Guest Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
As a film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter demands you take several notions with a large grain of salt. It expects you to believe that as a child, the 16th President of the United States witnessed his mother attacked and murdered in the dead of night by a strange creature. It wants you to think that in the years before his Presidency, he traveled the country as a spirit of vengeance, removing evil from the world. It tells you that he was trained for battle by a mysterious man who speaks in riddles like Yoda, and that slavery and the Civil War were not simply instances of human cruelty to humans, but of an inhuman influence and a supernatural taint of the human soul. And then there’s that whole Vampire thing. The movie – based on the “What If?” novel by screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith – looks positively insane, not only at first glance but every glance afterward. And yet it comes from Timur Bekmambetov, the director who in 2008’s Wanted made you believe in curving bullets, James McAvoy as an action star, and Angelina Jolie’s back tattoos. Surely the same man who helped usher in the modern version of “Vampires are Monsters” genre with Night Watch could succeed in making the convoluted absurdity of this fictional Abraham Lincoln biopic exactly what it is meant to be, simply a lot of fun?
Bekmambetov, Graham-Smith and producer Tim Burton introduce to us a Lincoln (played by newcomer Benjamin Walker) consumed by grief after the murder of his mother by a slaver when he was but a child. Now grown, Lincoln has sworn vengeance, but his failed attempt to kill the seemingly ageless monster inadvertently introduces him to a world where vampires are not mere legend, but an actual evil fighting for power in the Southern United States. Trained by a Vampire hunter (Dominic Cooper) with a few secrets of his own, Lincoln goes on to become a truly feared hunter, long before the years in which he becomes President. When the Civil War arrives, the Vamps – led by the ruthless Adam (Rufus Sewell) – desire a nation of their own, and they’ll fight, chew and claw through every human soldier of the Union to make that happen.
Yes, this is a very odd tale. It’s the early years of the story that are most entertaining about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as the combination of character, action and a more free-form narrative create something utterly compelling. Walker proves himself not only a capable action star, but an extremely talented actor; he could easily have played Lincoln in a far more serious film and been just as convincing. The first half also introduces a number of not only interesting characters, but excellent performers, as we are treated to the likes of Sewell, Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (name one bad movie she’s been in) as Presidential love interest Mary Todd.
Unfortunately, that formula goes downhill with the second half. After what amounts to a political battle montage, Lincoln is elected President, is married to his love, grows a bitching neck beard, and presumably gives up the life of a hunter, though his job is far from finished. He has more important things on his agenda, first and foremost the abolishment of slavery. In this case, slavery is depicted as a tool used by Sewell’s vampire band to get cheap help and meals. I’m not sure how I feel about the film’s depiction of slavery; should I be upset that the filmmaker seems to be giving Southern whites a pass by showing that the real plantation owners weren’t even human, or marvel at the filmmakers use of Vampirism as an allegory for the evils of slavery? Either way, the action pares way down, as Lincoln goes from being bad-ass hunter to a killer orator. This is where I begin to suspect that Tim Burton and the movie’s other producers stopped throwing as much money at the film, as the prosthetics and makeup used to make Walker and company look older than their years looks more than a little fake, and even the special effects budget seems strained to the point of exhaustion. It really takes all the talent of Bekmambetov as a director to make the whole thing as stylishly as it is. The movie does rebound quite a bit in the end, with an awesome fight inside and atop a speeding locomotive and a truncated, quite gory Battle of Gettysburg. But there is still much lacking after Lincoln’s Presidential ascension.
You’re not going to watch any film with “Vampire Hunter” in the title and expect a history lesson. After all, while Vampire Hunter appears to toss out names like Stephen A. Douglas, Harriet Tubman and Jefferson Davis in their correct context, I can’t help but feel it does so simply because it can (though these are among the funnier moments). Even those good friends of Lincoln depicted in his biographies are here really no more than fictional characters given historical names, for all we learn of them. Though Lincoln’s parent’s are shown, where was his sister Sarah, who practically raised him after their mother’s death? And where are Lincoln’s children, of whom only one is shown in the movie? The answer? Don’t worry so much about the history; it will only distract you from the pretty visuals and engaging action that are the real reason you are there.
And action should be the one thing that draws you in, though characters should be able to keep you in the seats, as was the case with Wanted. I’ve already mentioned Walker, but he also has a cast of talented people to work with, and assembling that core group is likely Vampire Hunter’s greatest success. These characters aren’t perfect; they make mistakes, and the movie comes off much more sincere in the idea that some of the greatest Americans are only human. Cooper continues his recent string of quality work, in arguably his highest-profile role to date (Last year’s Captain America: The First Avenger notwithstanding). He brings both mystery and charisma to hunter Henry Sturges, easily sharing the narrative center of the film with Walker’s Lincoln. Winstead might not look a thing like the original Mary Todd, and her dialogue gets a little too Victorian for my tastes, but there are more than a few moments in which I prefer this strong, smart woman to the mentally-disturbed First Lady with whom we are more familiar. Not surprisingly, Sewell is the most impressive of the secondary actors, using his soft, raspy voice and naturally piercing gaze to help create the perfect villain. He’s long been an underrated Hollywood performer, known best for his work in England, and hopefully his talent will not go unnoticed here for much longer. Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson and Marton Csokas round out this stellar cast, which absolutely runs with the Gothic horror premise for all it’s worth.
It’s difficult to reconcile Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with many of the quality-made films that have been released in 2012. While I ended up having more fun here than I had with Prometheus, I would be hard-pressed to say that Vampire Hunter was the superior release. Ridley Scott’s imperfect piece might have had substantial flaws in both plot and logic, but I couldn’t begin to discredit Prometheus’ technical prowess, wonderful actors, and intriguing concepts. Abraham Lincoln is a lot of fun, but there are many times when the whole thing feels cheap and unfinished, and I have to wonder how things would have turned out had another team bought the rights to the story back in 2010. Still, as a cross between The Conspirator, 30 Days of Night and Van Helsing, with a healthy dose of humor tossed in, this movie would be a good time for anyone tired of the same old tired blockbusters playing around the country. Its heavy violence won’t be for everyone, and to be fair its greatest appeal will probably be to fans of the book. But if you don’t take the whole thing too seriously, you may be pleasantly surprised with what you take away. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes you to an unbelievable universe and might manage to convince you that this could have happened, and that’s exactly how movie magic is supposed to work.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out his film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson.