How much you like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will be predicated quite a bit on how much you like Timur Bekmambetov's movies. The Russian-Kazakh director’s dark, comically tragic, and mythology-heavy vampire fantasy, Night Watch (2004), was one of my favorite films of that year. I was one of the few critics to give his English language debut, Wanted (2008) the ol’ thumbs-up.
On the other hand (so to speak), I gave a thumbs-down to Seth Grahame-Green’s popular mash-up novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The author, whose words can also be heard currently in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, wrote the screenplay.
So, I suppose I could have gone either way on the film, but I didn’t: I recommend it. Here’s why.
Tall, lanky, earnest-eyed Benjamin Walker plays our famous 16th president who, in case you didn’t know, was also one helluva vampire slayer. He’s loathed bloodsuckers since he was a lad, having watched them kill his mother; ruthlessly used the Southern slave trade as an import food supply; and infiltrated every aspect of law and politics with their immoral intents. When he’s finally big enough to do something about it, Abe does just that with the help of a mysterious mentor, Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper).
Under his new comrade’s tutelage, the prez to be becomes as proficient with an abolishing ax as he does with the ins and outs of the law. He’s gonna get those vampires coming, and going. Armed with brains and brawn, the young man heads out into the world. There, he finds love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), success in politics with an insider-advisor (Anthony Mackie as a real-life ex-slave who became Lincoln’s valet and friend), a new enemy in Confederate chief Jefferson Davis (John Rothman), and zeros in on the killer of his beloved mum, New Orleans vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell).
While the film does begin to wear out its welcome toward the end (in much the same manner as the novel) with a somewhat preachy and long-winded irreverence, up until then it’s high octane, popcorn popping, ass-kickin’ action. All the chase and fight scenarios are magnificent (that’s certainly one of Bekmambetov's many talents in the blockbuster arena), but one in particular really took my breath away. There’ve been quite a few stampede scenes in movies (not many outside of Westerns, and a recent fave is definitely the one in Baz Luhrmann’s Oz), but nothing quite like the one in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. CGI is slightly shaky in-between the crushing hoof-beats here and there, but let’s face it: we’re watching a supernatural historical mash-up about PotUS beheading vampires with a silver ax that doubles as a double-barreled shotgun… so, if a little technology shows through the seams and we’re bothered by that? We’re in the wrong theater. (There’s also a nail-biter of a train-top tussle, almost certainly a nod to the classic Spaghetti Westerns.)
Legendary DP Caleb Deschanel's sepia-saturated imagery is somewhat affected by a post-conversion 3D hatchet-job, but overall it’s serviceable and thanks to him, coupled with the attention to detail in sets and costumes, I thought the movie looked pretty great.
The casting is totally Hollywood -- but perfect, given the subject matter. What cinematic fast-food fan wants to see an ugly Abe and a dowdy Mary when paying the big bucks it costs to see a big screen film these days? Walker plays Abe as a sweet bumbler who just happens to have killer instincts, while Winstead is, well, winsome, and a saucy as his equally able wife. Sewell, though he has the range and acting acumen to play absolutely any kind of character, always seems most at home in mustache-twirling evil. Supporting cast each stand out in reasonably fleshy tones (given the breakneck running time of the film, and the costume-horror de rigueur featuring of fangs, blood-baths, deaths and destruction in general, there’s an admirable amount of nuance given to those in Abe’s orbit).
Ridiculous? Yes. Sublime? No. Fun? Yep.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson