“But it’s an exploitation movie!” a friend of mine kept saying during our discussion of the wildly ridiculous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. “That’s a fair way of looking at it,” I admitted, but truth be told, Timur Bekmambetov’s second American film most definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m not entirely sure if it’s even for me and this is after I’ve seen it. Is it entertaining? Yes. Does that entertainment value have any real substance? Not really. This is a popcorn movie the other popcorn movies hate: disposable entertainment that you enjoy laughing at rather than laughing with. As outrageous and sometimes even stupid as this picture can be, it rarely has a dull moment and that’s a lot more than I can say for films in this genre.
Might Bekmambetov and producer Tim Burton chosen to follow Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel to the letter, we might have got something a little more grittier and even dramatic. Based on “secret diaries” kept by the 16th President of the United States, the novel is brilliantly written, blending fact with fiction in a witty and often ingenious fashion. The thing is, Grahame-Smith wrote the film’s screenplay himself, expanding upon the humor and horror of the novel in a fashion more suitable for Bekmambetov’s visual style. The director, who made quite a name for himself with his pair of “Nightwatch” films, broke into the mainstream with his first American outing, Wanted, four years ago. If you think that film’s premise and visuals were outrageous, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The strongest thing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has going for it, is the casting of Benjamin Walker as the title character. Though the prosthetic nose he wears can be a bit of an eyesore, Walker is not only a dead ringer for the famous president, but also another actor once slated to play him, Liam Neeson! In fact Walker’s resemblance to a young Neeson is so uncanny, that if if the actor’s replacement, Daniel Day-Lewis were unavailable for the upcoming biopic, Steven Spielberg might have considered him.
Young Abe’s hatred of vampires begins as a child, when after defending his friend from a slave master’s whip, the future president’s family is targeted and he witnesses his mother bitten by one of the undead. When adult Abe attempts to seek vengeance on venomous plantation owner Jack Barts (Martin Csokas), he’s nearly killed and rescued by mysterious stranger Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper). Seeing the young man is blood thirsty…figuratively, Sturges decides to take him under his wing, training him in the art of vampire slaying in one of those movie montages we’re already familiar with. Weeks later, equipped with a silver-plated ax, Abe is assigned by Sturges to secretly help the small town of Springfield, Illinois with its little vampire problem. We’re presented with yet another montage of young Mr. Lincoln dispatching ghouls, yet Bekmambetov hilariously presents it in a style appropriately akin to that of Sam Raimi.
In Springfield, Abe meets up with his childhood friend, William Johnson (Anthony Mackie, sounding as if he just stepped off a New York subway) and finds employment at a General Store run by Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson). In time, they are brought into Abe’s circle, learning the truth about how he spends his nights, but he makes the mistake of breaking one of Sturges rules: no romantic attachments. Upon being introduced to the beautiful Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Abe is immediately smitten and though the two begin a courtship, he fears bringing her into his violent world. He may not have a choice, since his nocturnal activities have caught the eye of Adam (Rufus Sewell) a 5,000-year-old vampire who along with his sister Vadoma (Erin Wasson) oversees everything that is undead.
The premise of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t as tough to swallow as you might imagine. Walker makes a very good lead, despite the fact that the action sequences he’s involved him border on parody. And yet, this is one of those films that relies on “suspension of disbelief” from its audience. How can Lincoln summon all his anger to have the strength to shatter a tree to splinters with his ax? Don’t ask. How can these vampires disappear at will or walk amongst the living in broad daylight? Don’t ask? How does one ram a horse drawn carriage through a house with the ferocity of an 18-wheel truck? You get the idea. The deal is, you the viewer have two choices: you can either say “this is ridiculous and silly, but I’m going with it.” Or, “this is asking for way too much and I can’t accept how silly all of this is.” In the end, it’s all still silly. Whether or not it’s that enjoyable kind of silly is up to the viewer.
Walker, Cooper and even Sewell appear to be the only actors who understand what type of film they’ve signed on to. At least it appears so. They play their roles straight, making the material all the more campier. Sewell’s just another one of those villains out to establish a place in this world for his kind, while Walker and Cooper are two dudes with broken hearts out for revenge. Mackie’s supporting work is so stale, he sounds as if he’s from our era and the bored looking Winstead shares absolutely no chemistry with Walker.
One of the weakest elements in the picture is Abe’s political career. The novel found a clever way to integrate Lincoln’s stance on slavery into the plot. The Lincoln in this film is against slavery from the start, yet except from a few “soapbox” speeches, his political career is never really explored until the film jumps ahead about two decades. Walker still manages to impress as an older Lincoln, despite the fact that the heavy make-up gives him the appearance of a Madame Tussaud’s wax dummy. Winstead’s old age make-up is even worse as is Mackie’s who it seems was required to only rub some baby powder into his hair.
Where Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter truly gets outrageous is in it’s third act where a fifty-year-old Lincoln must pick up the ax yet again, answering the call to duty. In this case, the call is to slay more vampires in the middle of a plot thread involving the battle of Gettysburg and union troops in need of silver ammunition against confederate soldiers who happen to be members of the undead. It’s just as crazy as it sounds and one of those turns in the story where you can either shrug your shoulders and go with it or say “screw it, I’m out.” At this point, for me, the film became an enjoyable train wreck to watch and the fact that the incendiary climax involves a locomotive had nothing to do with it.
I can’t help but wonder had Bekmambetov, Burton and Grahame-Smith chosen to present what already is an outrageous premise in a straightforward manner, how it would have turned out. Would it still hold as much “bite” (no pun intended) or be something more along the lines of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films? Like I said, this film is definitely not for everyone – I can recall moments where I rolled my eyes at it and others where I smiled and laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. This film is indeed perfect for 3D, but Bekmambetov doesn’t use the process to his advantage. In fact there are plenty of moments where it seems he was focused more on CG renderings of 3D dust particles. Let’s be honest, movie ticket prices are high these days. If you wait for this sucker to hit HBO in a few months and view it in the comfort of your home, I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy it for what it is.