Reading some of the reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you get the sneaking suspicion that a lot of my fellow critics believed they were walking into some camp ground of historical meta-fiction where the 16th President of the United States would dispatch bloodsuckers with some Schwarzeneggerian one-liners. But that’s not the case, and this is where being of the nerdy persuasion has advantages over other critics.
I’m only about 100 pages into Seth Grahame-Smith’s original novel and can say easily that there isn’t an ounce of camp between the pages. It’s no sketch either, as it’s also been compared to a Saturday Night Live skit. The book is a surprisingly thoughtful, well-researched alterna-biography of Lincoln. As if there really was a vampire named Henry carrying around “Honest” Abe’s secret diaries all this time and showed them to Grahame-Smith.
As for the movie, it carries none of the book’s subtlety, but being from the director of Wanted, Timur Bekmambetov, I didn’t expect there to be much. Although clearly more horror flavoured than recent vampire films like Twilight or Priest, the potential for straight-up horror is replaced with absurdest, nearly over the top action sequences complete with CG blood spurts. I think we wanted something closer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula rather than something that feels cut from the cloth of Van Helsing.
MORE AFTER THE JUMP
The plot follows Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) from witnessing the death of his mother by a vampire as a boy to his days in Springfield, Illinois as a lawyer and burgeoning politician to his years in the White House as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War. In between, he trains under conscientious vampire Henry (Dominic Cooper), courts and marries the lovely Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and learns the dark underbelly of American History: vampires using slavery as an easy food source to build their own dominion in the American South.
Sounds serious, but it’s hard to deny the fun. Although some may scoff that a movie called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” takes itself too seriously, I found it a rousing summer popcorn thriller. Those action sequences may strain the laws of physics, but they are executed very, very well, and all the while I was sitting in my theatre seat thinking, “If Lincoln doesn’t get all the silver to the front lines, the Union will lose the war and vampires will enslave America!” Stupid, I know. I have a history degree. But the movie’s actually pretty good about making you buy its reality.
Lead Benjamin Walker not only has the looks of a youthful Liam Neeson, but he kind of has the magnetism of one too. The movie skips along from drama to drama much too fast to build any meaningful character development, but fortunately, Walker does well both with Lincoln’s vampire hunter physical prowess, and the historical Lincoln’s gravitas as he delivers several signature speeches. If a star is born from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it will be Benjamin Walker.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead also gets to have some fun with history when Mary Todd gets a bad ass moment of her own in the film’s climax. But more interesting, Winstead gets to play Mary Todd’s more gregarious and flirty youth, which is a side of the woman we don’t normally get to see, as they say.
Dominic Cooper, who was so compelling in the small supporting role of Howard Stark in last summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger, once again lends ample and able support to our hero in Lincoln. His Henry captures both the good humour and easy cynicism of Lincoln’s vampire fighting vampire mentor from the book.
The film also introduces us to a few new characters too. Anthony Mackie plays Lincoln’s obligatory black friend Will Johnson, and although Mackie was perfectly fine in the part, I feel like I would have rather have seen other real life characters from the book like Edgar Allan Poe, and Lincoln’s fellow vampire slayer (and later Secretary of State) William Seward. Rufus Sewell plays the vampire leader Adam, and is perfectly serviceable in the part, but it would have been nice if Lincoln had a match in the main villain, someone who was played as a visionary vampire leader equivalent to The Great Emancipator.
Technically though, the film is solid. There’s some impressive stunt work, and the climactic train chase is mind-blowing, plus the film’s a genuine R-rated vampire movie, so you have to admire the filmmakers’ dedication to giving the fans what they want. Bekmambetov definitely has a visual flare, but what he lacks is patience. Anytime Lincoln isn’t killing something, or racing off to kill something – in other words the quiet, dramatic moments – it feels like Bekmambetov is a 10-year-old with A.D.D., sitting on the couch with his knees knocking waiting for the power to his video game to come back on.
But honestly, if there’s one thing to recommend Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter it’s that it’s fun, and that’s despite the fact, as the critics say, it takes itself seriously. I have a feeling that if this was camped up, the spirit of it would have been lost and the critics would still be complaining.
And for my final thought, if you can see this movie without paying extra for 3-D, do so. It adds nothing to the film, least of all spectacle. Making films that were shot dark and turning them into 3-D in post just doesn’t work no matter how many times they keep trying it, and for the first time watching a 3-D film I could swear I was getting a headache. The format can be fun, but only when it’s done right.
So I guess now the ball is Steven Spielberg’s court. His straight-up bio-pic starring Daniel Day Lewis and titled simply Lincoln comes out this Christmas, and I guess at that point we’ll decide what Lincoln we like best. Either way, in Abe we trust.