For moviegoers who are still unfamiliar with author (now screenwriter) Seth Grahame-Smith, the idea of an undead-slaying Honest Abe might seem especially ridiculous – but that’s only because Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter beat Grahame-Smith’s other well known horror mashup novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to the big screen. While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies continues to languish in preproduction hell, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) managed to bring Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to fruition, barely two years after the source material book was first published (in March 2010).
However, despite an intriguing (and purposefully absurd) premise, moviegoers have a plethora of vampire films to choose from, these days. Do Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov manage to deliver a film adaptation that successfully juggles the campy setup and over-the-top action with intriguing alt-history tie-ins and enjoyable character/Presidential drama?
Fortunately, the answer is yes, assuming that moviegoers can suspend enough disbelief and lock into Grahame-Smith’s eccentric retelling of Abraham Lincoln’s secret monster-slaying nightlife. Certainly, anyone expecting a straightforward and grounded take on the life of Honest Abe should pass on the film (and look to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis), as Vampire Hunter is full of one-note characters, sometimes laughable attempts at tying the supernatural plot to real life events, and several over-the-top set pieces. That said, the mashup film is exactly what viewers should have expected from a Bekmambetov film about an axe-wielding President who fights to free America from slavery and undead bloodsuckers, alike.
For anyone unfamiliar with the alternate historical account depicted in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the film (and source material novel) are centered around Abe’s secret diary, which includes the account of both his political – as well as supernatural – encounters, starting with the death of his mother at the hands of Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), a local businessman/vampire. After years of patiently waiting, Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) sets out to avenge his mother and encounters Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) – who trains Abe in the art of vampire hunting and impressively choreographed axe wielding. Despite Henry’s instruction to avoid making friends or starting a family, Lincoln befriends a local shopkeep, Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), courts Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and reconnects with childhood friend/free African-American, William Johnson (Anthony Mackie). Though, when vampire chief Adam (Rufus Sewell) forms an alliance with confederate separatists, Lincoln’s loved ones (as well as the country itself) are threatened – forcing the 16th President to take action in and outside of the political arena.
As mentioned, the basic plot of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can be pretty convoluted – especially in its attempts to marry historical events and real-life personalities with supernatural elements. At times, history and fiction are stitched together in a way that makes both sides of the mashup more interesting, such as Lincoln’s time spent running a general store and a flatboat trip to New Orleans; unfortunately, other moments are too on-the-nose – relying on thin (and overly convenient) supernatural explanations for real events.
Similarly, characters are exceptionally one-dimensional – which is, by far, the biggest missed opportunity in the entire film (considering the story utilizes a number of historical figures within a supernatural conspiracy plot). While audiences may be surprised to find that one of history’s most iconic leaders (who, in this case, also happens to fight vampires at night) isn’t all that interesting, it’s hardly the fault of actor Benjamin Walker – who manages to keep what could have otherwise been a goofy portrayal of the 16th President (both old and young) grounded and believable during even the most outrageous monster slaying escapades. Both Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mary Todd and Anthony Mackie’s William Johnson are equally competent but underutilized – mostly reacting to increasingly crazy revelations without room to actually flesh out their characters as anything more than Lincoln’s loved ones. However, the biggest character misfire is the flat-out boring implementation of the primary vampires – the aforementioned Adam, and his lady Vadoma (Erin Wasson), who are nothing more than soulless faces in a convoluted attempt by Grahame-Smith to marry a vampire rebellion with anti-abolitionist confederates.
In spite of its shortcomings, the core premise rarely fails to entertain (even if there are a number of eye roll-worthy moments), since the vampire hunting elements successfully up-the-ante with each encounter. Early on, Lincoln forgoes his mentor’s preferred means of dispatching vampires, i.e. silver bullets – in favor of some slick axe work. While some audience members may find the axe versus vampire flesh sequences to be a little too flashy (and hard to follow), Bekmambetov utilizes some effective slow motion camerawork to showcase Lincoln’s stylish and acrobatic slaying techniques. In a genre that is overwrought with gun battles and throwing knives, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter thankfully presents a number of entertaining close quarters combat sequences that, despite our obvious real-world knowledge of Lincoln, make it easy to believe that the President could go toe-to-toe with similarly gifted monster slayers like Blade and Van Helsing.
Despite some high-octane action moments in the film’s trailer, Vampire Hunter is actually pretty intimate – as most of the epic moments are still pretty confined (narratively speaking). Few of the set pieces are given much time to build tension and many of the encounters offer little more than flashy hack and slash choreography. This isn’t to say that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can’t deliver on excitement – since a number of the vampire hand-to-Honest Axe combats benefit from Bekmambetov’s trademark fast and furious action beats.
Additionally, while many theaters will be pushing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 3D, the film would be just as enjoyable without the premium upgrade. There are a few moments where the slow-motion axe combat looks especially slick (as vampire blood spews into the air) and several larger shots (such as a trip on the Mississippi river as well as Civil War battlefields) are definitely enhanced by the added dimension; but only those few moments are must see in 3D. As a result, the 3D up charge isn’t a waste, but it’s hardly required viewing.
Moviegoers expecting a gritty “Lincoln kills vampires” character drama will likely be disappointed by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; although, as a tongue-in-cheek action mashup, Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov have, for the most part, delivered an entertaining (albeit campy) historical retelling. The film doesn’t quite deliver a fully-formed combination of history and supernatural horror (if that’s even possible), but for anyone who can accept the experience on its own terms, there are plenty of entertaining moments of vampire hunting to keep your appetite for blood a fun time at the theater sated.
Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.