Kool Kat of the Week: Where is Love and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA? Scott Hardin Finds Both as Projectionist for the Fabulous Fox Theatre

Posted on: Jul 26th, 2013 By:

Fox Theatre Projectionist Scott Hardin with an original 1929 projector.

By Gretchen Jacobsen
Contributing Writer

While The Fabulous Fox Theatre was not actually conceived as a movie house (it was originally intended to be the headquarters for the Shriners’ organization) and it amazingly almost faced the wrecking ball in the 1970s, its history as the Southeast’s premiere glittering palace of cinema is firmly entrenched.

While The Fox has been transformed from a movie house to a multipurpose arts venue, its storied past in cinema is kept alive by the Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival which kicked off in June. From now through August, The Fox will present seven more features on the biggest screen in Atlanta. Before the movie starts, patrons are treated to a sing-a-long with the “Mighty Mo” organ and a vintage cartoon. This weekend’s features include Quentin Tarantino‘s DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)[Fri. July 26 at 7:30 p.m.], the animated caveman comedy THE CROODS (2013) [Sat. July 27 at 2 p.m.] and a new digital version of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) [Sun. July 28 at 4 p.m.]as well as the official Sing-a-Long version of the John Travolta-Olivia Netwon-John ’50s-themed high school movie musical GREASE (1978), which is not part of the official series.

Only in July, the Fox Theater also will present special movie tours before this weekend’s Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival screenings. These tours will take you to the projection booth, screening room, two star dressing rooms and the stage while learning about the history of the movie palace and Mr. William Fox‘s innovations. The Fox also offers behind-the-scenes hour-long tours year-round.

Making this all possible, in a sense, is our Kool Kat of the Week, Scott Hardin. Scott has been the film projectionist at the Fox since 1978, making this his 39th year in the projection booth. We recently caught up with Scott to talk about film, history, the new tours and his own beginnings in “showbiz.”

ATLRetro: How did you become a film projectionist? 

Scott Hardin: I was too old to pretend I was Zorro anymore, even though my grandmother made me a wonderful cape that I got a lot of mileage out of. That, and a friend of mine I had met when he was working for Theater of the Stars – while I was a 14-year-old kid in THE SOUND OF MUSIC – had later joined the projectionists’ union and thought I might like to train to be one, too, given our past “showbiz” affiliations. He was a great friend named Jeb Stewart, who had actually sung on Broadway in the chorus of various shows. My biggest claim to fame had been playing the role of OLIVER at 12 years of age in the summer production at Theater Under the Stars, which was then outdoors at Chastain Park Amphitheater. What does that have to do with your question?  Not a thing, but I can still sing “Where is Love?” for you if you’d like.  Jeb Stewart later became the Business Agent of the Projectionist’s Union and sent me to help with the Fox projector installation those many years ago.

The auditorium and stage of the Fox Theatre. Photo credit: Yukari Umekawa.

When did you start at The Fox? What was the Fox like at that time?

I started in the spring of 1978 helping with the installation of projectors that had been brought over from the Loew’s Grand Theatre [Ed. note: another Atlanta movie palace which had been the site of the world premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and tragically was destroyed by fire that year].  I was a young movie projectionist with four years of experience at the time and was sent to fill in for an older projectionist who had to go deal with personal issues for a few days. I remember carrying some of my dad’s tools with me to the job in a Kroger sack. I told them “Don’t worry, I’ll only be here for a few days.”  Well, that was 35 years ago and the other guy’s never returned.  I’m pretty sure he’s not coming back.

The doors to the theatre were locked with chains when I arrived. I was told to knock loudly on the door and ask for Joe Patten. After banging the arcade door as loudly as I could, a young receptionist came over to unlock the door. I told her I was there to work with Joe Patten on the movie projectors, and she just turned around and yelled as loudly as she could towards the auditorium:  “JOE!!! …JOE PATTEN!!!”  (This was before they had walkie-talkies to communicate with.) After no one answered she said, “well, he’s probably backstage.  Just wander back there and see if you can find him.” (Ed: Joe served as The Fox’s technical director from 1974 to 2004. He was granted a lifetime rent free lease in the 1970s and still lives in an apartment at The Fox.)

Scott Hardin with the new digital projection system.

Is there a film you projected at The Fox that you think was terribly overrated? 

I think the film OLIVER [1968] was overrated because I wasn’t in it.

What about underrated?

THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (2001) was terribly underrated.  How can you get more poignant than that?

One of the exciting films of this year’s Coca-Cola Film Festival is a new digital print of David Lean’s masterpiece LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. What can viewers expect out of this release?

They will see a beautiful rendition of the original negative of the 70mm film print, this time shown in Digital Cinema with no fading of color, no scratches, no splices, no interruptions of sound.  They can also expect camels.

Another film on the docket is the sing-a-long version of GREASE. Will you be singing along with the audience?

I’ll be sitting in a seat in the balcony using a remote volume fader to turn the sound levels up and down while following a script that has my sound cues in it.  I’ll be singing loudly at the same time too, except I’ll be singing “Where Is Love?”

Sing-a-Long Grease at Prince Charles Theatre, Leicester Square. Photo courtesy of Fox Theatre.

Before this weekend’s screenings, moviegoers can book special Movie Tours at The Fox. What’s your favorite “secret” place people will see on the tour?

My office door backstage that has my name and the word “Propmaster” above it.  It’s my secret, because even though I do double duty as the Props Department Head, I’m not really a “master” at it – I barely have a green belt – but if somebody paints “master” above your name, you have to keep up appearances.

Will you be in the projection room during the tours?

Yes, in all probability, along with my assistant Mike.

How has The Fox changed over your 35 years?

There have been so many changes it’s hard to enumerate them all. There’s a general trend in technology from analog to digital, and from simple to complex. I’ve also noticed people I’ve worked with for years gradually start to look older and wonder why I still look 28.

What do you think about the change in film from celluloid to digital? Is projection easier? More difficult?

Digital Cinema projection is easier because you don’t have to inspect and repair each frame of film by hand, and it looks and sounds great when everything works. However, you’re relying on computers to always work perfectly, which everyone knows is fraught with folly, and [that] will make it less reliable than film in the long run, in my opinion.

The original 1929 projectors at the Fox Theatre. Photo courtesy of the Fox Theatre.

Finally, which film have you projected the most? And how many times?

I have projected GONE WITH THE WIND on 11 different occasions in my 35 years at the Fox. One time in 1989 was for a 50th anniversary re-premiere with some of the surviving cast members on the stage. The most prominent was Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy. My friend Jeb Stewart, who was responsible for first sending me to the Fox, helped me project the movie that night.

This Weekend’s Movie Details:

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012); Dir. Quentin Tarantino; Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson; Friday, July 26 @ 7:30 PM; Fox Theatre; Tickets here; Trailer here.

GREASE SING-A-LONG (1978); Dir. Randal Kleiser; Starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing; Saturday, July 27 @ 7:30 PM; Fox Theatre; Tickets here; Trailer here.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1963); Dir. David Lean; Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn; Sunday, July 28 @ 4:00 PM; Fox Theatre; Tickets here; Trailer here.

Gretchen Jacobsen is freelance producer, writer, costumer and film school graduate. She is also widely know by her Steampunk nom de internet, Wilhelmina Frame, and serves as the Editrix de Mode for the website Steampunk Chronicle.

 

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Kool Kat of the Week: Mike Malloy Rewinds Back to the 1980s Home Video Revolution with His Latest Documentary Feature

Posted on: Jul 15th, 2013 By:

Mike Malloy. Photo credit: Andramada Brittian.

Video may have killed the radio star, or so that ’80s song goes, but it launched a lifelong passion for cult action movies in Kool Kat of the Week Mike Malloy. Now he’s paying homage to the format that revolutionized the way people accessed and watched movies from the late 1970s to the 1990s in the documentary series PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND: THE STORY OF THE ’80S HOME VIDEO BOOM, for which he is seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaignThe timing couldn’t be more perfect with VHS tapes, like 33rpm LPs, enjoying a renaissance among collectors, both old and new.

From his slicked-back hair to his Retro bowling shirts, Mike looks like he ought to be playing the stand-up bass in a rockabilly band. Instead he’s devoted himself to “playing” tribute to a side of cinema that often doesn’t get a lot of love from mainstream critics. At age 19, he signed his first book contract to write the first published biography of Spaghetti Western star Lee Van Cleef (for McFarland & Co.) Since then, he went on to write articles for a wide spectrum of national film magazines, served as managing editor of fan favorite Cult Movies Magazine, has spoken about movie topics at universities, ghost-wrote several fim books, and served on the selection committee of the 2006 Atlanta Film Festival.

In the past few years, Mike has moved increasingly both in front of and behind the camera. He has acted in more than 25 features and shorts. He co-produced the Western THE SCARLET WORM (2011) and directed the short, LOOK OUT! IT’S GOING TO BLOW! (2006), which won the award for best comedy short at MicroCineFest in Baltimore. But he’s garnered the most acclaim, both national and international, for EUROCRIME! THE ITALIAN COP AND GANGSTER FILMS THAT RULED THE ’70s, a kickass documentary homage to that B-movie subgenre which he wrote, directed, edited and produced.

ATLRetro caught up with Mike recently to find out more about how home videos fired his fascination with film, his unique vision for PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND, some really cool incentives he’s lined up for his Kickstarter campaign which collectors will love  and what’s up next for Georgia’s Renaissance man of cult action cinema.

Having written Lee Van Cleef‘s first published biography at age 19, you’ve obviously been into rare cult and B movies since an early age. What triggered your passion for the less reputable side of cinema and why does it appeal to you so much?

I’m a rare guy who’s deep into cult and genre cinema without caring much for horror or anything fantastic. For me, it’s all about a desperate Warren Oates shooting it out in Mexico. Or Lee Marvin with a submachine gun. For some reason, I’m just drawn to gritty tough-guy cinema – which is not necessarily the same thing as action cinema.

How did the home video revolution influence you personally? Having been born in 1976, you can’t really remember the pre-video days, I’d guess, but it must have afforded you access to a whole spectrum of these movies which otherwise would have been hard to track down and see.

And I even missed most of the ’80s video boom, because my parents, in 1990, were the last on the block to get a VCR. But in 1994, I made up for lost time. I had a college girlfriend who had an off-campus apartment, and while she was at work,  she didn’t like the idea of me being on campus, potentially fraternizing with other young ladies. So before each shift, she would take me by the local mom-and-pop vid store and rent me 8 hours’ worth of Bronson, Van Cleef, Carradine, etc. That kept me safely in her apartment, and it put me on the cinema path I’m on.

Videophile Magazine; Jim Lowe and Mike Malloy on the set of PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND.

In Atlanta, Videodrome seems to be the last independent rental retailer still in business and it’s even hard to find a Blockbuster left. And of course, they now just stock DVDs. Now you can order up a movie online and watch it instantly. Do you think we’ve lost something by no longer going in to browse, and was there a particular video store that became your home away from home?

One of our interviewees said something interesting: The mom-and-pop video store business model was based on customer DISsatisfaction. That is, you’d go in to rent CITIZEN KANE, it would be checked out, and you’d somehow end up leaving with SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED (1974). Being forced to browse leads to an experimental attitude in movie watching. That’s a good thing.

VHS tapes can get damaged easily, the picture and sound quality can’t compare to a bluRay (or often even a regular DVD) and they rarely show a movie in widescreen. Why be nostalgic about them, and is it true that the VHS format, like LPs, is having a comeback?

VHS is experiencing a major comeback. There are about 20 little startup companies that have begun releasing movies to VHS again. A certain old horror VHS – of a film called DEMON QUEEN (1986) – sold recently on eBay for $750.00. VHS conventions are springing up all over the country.

I’ve always thought that the format is superior for horror films. If you watch THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) on a soft old VHS poorly transferred from a faded film print, that makes you feel as if you’re watching some underground snuff film obtained from a shady guy in a trench coat. Watch that same movie on a pristine Blu-Ray, and you don’t get that same grimy feeling.

Michael Perkins films a scene at Videodrome, Atlanta's last great independent video store.

There have been other documentaries about home video, such as ADJUST YOUR TRACKING (2013) and REWIND THIS (2013). What will PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND add to the topic that hasn’t been covered already?

PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND will be a three-hour series, spanning six half-hour episodes. Those others just have a feature-length running time. So if mine isn’t the most definitive word on the subject, I’ve really screwed up. I’m sort of glad those docs exist as companion works, because it frees me up to explore some of the weirder corners of the phenomenon I find fascinating. Things like video vending machines and pizza-style home delivery of VHS tapes.

You’ve got a pretty interesting line-up of interviewees, not all of which are big names. Can you tell us about a few of them and how you went about selecting them.

Right, many of these people are very significant without being instantly recognizable. We have Mitch Lowe, the founder of Netflix (and later a CEO of Redbox). We have Jim Olenski, owner of what is considered to be the first-ever video store. We have Seth Willenson, a Vice President at RCA who oversaw their failed video disc format. That’s just several off the top of my head. They all have that level of significance. And we interviewed a bunch of cult filmmakers, because working at the cheap extreme of the video boom was where some of the craziest stories were. Further, we were glad – er, glad/sad – to have been able to document a closing video store in Toronto during its final month.

Gary Abdo and Mike Malloy. Photo credit: Jonathan Hickman.

Moviemakers, and artists of all ilk, have always seemingly been ripped off by others who pocket all the money. What distinguishes the video era in that regard, and are there any lessons filmmakers can apply to the current wild west of digital camerawork and online distribution?

I think the potential for ripping off artists is greater when an industry is in upheaval, when the rules and the financial models are unclear. And you’re right, VOD and streaming have caused the same type of upheaval that the videocassette did in its day. So I love all the anecdotes we captured of swindled ’80s filmmakers fighting back against their underhanded distributors. And I hope today’s filmmakers realize that distributors are now becoming largely unnecessary at all. For instance, I hope Vimeo OnDemand – with its 90-10 split in favor of the filmmaker – is a total game changer.

You obviously went into this project with a lot of background, but did you find out any big surprises or delightful unexpected moments during your interviews/research?

I went into the project feeling proud that I was going to cover not only VHS and Beta, but all the failed video formats – like Cartrivision, Selectavision (CED) and V-Cord II. Turns out, they were just the tip of the iceberg. I now probably have about 15 different also-ran video formats I can touch on.

Left to right: a video vending machine; Mitch Lowe, founder of Netflix.

How different would the world be today if Cartrivision had caught on instead of VHS?

Well, Cartrivision was an early attempt at rights management for movies. The Cartrivision rental tapes couldn’t be rewound at home; that could only be done at Sears, where you rented them. It limited you to one viewing per rental. So it would’ve started the concept of video rentals off on a very different attitude and philosophy. I think part of the reason the ’80s home video phenomenon was such a boom was the freedom associated with it – you could rent a movie of your choosing and watch it at a time of your choosing. You could watch it a number of times before returning. Hell, you could use your rewind button to watch a jugsy shower scene over and over.

Tell us about the Kickstarter campaign. How’s it going and how are you going to use the monies raised to finalize the film?

Since ADJUST YOUR TRACKING and REWIND THIS both successfully kickstarted, I knew this would be an uphill battle. My only chance was to turn what is normally a beg-a-thon into a reward-a-thon. So I created a $75 level for the collectors where they could get so much more than just a copy of the documentary. The very first expense I’ll cover, if I get successfully funded, will be an 8 terabyte hard drive. I really can’t cut another frame until I get it.

PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND tells it like it was: Mike Malloy deals videos out of his van.

You’ve got some mighty cool incentives for donors, including actual vintage VHS cassettes. Tell us a little bit about them.

Not only have many of our filmmaker interviewees donated signed VHS and DVDs of their movies (to say nothing of rare, unused artwork and such), but a lot of these new startup VHS companies have also donated rewards. I’m feeling very supported.

Unlike your Italian-centric EUROCRIME documentary, you’re trying to involve Atlanta as much as possible in PLASTIC MOVIES REWOUND, aren’t you?

Local documentarian Michael Perkins (THE BOOKER) is my second-unit director, and Atlanta-based musician/engineer Matthew Miklos is my primary composer. His ’80s synth sound is so authentic. An associate producer (Jonathan Hickman) and at least one interviewee (filmmaker Gary Abdo) are here too. Videodrome has been very cool about letting me shoot re-enactments in the store. I tried to document the closing of another Atlanta institution of the video-rental industry, but it didn’t work out.

Anything else on your plate right now or next as a writer, director, producer or actor?

Later this year, I’m acting in HOT LEAD, HARD FURY in Denver and BUBBA THE REDNECK WEREWOLF in Florida. I wish someone would cast me locally so my pay doesn’t keep getting eaten up by travel expenses!

Editor’s Note: All photos are courtesy of Mike Malloy and used with permission.

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A Real Hillbilly Gentleman: Remembering Earl “Bubba” Maddox Before Bubbapalooza 22

Posted on: May 23rd, 2013 By:

Earl "Bubba" Maddox.

By Eve Wynne-Warren
Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: If Gregory Dean Smalley was the founding father of Bubbapalooza, the annual rockabilly/roots festival every Memorial Day Weekend at Star Bar, then Earl “Bubba” Maddox, who passed away from cancer in March, had to be its lovably crazy uncle.  Earl drummed for a slew of seminal bands such as the Diggers, the Convicts and Gregory Dean and the Bubbamatics, and lately had been a character actor in movies. Events like Bubba, places like the Star Bar and the musicians who play there are at the heart of why we do ATLRetro. In this companion feature to our Bubbapalooza preview, Eve Wynne-Warren asks some of the Bubba regulars who knew Earl well for a few stories. It wasn’t hard for them to think of a few. For more about Earl, also check out the warm tribute by James Kelly (Slim Chance) that appeared in Creative Loafing here.

Earl Maddox had his own way of seeing the world and thought outside the box more than anybody you ever met. Atlanta musician, entrepreneur and Star Bar institution Billy Ratliff recalls some instances that beautifully illustrate Earl’s uniquely creative charm:

Billy Ratliff: “I met Earl in the late ‘80s at the [Euclid Avenue] Yacht Club. He was on his way out of town; he always was a bit of a gypsy. About 3 a.m., Earl said before I leave, let me show you something. So we headed out to his car, and he opened the trunk and there lay an antique cannon of some sort – something like a Gatling gun off an old ship. Did I want to buy this item? I had no need for a cannon at that point.”

Earl Maddox in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008).

That was Earl. Random bits of dreamlike appearances always with a story, an offering and a new friend; things that don’t transpire in the day-to-day lives of most. And he was down to earth and approachable. He made some of the most unlikely friends just about anywhere he went.

Billy : “One day I ran into Earl. ‘I haven’t seen you in a while, where’ve you been?’ Earl said. ‘Oh, hanging out at Webster’s studio.’ ‘Pardon?’ ‘Yeah, I was fishin’ down off a dirt road down south of the airport and outta the woods came Webster.’ ‘You mean the little guy from TV?’”

Yep, that was Earl.

Earl’s free spirit took him places so unimagined and sometimes unexpected by many. I asked writer-painter and fellow free spirit/barstool philosopher Greg Theakston to share his favorite memory of Earl..

Eve: Do you remember asking my advice as a Southerner for a Southern-sounding nom de plume? I suggested the name Earl to you (ironically many years before the TV show MY NAME IS EARL). Earl Maddox was my inspiration for that answer.

Greg Theakson: I remember. My favorite memory of him was one night in the Little Vinyl Lounge [the downstairs bar in the Star Bar]. Earl jumped up and announced that he was gonna go to Hollywood and be an Actor…and by God he DID! He was what I call a real ‘Hillbilly Gentleman.’”

Earl’s film and TV appearances can be seen on his Internet Movie Data Base listing.

Faylynn Owen (the former booking agent for the Star Bar, presently found behind the bar at the Yacht Club): “My favorite memory of Earl is the last time I saw him. He came into the Yacht [and] was very excited about being in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and we just talked for a little while. Earl was always fun.”

Bassist Bill Lattner first met Earl at the first rehearsal of the Diggers. He immediately knew he’d found one helluva drummer, but more than that, a lifelong friend.

Bill Lattner: It was the [previous] drummer’s loft. He hit the drums so lightly, he may as well not have been there, couldn’t hear him at all, and I knew, the kind of band it was supposed to be, we needed somebody knocking the shit outta the kick and snare! Earl was living in NOLA, just in town visiting Greg. I told him how frustrated I was with the drummer situation. During a break, Earl said I’ll be back in a minute and came back in with a cinder block, out of his truck. He put it in front of the kick, and sat down, and gave the pedal such a whack, the block moved! The rest of the guys came back in, and Earl said, mind if I play one? So, we kicked a tune off, and there was the snare and kick, that I knew we sorely needed! He played three tunes, I think; this was the fuckin’ drummer we need!! I think we had to do one or two gigs with the other guy, to give Earl a couple weeks to move up here. And then he became my roommate, one of my best friends and a true brother, to me! I miss him every day.”

Raise a PBR to the memory of Earl “Bubba” Maddox this Friday May 24 and Saturday May 25 at Bubbapalooza 22 at the Star Bar!

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Seth Grahame-Smith: The Novel Is Better Than You’d Think, and Maybe That’s the Problem

Posted on: Feb 12th, 2013 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER By Seth Grahame-Smith; Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

If the forecasts of the end of publishing as we know it, and the end of the novel as an important art form, prove correct, what will we be left with?

Well, one thing I note when I go into a bookstore is that though there’s not as much of what I personally want any more, there’s an ever growing abundance of at least one type of product. The product is remarkably adaptable to our all-too-instantaneous culture, and so deeply committed to vacillating fashions, that though the books are individually ephemeral, they are collectively eternal. I refer to novelty books.

Each is quickly produced, and just as quickly forgotten, yet the space they occupy is never empty. And if you return to that space over and over again, you will see that our impulsive and unconsidered consumption of facile distraction represents a continuum, demonstrating evidence of the hive mind and proof of a certain form of reincarnation. Moreover, within these novelties, maybe sometimes there is the possibility of a slightly substantive literature.

Both of Seth Grahame-Smith’s two most famous novels, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE WITH ZOMBIES and this one, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, were commissioned for gimmicky series dreamed up by his editor at Grand Central Books. In both cases, he was the only novelist engaged who was able to play with the gimmicks (rewriting classics with monsters, reimagining historical figures with monsters) in a way that received significant positive critical attention. Grahame-Smith has a rare gift (or compulsion) to infuse some artistry to a throwaway idea. His literary career is distinguished by focusing on some ersatz absurdity, applying a sharper intelligence than many would think the subject deserves, and then keeping his one-note-joke buoyed by imaginative wit and exceptional attention to telling detail. He knows how the mechanisms of the B- and exploitation-movies make a narrative move, and he knows how to toss in just enough brain candy so that we don’t feel as guilty while reading his work as we did that time when Mom caught us flipping though the pages of a dirty magazine. (I should throw in, his first book was THE BIG BOOK OF PORN, a modestly seriously-minded history of the porn industry.) Here we have (as Gina McIntyre put it) “a great SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch” transformed into a full-blooded, even epic novel.

In classic “high-concept” style (who the hell coined “high-concept”? It’s deliberating misleading as it inevitably targets the lowest common denominator!), the title says it all. I expected it to be fun, and it was, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. And there in lies the rub – it was good enough to disappoint. When I saw what Graham-Smith was capable of doing, he raised my expectations, and then I found myself disappointed he didn’t do even more.

No one reading ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is expecting either a real biography, or something comparable to the truly timeless historical novels like WAR AND PEACE. This is a populist fiction about a President we like a lot more in myth that reality. Rather than comparing this book to Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s TEAM OF RIVALS (the basis of the Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN) or Leo Tolstoy, we are more in the territory of the movie YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, that sentimental piece of heliography that made Henry Fonda a star back in 1939 (directed by John Ford, written by Lamar Trotti).

Well, like YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, only with more a lot more blood and a much higher body count.

But then Grahame-Smith surprises us with a Lincoln who is many times more believable than Fonda’s. This Lincoln is strongly sympathetic, and though frequenting engaging in super-heroic antics, he’s neither a paragon of some ideal (Superman) nor an invitingly unoccupied vessel for the reader to fill with over-textural identification (most private eye heros). Clearly, Graham-Smith learned a few things from comic-book pioneer Stan Lee’s formula. In the past, Graham-Smith has collaborated with Lee, and here we see that the student far has excelled the master.

The novel begins in 2008, with a fictional version of Seth Grahame-Smith deep in a writer’s funk as he watches President Obama’s first inauguration. At this historically appropriate moment, he is offered a confusing, disturbing, perhaps dangerous, but also irresistible commission: to edit and flesh-out a long rumored of, but never made public diary which represents nothing short of a secret history of the Civil War, and by extension, America’s development and the whole of Western Civilization. You see, vampires are real, and the diary was Abraham Lincoln’s own record of his war against them.

The novel that follows switches back and forth between Lincoln’s secret dairies, which are, of course, fiction, woven seamlessly in with Lincoln’s letters, which are real, and Grahame-Smith’s omniscient third-person narrative, which is based on the testimony of surviving (undead) witnesses and a great deal of material pulled directly from more respectable historical sources.

The novel starts in Lincoln’s childhood and shows his development in a rich and thoughtful in a way that too little genre fiction has much patience for. Deftly sketched is Lincoln’s complicated family tree, the challenges of his humble beginnings, his strained relationship with his father, his enormous personal drive, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, and how his life’s trajectories were guided by a series of early tragic losses and economic reversals. Lincoln’s famous battle with depression is woven throughout the book, but treated with an appropriately light touch, because Grahame-Smith instinctively knows that had the depression truly been crippling, Lincoln would’ve never become Lincoln. It is somewhat removed from the “cult of Lincoln” of popular myth and somewhat closer to a figure historians would recognize.

At least up to a point.

The “up to a point” part is the crux of the novel, because in 1820 Lincoln realizes his life is being shaped by the capricious whim and insatiable hunger of supernatural entities that are stronger, faster, more experienced and more skillful than he. In 1820, he launches a one-man covert-war against their evil.

The novel is at its strongest when addressing Lincoln’s early days. Rich in the biographical detail of years that many, even Civil War buffs, are not fully familiar with, this part of Lincoln’s life is the era in which this kind of keyhole narrative can most easily be integrated into historical realities. The young Lincoln rambled widely, living and working in several states and trying out several professions, giving any adept writer abundant opportunity to paint the landscape vividly and imaginatively and still remain in the context of the verifiable. When Grahame-Smith puts words in his fictional Lincoln’s mouth, he displays a fluid style that is often lacking in like-pastiches, for example, when the diary recounts what Lincoln witnessed at a slave auction:

“I saw a Negro girl of three or four clinging to her mother, confused as to why she was dressed in such clothes; why she had been scrubbed the night before; made to stand on this platform while men shouted numbers and waved pieces of paper in the air. Again I wondered why a Creator who had dreamt such beauty would have slandered it with such evil.”

By this point in the narrative, Lincoln has already allied himself with a group of not-so-evil vampires who call themselves the “Union” –  get it? – against the other more powerful group who dominated Southern politics and society. His political career which would start not long after and be shaped by that association. The contrasts in which the story revels rest on this foundation, largely historical content vs. horror-movie scares and comic-book action scenes.

The horror/action content is fast- paced, hugely entraining and often quite funny. In one episode, Lincoln, now a lawyer, is bruised in court with the loss of a civil suit; that evening he goes out on a vampire hunt. To his surprise, it turns out that evening’s monster is none other than his client from earlier in the day. Just as they are about engage in their death duel, the demoness hisses contemptuously that Lincoln better hope that he’s a better fighter than an attorney.

Grahame-Smith’s historical fidelity grants his hero a more interesting character arc than most pulp heroes. When this fictional Lincoln, mimicking the real one, falls in love, marries, has children and enters politics, he does something few action heroes ever do, but most men of accomplishment accept as an inevitability. He puts aside childish things (in this case, his axe) and creates a more stable and sustainable life, integrating himself into new venues, and pondering how he can apply the lessons of his youth to the realities of maturity.

This radical turn in the narrative allows the pulp novel to be shaped by more-complex-than-average relationships. Lincoln profoundly loves his wife, who is treated with a lot more respect here than in most dramatizations of Lincoln’s life, but  still he turns his back on her in her hour of greatest need. After losing a second child, she spirals into mental instability, but by then he is President and in the midst of the ultimate national crisis. I also liked the handling of his long-rivalry, and occasional allegiance, with Stephen Douglas, who in most Lincoln dramas is regulated to a single footnote incident.

The novel leans heavily on mano-a-mano combat up to this point, and as the more complex history unfolds, Grahame-Smith repeatedly interrupts it with more breathless action-episodes. During the build-up to the Civil War, the retired vampire hunter reluctantly accepts one last vital mission from his Union allies.

So the hero’s reluctantly dragged out of retirement for one last vital mission. Yeah, we all know how well those generally work out, don’t we?

This situation leads to a wild scene where Lincoln and his two assistant vampire hunters, Joshua Speed and Jack Armstrong (both historical characters), are hopelessly trapped in a burning plantation-manor-house, surrounded by an army of vampires, while Jefferson Davis, in classic melodramatic villain style, gives a smug speech about the superiority of his cravenness over Abe’s naive virtues. It would not have been out of place in the recent film DJANGO UNCHAINED.

As entertaining as all this interplay is, it also is evidence of the difficulties of taking a story that was one thing and trying to mutate into another into another. This problem is demonstrated even in the number of pages the book devotes to this subject or that. A full 187 pages are required to get us to the year 1843, when Lincoln hangs up his axe. After that, a mere 146 pages is left to get him into Congress, then the White House, guide the nation through the Civil War, and fall to an assassin’s bullet (by the way, John Wilkes Booth was a vampire).

Joshua Speed.

However, Graham-Smith, making vampires the primary drivers of the slave economy and the secret force behind the South’s mad, headlong rush into war, has stumbled across a near perfect metaphor. Vampires, since Dracula, have represented hold-over superstitions trying to keep the shadows deep and dark in the face of the light of reason and modernity, and they are simultaneously the aristocracy and the parasite. They have been exploited to make political points not only in fiction but presidential campaign rhetoric (anyone remember the “Romney is a Vampire” TV ad?). The metaphor has rarely been utilized as forcefully as here, but unfortunately it isn’t used to dig as deep as it could. Having set the stage so deftly, Graham-Smith fails to utilize his fantasy to illuminate real themes in history as historical fictions are generally expected to do.

One thing almost every Lincoln drama gets wrong is how slowly his positions on slavery evolved. From his earliest years, he found slavery morally repugnant, and his abolitionist rhetoric was fiery in even his earliest political speeches. But even well into the Civil War, his policies regarding the institution were, in fact, quite moderate (and from a 21st century perspective, reprehensible). Preservation of the Union was his number one priority, freeing the slaves was way down the list. It would not be much of a stretch to say he’d have been satisfied to institute a handful of reforms that maybe could have been utilized by others later, and that he was okay with the possibility that the end of slavery was something he didn’t personally live to see.

The first step in seeing someone as human is fully recognizing them as real. There’s little reason to think that black slaves, who did move Lincoln’s heart when he saw them suffer from a distance, were ever close enough to him that he was forced to see them as real as his friends and associates, or even as real as his bitter enemies. There’s little or no record of Lincoln having substantive encounters with blacks during his formative years in rural Kentucky. Working on a flat boat on the Mississippi, he wasn’t likely to be invited into the homes of slave owners, nor to encounter the minority of black freemen in his day-to-day labors. Though Lincoln married the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, he was not close to his in-laws, and he and his wife settled in a free state. I’d wager that it’s not likely he had a conversation with a black person longer than 10 words before went to Washington in 1846, maybe not until he entered the White House in 1861, and maybe not even until his memorable meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1863 (which isn’t included in this particular book).

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg's LINCOLN. Dreamworks/20th Century Fox, 2012.

Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a liberal by today’s standards, he was a man of a time when it would’ve been almost overwhelming intellectually challenging to conceive of blacks as fully of the same species as whites. He was quite articulate in expressing his belief that blacks were inferior to whites. Lincoln’s moral evolution was a long road that most dramatists don’t want to admit he had to travel. Nor do they want to acknowledge that his eventual abandonment of comfortable, if reprehensible, moderation and his heroic embrace of a righteous stand was something that he was burdened with, in part, by the Confederate madness.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER doesn’t misrepresent Lincoln’s relationship with slavery, but having built so a fine bridge of fantasy to this true subject, it side-steps it rather than crossing it.

The novel is better in evoking the madness and hopeless of the Southern cause, but even here I find fault. We see the relentless spiral towards war through Lincoln’s eyes in the first-person entries. But Graham-Smith also availed himself of the third person omniscient, yet didn’t utilize it when it was most needed. It should’ve been said that the South had a smaller population, a limited industrial base, and significantly no cannon factories. The Confederate strategy was to strike first in the months between the election and inauguration and then dig in so that the Federal Government couldn’t respond. When Lincoln chose the course of military engagement, the South inevitably was doomed. Yet almost four years and more than 600,000 lives were forfeited to this pointless exercise. Even to that last moment, the firing on Fort Sumter – hell, even after that last moment – the South had so many other options, but they acted with the kind of irrational absolutism that we now associate with only the maddest of despots or the presumptuousness of the divine (read: supernatural) right of kings.

According to a 1973 study by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, had the South ended the institution of slavery by buying and freeing all the slaves instead of going to war, it would’ve cost them about $2.7 billion 1861 dollars. True, it is hard to imagine the political will to execute such a plan could’ve ever been mustered, but what were the costs of turning their collective backs on any compromise or accommodation? On the Southern side alone, the most often-cited figures are $1 billion in property destruction, $1.5 billion in loss of human capital, $767 million for war expenditures, and an appalling 258,000 dead young men. To this, Goldin added a net economic difference of $10 billion between an imaginary South without rebellion and the one we got, in which wide regions wallowed in near continuous recession for the next 80 years. This is the kind of clarifying extra that the fictional narrator Graham-Smith could have provided us with, but that the fictional diarist Lincoln couldn’t have been reasonably expected to.

Poster art for the movie of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012).

And not for nothing, the real Lincoln, who couldn’t have done Goldin’s math, wasn’t insensitive to the idea. In an 1862 letter Lincoln wrote, “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head … [and] less than 87 days’ cost of the war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri.” (This letter is not cited in this particular book.) In fact the Federal government did buy back the slaves within the confines of the District of Columbia. (This fact is also not cited in this particular book.)

Once the war starts, the novel engages the reader mostly because of its effective and exciting compression of what actually happened, while the vampire metaphor, suddenly under-exploited and under-explored, loses much of it bite (pardon the pun). Lev Grossman puts it well in TIME Magazine, “Once the connection is made, it feels obvious, and neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.”

Yet as Lincoln fictions go, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER has more to say than most. Maybe it communicates something about our culture that a deliberately ridiculous, axe-wielding, vigilante super-hero towers over most more easily respected works. Allegedly realistic fictions have been full of myth, while the myth-shaped novel presents a sharper picture. One measure in how the novel succeeds is revealed in a words of a withering critique of the Timur Bekmambetov’s film based on this novel. Historian Vernon Burton enjoyed the book but hated the movie, and spoke volumes of the pitfalls of fictions that prove incapable of grasping the real historical issues they grapple with (from an article by Tierney Sneed in US News and World Report):

“‘Slavery was our national sin,’ said Burton, who said the connection works in that ‘the nation sucked the blood out of Africans for its wealth.’ However, in posing vampires as the villains behind the crime of slavery, the film risks ‘letting the South and the United States off,’ freeing it from blame for the practice.

‘The book did some clever things,’ said Burton. ‘I was excited to see the movie. The book had potential.’ He said the film version was oversimplified, and he worried viewers would make too much of what he and other historians often call the ‘Oliver Stone school of history.’”

That, at least, is one trap the novel didn’t fall into.

Robert Murphy is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

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