“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” will go down in history as a film I admire to a startling degree, yet one I cannot quite award a recommendation to. First, let us take a look at the plot, which has to be the most cockamamie premise for a mainstream movie since last year’s enjoyable “Cowboys & Aliens”: Abraham Lincoln, the man who would become the 16th President of the United States, wages a crusade against a legion of bloodsucking creatures of the night, at first through brute strength and later with words and ideals as a respectable politician.
Yes, yes, I know. This all sounds incredibly silly on paper, but you would never guess that by the solemn looks in the performers’ eyes. Especially those of Benjamin Walker, who portrays Abraham Lincoln from his humble beginnings as an axe-wielding rail-splitter all the way until the twilight of his presidency. Walker’s appearance resembles a young Liam Neeson, and just like Neeson, Walker immerses his entire being into the universe the film creates.
Take for instance the scene where Lincoln, under the apprenticeship of vampire-killing expert Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), is instructed to chop down a tree in the forest with just one swing of the mighty axe. Instead of using this exercise solely to milk ironic laughter from the audience (though it’s certainly able to), this moment is played with the straight-faced sincerity of the scenes in “Batman Begins” where Ra’s al Ghul is teaching Bruce Wayne. After swiping away at the bark several times with no success, Abe finally builds up the will to demolish the tree trunk into a cascade of wooden splinters.
This world, which is said to contain the real events of America’s history (“what you know is only a fraction of the truth,” says Lincoln in narration), is not self-referential, and I think that’s one of the movie’s biggest strengths. Too much winking at the camera could have been insufferable. Making it an action-comedy seems too obvious. Alternatively, “Vampire Hunter” is a work that’s firm in its convictions of being an insanely warped version of a history lesson.
As for specifics, the film (which is adapted from the epistolary mashup novel by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies writer Seth Grahame-Smith) isn’t merely a B-movie concept masquerading in blockbuster makeup. The reason that Honest Abe is walloping away at vampires is because he witnessed at a young age the tragic death of his mother at the fangs of a heartless slaveowner (Marton Csokas) and he seeks revenge on the monster.
But the issue becomes more political than your standard tale of revenge. The plantation owner is also shown wailing away on a little slave child with a whip, and this instance of civil injustice embeds itself into young Abe’s mind and soon informs his opposition towards slavery. But as Lincoln will discover in his politically active years, the masses of vampire aristocrats in the Union are using the slave population as their personal food source. By the time the Civil War rolls around, the entire Confederate Army is comprised of the bloodthirsty undead who wish to fight for their rights.
Leading the vampire army is yet another plantation owner by the name of Adam (Rufus Sewell). Others in the cast include Anthony Mackie as William H. Johnson, a free African-American whom Abe befriended in childhood (during the whipping incident); Jimmi Simpson as Joshua Speed, a general store clerk in Springfield who will become a close friend of Lincoln; and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Where the film stumbles a lot is in the sequences of violent action, which are unfortunately the exact spots you wish a movie like this would deliver its juiciest material. Apart from a marginally inspired setpiece that takes place inside (and sometimes on top of) a stampede of horses, most of the others come from the Zack Snyder school of directing. This means there’s gonna be lots of abrupt slow-mo, equally immediate speed-up, and an editing pace that reeks of “300” imitation. Though spectacles like this are supposed to have gravity and dimension to them, I rarely felt a sense of danger, urgency or visceral attachment while watching. Of all the things that could have gone wrong with a film of this title, it’s a shame Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) couldn’t have gone with a more individual approach to the numerous battles.
So “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is not a movie I’d advocate for everyone, but if the basic premise sparks even the slightest amount of curiosity in your mind, you’ll probably get exactly what you hoped for. Either way, it’s something (relatively) new, moderately entertaining, and will ultimately go down as the best movie featuring a president engaging in a bloody battle against his supernatural adversaries. That is, unless this movie somehow becomes a huge box office success, in which case 20th Century Fox will surely invest in a screenplay titled “FDR vs. The Werewolf.” Fingers crossed.