Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter goes from utterly preposterous to dead series (and back) faster than our 16th President could decapitate a bloodsucker. What, you didn’t know that one of America’s most revered leaders battled the undead before and during his tenure in office? The concept feels as if it emerged from a Mad Libs session gone haywire, and the film itself weirdly treads a line of being self-aware (how can it not be with a title like that) and playing things a bit too straight for its own good, at times losing its narrative momentum when it should be pumping adrenaline instead of going for quiet drama. But as a fan of ridiculous movies, I can’t think of a more ludicrous film I’ve seen this year; this is a period piece from the director of Wanted, and it totally lives up to that description and all the insanity it implies.
Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 book, the story offers a revisionist tale of the Civil War with vampires and Southerners standing side by side in support of slavery as Lincoln leads the charge of opposition. Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, treats vampire lore better here than he did in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows earlier this year. This time, though the undead can be killed with silver (isn’t that werewolves?), he credits them with inventing sunscreen so they can wander around during the way without bursting into flames. Smooth. Historical comedy, including references to the Underground Railroad, “Honest” Abe,and visiting the theater, offers a few chuckles here and there, but the film is mostly concerned with striking a balance between action and drama.
And man, does that action get absurd. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov incorporates the same signature stylistic flourishes he did in his Night Watch films (think Zack Snyder’s speed-ramping) over and over again, so most of the fight sequences feel the same and never carry the weight that Bekmambetov wants. Except, of course, for two brilliantly outlandish setpieces, both of which are easily wild enough to crack a Top 10 Most Ridiculous Scenes of the Year list. One of these sequences sees Lincoln chasing his fanged prey (the guy murdered Abe’s mother, Lincoln wants revenge, yadda yadda yadda) across the backs of hundreds of CGI horses during a stampede, punctuated by the funniest moment in the film in which the villain grabs a horse by its hoof, swings it over his head, and hurls it at Abe, who catches it, slides atop it without breaking stride, and charges along on its back as he continues the chase. The climactic train battle deserves an entire review to itself, but suffice it to say that it’s the most laughable setpiece of the year so far.
Those are the highlights meant to get your heart pumping, but for a movie with such a crazy concept, the acting is surprisingly solid throughout and many of the quiet moments are more effective than the 3D blood splattering you get every few minutes. Benjamin Walker plays Abe completely straight, swinging and flinging his axe around like a baton without so much as cracking a smile. Mary Elizabeth Winstead brought a gravitas to the film that not many young actresses could match, and Anthony Mackie delivered yet another solid supporting turn. (When is he going to get a franchise of his own? Perhaps he could play Black Panther in Marvel’s upcoming film.) Dominic Cooper and Rufus Sewell adequately chewed the scenery in their respective roles, rounding out a cast that seems to be having a good time and totally in on the joke of the film.
I do have a few gripes, though. The 3D was awful; whereas most 3D these days seems to draw you into the frame by creating depth further away from the screen, this movie seems to perpetually set everything a few inches out in front, and with the excess of close-ups, the whole effect is a bit much. There was a gigantic editing mistake in the movie where the filmmakers obviously recut the film to improve the pacing, but forgot that Lincoln was injured during a key sequence; the result is that he’s injured, heals during a training montage, is injured again for one scene without any acknowledgement of his injury, and then heals again. It’s a huge continuity gaff that I can’t believe they didn’t reshoot, but it must have been done at the last minute and I’m guessing they didn’t have the time or budget to do it correctly. Walker ages at least 30 years in the film thanks to the movie’s makeup artists, but Anthony Mackie’s character, who is supposed to age the same amount, barely looks different at all. And one of Abe’s big revelations comes late in the movie when he realizes that silver is the only way to kill the vampire army, even though the silver trick was literally one of the first things he learns as a vampire hunter.
Despite my problems with it, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a fun and hilarious retelling of one of America’s most famous icons that should please both fans of action and the absurd. If you’re worried about the politics of the movie, don’t be – even when Abe takes a quick break to become President in the film, the movie brushes over these sequences almost as an afterthought until he has to pull his axe out of retirement and bust some skulls again to save America. I just wish there was more horse-jumping. Until next time…