Not your usual fare, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes a Nosfera-tour into revisionist history. But be warned: This film is indeed a gore-fest, with vampires as grotesque as anything hailing from the 1922 German Expressionist lore. Fans of the far prettier clans of the Cullen (Twilight), Collins (Dark Shadows) and/or Compton (True Blood), considered yourselves served: A new non-bloodline is in town, and it’s as ugly as sin.
Oddly enough, as wacky as the title seems, the movie doesn’t make a joke out of the subject matter. Rather, it’s a graphic, often eye-filled 3D tale, considered “an action/fantasy/horror.” Note that the words “comedy,” “satire” or “parody” are nowhere in sight. Even though screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s original novel is said to have some humor, very little, um, bleeds through.
Instead, Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, earlier vampire series Night Watch, Day Watch), Grahame-Smith and co-screenwriter Simon Kinberg have themselves quite a time playing fast and loose with the Abraham Lincoln myth. Who knew that vampires were so deeply embedded in the nineteenth century American South, that they fought hand-in-fang with the Confederacy? That young Abe didn’t lose his mama to milk sickness, but to a vampire bite? That he employed his axe-wielding talents for something other than splitting wood? Say, splitting the heads of the undead? All this, plus instituting the Emancipation Proclamation and winning the Civil War? Wow … our sixteenth president took multi-tasking to a whole new level.
Encompassing 47 years in the life of Abraham Lincoln, from 1818 through 1865, the films opens on a young Abe rushing to the rescue of his pal, an African American boy who’s receiving a beating from Abe’s father’s employer, the vicious Jack Barts (played with gusto by Martin Csokas). While the lad escapes with a small facial wound, the Lincoln family is punished far worse: Abe’s father is fired, and his mother, after a mysterious visit from Barts late at night, dies soon thereafter. In this version, once his father passes on, the grown Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) attempts to exact his vengeance on Barts. But after he fails and nearly loses his life, Abe is tutored by a dandy named Henry (Dominic Cooper), who instructs him that “real power comes not from hate but from truth.” Since Abe prefers an axe to any kind of artillery, he dips his blade in super-duper vampire-vanquishing silver (not available at a hardware store near you), and becomes “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”
Per veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who employed digital photography and the high-tech Arri Alexa camera, “We decided to give the cinematography a certain roughness, with more imperfections than perfection.” There is indeed a certain sepia-based color scheme in many of the scenes, appearing to dust the screen in a historic hue. However, director Bekmambetov sometimes forgets his century, and engages in slo-mo, flying action scenes à la his earlier Wanted, or relying on a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sensibility. That’s not to say that physical conflicts aren’t timeless, but certain techniques smack of a modern touch. Considering that the filmmakers decided on a historically-accurate look, it’s surprising that in the action sequences, they chose such a stylistic departure.
However, even with its serious treatment, the movie often offers up some visual fun. Whether it’s a chase-to-the-death scene between Lincoln and Barts as they tumble like circus gymnasts atop stampeding horses, or the panoramic display of a mid-nineteenth century New Orleans port, or a high bridge engulfed in flames as a train speeds down the track carrying cargo that may very well change history, it’s far from dull.
On the side of right and might, stage actor and sometime Liam Neeson look-alike Walker (he played the 19-year-old version of Neeson in Kinsey) does a solid job as Mr. Lincoln. But he’s allowed such a small spark of charm (in a few minor scenes when he’s courting Mary), that it appears that the filmmakers didn’t capitalize on his substantive talents. As his other half, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln speaks and moves like a 21st-century gal (far more Ramona Flowers in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the Rest of the World than Mary Todd). While Anthony Mackie and Cooper give fine support, as does Jimmi Simpson as the questionably loyal shopkeeper and confidante Speed, and Rufus Sewell is an alluring villain, the film might have been far more compelling if, as in the case of the protagonist, the characters had been drawn with deeper dimension.
The biggest surprise here is that the title hints of one tone – a wild, um, newfangled look at what we once thought of as immutable history – while the story derails in a whole other direction. Tongue-in-cheek? Nope, just teeth-on-skin. Again.
Rating on a scale of 5 vampyro-maniacs: 2.5
Release date: June 22, 2012
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay by: Seth Grahame-Smith and Simon Kinberg
Based on the novel by: Seth Grahame-Smith
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Erin Wasson
Running Time: 105 minutes