I’m not a huge fan of the whole “let’s inject monsters into classical literature and history” trend, and I’ll admit to being dragged to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter slightly against my will. I get that the absurdity of re-writing Pride and Prejudice with zombies (or better yet, Predators) could be fun for awhile. But I don’t get what would make you want to invest a whole lot of time and hundreds of pages into the idea. The novel of AL:VH, written by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame Smith, seemed right up this alley. Unless it was just damn funny, why not read one of the numerous weird, original horror novels out there instead?
That said, the trailer for AL:VH had some striking imagery, and director Timur Bekmambetow (Night Watch, Day Watch, Wanted) has delivered some solid supernatural action flicks in the past. Made it worth a watch. And if that’s the attitude you go in with, you just might have a blast. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t particularly smart. The vampires aren’t some great metaphor, and there doesn’t seem any particular reason to cram them into this segment of history (though the whole “Normal white people didn’t kill all the Native Americans and enslave African Americans; it was VAMPIRES!” thing can be a bit disturbing in all the wrong ways.) But if you’re just looking for big-budget, special effects monster smackdowns, AL:VH delivers.
Give credit to the film for being a genuine epic. We begin with Lincoln’s childhood, see how a vampire tore his young world apart, and then trace his journey all the way into the White House. Each step of the way, as Lincoln becomes a political figure, he’s also coached by his mentor, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), in the art of slaying vampires. There seems to be a stab at some kind of big idea here – Lincoln learned to be a compassionate, caring president because he saw the evil that vampires wrought. Most of his big political revelations come after fights with vampires. That said, it all seems kind of incidental – there’s no reason for Lincoln in particular to be the vampire hunter. And while the film gets juice out of some of its sillier, pulpier moments, Lincoln being a19th-century slayer doesn’t really get played for laughs the way it could.
There’s something to be said about a film just being an action-packed revenge flick, though, and AL:VH definitely succeeds in sucking you into its action sequences. Starting off as a traditional revenge narrative, you get plenty of ass-kicking, and training montages to prep for said ass-kicking. What really helps, though, is that Benjamin Walker’s stoic turn as the titular president gives the role some gravity, so – historical figure or not – you want to see this guy get his bloody vengeance on. Bekmambetow and his editors also weave this story like pros, pacing Lincoln’s life perfectly, and letting the tensions simmer just enough before each eruption of violence. The action sequences are surprisingly tight as well, whether they be standard fisticuffs, a brawl in the middle of a horse stampede, or a climactic battle aboard a hurtling steam engine. The action set pieces are more inspired than you might expect, and even when they get a bit CGI-heavy, the punches still hit surprisingly hard. And give the crew a solid B+ for knowing how to play with absurdity of the premise. We’re not in perfect Edgar-Wright genre-bending territory here, but the most over-the-top action sequences are allowed to draw laughs from the audience without any characters having to turn and blatantly wink at the audience. That proper tone goes a long way.
Again, Walker is charismatic as Lincoln, but no other performances really stand out here. As Sturgess, Dominic Cooper can’t seem to figure much to do with the role other than be angry and distant (and look a little too much like The State’s Joe Lo Truglio.) As Mary Todd Lincoln, upcoming genre favorite Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, the Thing remake) is cute but a little directionless. And props for casting The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie to try and give the film some representation of the racial issues it somewhat hinges on, but God, couldn’t the writers have given him something to do? It’s really only Rufus Sewell as Adam, creator of all vampires, who gets to inject some life into the proceedings – all menace and quiet evil. But the flick’s not an actor’s showcase.
As stated above, there are some obvious political issues that might get to you in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. You can’t just toss issues like racism, slavery, and the Civil War into a movie without giving them any thought, but this film never really seems to make any declaration other than “Slavery = BAD!” No shit, Abe. Also, any history buffs familiar with Abe himself might flinch at the film’s the utterly rosy depiction of him. And according to the battle scenes here, you Southerners out there – you’re all vampires. Or at least your ancestors were. I know, getting annoyed at depictions of politics and history in a film like AL:VH might seem ridiculous; but if you don’t like it, maybe you should be more careful about putting one of America’s most politically loaded time periods and historical figures at the center of your pulpy vampire movie. Otherwise, give Lincoln credit for delivering some of the year’s best action spectacles, ladling on the blood, and letting the audience just go nuts with it. Top that, Daniel Day Lewis.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).