Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov.
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith based on his novel.
Starring: Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln), Dominic Cooper (Henry Sturgess), Anthony Mackie (Will Johnson), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Mary Todd Lincoln), Rufus Sewell (Adam), Marton Csokas (Jack Barts), Jimmi Simpson (Joshua Speed), Joseph Mawle (Thomas Lincoln), Robin McLeavy (Nancy Lincoln), Erin Wasson (Vadoma).
The idea behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounds like a complete joke – that one of the greatest Presidents in American history led a secret double life as a vampire hunter - that in fact, it was the vampires that drove everything he did in life – from becoming a lawyer, to becoming a politician, to trying to end slavery to fighting the civil war. Some of the reviews of the film have already accused it of trivializing history – from Lincoln himself to slavery to all those men who lost their lives in the Civil War. My understanding is that the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, was a more thoughtful examination of these issues in addition to being a bloody, action/horror story. To me, that may be the problem with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as a film – it seems to simultaneously take the whole concept too seriously and yet not seriously enough. Had the filmmakers gone full bore into exploitation territory, the film clearly would have been in poor taste, but also could have been a hell of a guilty pleasure. Had they taken it more seriously, and eliminated the ludicrous action sequences and added in some of that thoughtfulness that the book apparently had, it could have been a fascinating alternate history. But since the movie seemingly wants to do both of those things, it ends up doing neither all that well. It is still mildly entertaining and mildly fascinating, but had they made the decision to go one way or the other, it could have been much better.
The movie begins with Lincoln as a child who witnesses his mother’s murder at the hands of a vampire, largely because of what he has done. Ten years later, he is determined to get revenge – only to learn the horrible truth that it was not a man who murdered his mother – but a vampire. He is taken under the wing of Henry Sturgees (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him to dispatch vampires with skill and speed. Not being one for shooting irons, Lincoln decides to instead use a modified silver axe that he uses to lope off their heads. Sturgees has one rule – no family, no friends. They get in the way of his larger duties. Lincoln intends to keep this promise, but when he meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he cannot resist her charms. And slowly, he starts to get involved with politics – and ending the evil of slavery, which he learns is largely controlled by the vampire leader Adam (Rufus Sewell) – who else but slaves could they kill in large numbers and have no one notice or care. The movie climaxes with the Civil War – which starts out hard for the Union because many of the Confederate soldiers are vampires, and hence, impervious to the weapons at the Unions disposal.
With a movie like this, you have to decide before seeing it whether or not you’re willing to roll with it, or if you’re going to fight against it. And if you’re going to fight against it, why the hell would you see it anyway. I get the criticisms the film has received for being disrespectful to history and for slavery, but I do not necessary agree with it – especially the criticism that I have heard most often that says that the movie makes slavery easier to swallow because it was not the fault of humans, but monsters. But that’s not really the case – the movie never really argues that ALL of the Confederacy is vampires just that the vampires chose that side – with the Confederacy going along with the vampires. In some ways, that makes the Confederates look much, much worse – that they wanted slavery so bad that they were willing to align themselves with inhuman monsters.
And yet, I do not think the movie pushes things far enough. The movie plays everything mostly straight – Benjamin Walker is actually quite good as Lincoln, never letting the weight of the character crush his performance in any way. And yet, every time the movie threatened to go beyond being straight faced and into actually thoughtful territory, the movie instead throws in another action sequence – with heads and limbs flying all over the place, and buckets of blood splattering all over the place.
The fault for this really lies behind the camera – with producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov. Both are filmmakers who value visuals over ideas, and that shows throughout the movie. Yes, some of the action sequences are well handled – not quite as exciting as Bekmambetovès last film, Wanted which was a great guilty pleasure, but entertaining just the same. But they were also completely ludicrous – especially the finale aboard of train, which while it does have some exciting moment was so outlandish I, could never get past it. The fact that they felt the need to add 3-D to the movie didn’t help – it made a dark film feel even darker. I would have much rather seen it without having to look through 3-D glasses.
Yet, I do have to say that if a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounds like your type of movie, and then you probably will enjoy it. Yes, I would have liked to see the film either embrace its supreme cheesy potential, or make an actual thoughtful alternate history about Lincoln, but the finished product is certainly at the very least interesting, and at times fun. It doesn’t reach the potential it had, but it’s not a horrible film either.