It’s a apt sound cue, given the fog, gloom, murk and diffuse light that characterizes nearly every shot and sequence. The regular, muffled blast establishes the dreamscape (nightmare, too) and offer an aural landmark by which audiences can navigate the defining American experience of civil war, overlaid by the alternate reality of a contest between bloodthirsty undead and a heroic, MMA skilled super-president.
Providing the perfect note of gravitas and credibility, Johnny Cash intones the lyrics to his eerie song “When the Man Comes Around,” a Revelations inspired account of Armageddon and Judgment day, which functions as the de-facto narration in the trailer, telling us how to feel about what we’re seeing if not exactly what it means. (A shout out to the music librarian or Editor who selected this song!) Demonstrating, yet again, artistic license in pursuit of promotion, the editor has cut and pasted verbiage from the prologue and epilogue into a stanza Mr. Cash never wrote
“And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder.
And I looked, and behold was death
Saying come and see
And I saw
And hell followed.”
[Here are the lyrics, as written.]
Early in the trailer, after an opening shot of a gloomy, Spanish moss dripping bayou (where are we?) we see the iconic Lincoln silhouette, black against a white background– tall, gaunt, broad shouldered, top-hatted, tail-coated, bearded— but sideways, rotated 90 degrees!?! Is it too literal to interpret the meaning of this image as “another angle” on one of our most revered and storied presidents? Considering the other scenes to which a viewer is treated, I think not.
The most jaw dropping image is of a flaming wooden roller coaster, down whose mighty-drop Abe and unidentified partner (perhaps his guard captain and White-House bed mate, David Derickson, or his best friend and bachelor bedmate Joshua Speed?) jump from burning car to burning car. We see various scenes of Abe swinging his trusty axe like a Ninja warrior, practicing in his office or engaging in mano-a-vampire contests, in which his Neo-like leaps, twirls and slo-mo swings show the warrior within the statesman. We also see Abe in Presidential mode, speaking to a mass of voters and petitioners from the Capitol steps; and we see him as Commander in Chief, addressing his troops and taking an active role in hostilities by riding into the thick of battle, axe swinging, feet kicking and blows dodging.
Only Washington and the battlefields of the Civil War are recognizable haunts of the historical Lincoln. Questions of race and theories of political organization—while no doubt salient in the novel and the film– are eschewed by the trailer as incidental to the more appealing consideration of our esteemed president as a rough-riding axe-master and consecrated warrior against demonic Vampire legions.
In the shots and scenes selected by the editor, the camera tracks around and toward its subject, as if circling and approaching this unfamiliar Lincoln, exploring an aspect of his life hitherto suppressed. Three times, Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat is foregrounded, as if to remind us of the historical icon whose life inspires this tale of supernatural dread and patriotic defiance. (Indeed, the final card, asks “Are you a Patriot or a Vampire? / Find out at Facebook/vampire hunter.com,” a false because limited choice, if ever there was one).
Historical Fiction is tricky and typically involves actual persons occupying accessory roles to the main, albeit fabricated action. Historical Horror, a subgenre, of historical fiction, engages the supernatural and the terrifying from the helpful vantage of a less-modern, less-scientific point of view. In this book, film and trailer, however, where the protagonist is one of the most written about men in history, challenges of plotting, plausibility and nerve command the foreground, and must be met and overcome. The trailer’s work is to suggest that the struggle has been successful, conveying evidence by way of shot, scene, copy, music and mood, etc. Judge for yourself. In my critical estimation, it does, with verve and brio.
An alien invasion in the wild wild west may strike most viewers as eminently more plausible than a vampire slayer in the White House, and yet the two trailers attest to a different experience by audiences. In Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the generic hybridization is audacious and bent to the service of entertainment, excitement and raucous fun. In Cowboys and Aliens, the trailer describes ontological rupture with a straight face and a tendentious account of human solidarity (especially among historical adversaries) in the face of alien predation.
Maybe good marketing really is determined by nerve and positioning, rather than A-list talent and heavyweight promotion?
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.