It’s hard to imagine how Abraham Lincoln could loom larger in the American mythos, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter appears to have found an answer. After all, what could compare with the awesome legacy of saving the Union and emancipating the slaves quite like prolifically slaying the undead on your downtime? Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel (the author also wrote the screenplay) offers a vision of Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker) as an avenger hellbent on the destruction of bloodsucker bigwig Adam (Rufus Sewell) and the rest of his kind after vampire Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) murders Lincoln’s mother with just one bite.
The movie cleverly reworks both the familiar events of the 16th President’s life and some broader archetypal period moments, and Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov stick closer to the historical record than you’d think. When he’s not studying the law or romancing Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in Springfield, Lincoln is serially, secretly disposing of hidden vampires. His close companion Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) aids him on his otherworldly mission. Jefferson Davis recruits the undead to the Confederate Army. The tragic 1862 death of Willie Lincoln is given a fresh spin.
While the degree to which you enjoy your time with Vampire Hunter boils down to whether you’re capable of accepting the premise or not, there’s more to unambiguously recommend. The picture opens with great promise, as a virtuoso wide shot of modern D.C., anchored by the Washington Monument, fades into a sprawling, soaring vision of the city circa the 1860s.
Walker simultaneously nails Lincoln’s gaunt, awkward quality, and his magnetic sincerity. The movie reframes the Gettysburg Address, which Walker’s Lincoln recites onscreen, but doesn’t sap it of its meaning, and the actor’s so good at oration you can’t help but feel stirrings of nationalistic pride.
Of course, this isn’t really a movie about Abraham Lincoln, or the Civil War. It’s about intense, CGI-heavy depictions of vampire slayings and it trades in the familiar super-sized Gothic qualities of such fare. Working in 3D with director of photography Caleb Deschanel, Bekmambetov brings relentless, full-throttle intensity to the furious action scenes, most of which take place in various degrees of close-up, set against mood-lit nighttime settings. But so much of the action is blatantly, comically absurd, punctuated by irritating slow-mo interludes, that it’s impossible to take seriously in any sense. It’s not the B movie it should be, either. Bekmambetov isn’t really in on the joke. Truthfully, Vampire Hunter lost me right around when Lincoln chases Barts through a stampede of horses and the vampire hurls one at the president.
In the end, above all, there’s a fatal conceptual flaw here: the actual details of Lincoln’s life were so fascinating, filled with such drama, that there’s really no need to make him a vampire hunter at all.
The Upside: Benjamin Walker is no Daniel Day-Lewis (star of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln) but he nails the part. The movie’s reframing of the 16th President’s past is entertaining, for awhile at least.
The Downside: The action scenes are extraordinarily absurd and the story of Lincoln as a vampire hunter, frankly, is far less interesting than the story of Lincoln as president.
On the Side: The film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s original mash-up novel, has been in development hell for awhile, but we suspect you’ll see it in the near future unless Vampire Hunter tanks.