The ridiculously conceived, but heartily entertaining Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter comes wrapped in a joke that only certain audience members will fully be able to appreciate and understand. It’s a rare beast of a summer blockbuster that combines ludicrous revisionist history, horror movie tropes, deadpan comedy, sight gags, and a costume drama all into a single package. It might sound like an overstuffed mess, but that seems to be the entire point to the project. John Landis once said that there are no set rules for how to make a vampire movie because vampires don’t exist, and director Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the best selling novel the film was based on) definitely subscribe to that theory, but in order for their gleeful B-movie joke to work the viewer’s mind has to go to a special place where they can only think about just how silly what they are watching truly is. Shut your brain off for the action, but leave it open for the comedy to work.
Benjamin Walker stars as the famed 16th president of the United States; the man who worked tirelessly from humble beginnings to become a respected lawyer who would one day become the powerful leader that rallied the union through its darkest hours during the Civil War. But he was also apparently a man bent on revenge after the murder of his mother as a child by a vampire. Joining up with a sympathetic mentor (Dominic Cooper), the great emancipator trains his mind and body to become an unstoppable killer of bloodsuckers all while his political career begins to flourish. However, when the war between the States finally arises, a wealthy slave owner and influential vampire (Rufus Sewell) seeks revenge on Lincoln and world domination by providing an army of the undead to wreak havoc at Gettysburg.
It should go without saying that nothing in the film makes a lick of sense, but for purists who think that it has to at all, I generously refer you back to the title of the film. There are only three real valid criticisms that can be levied against a film that’s this good at what it does. It might be overkill, but that’s an endlessly debatable and circular argument when talking about something this patently outlandish. The cinematography is pretty crappy in that the period detail and 3-D are impeccable, but in simpler sequences it appears shot in the same wonky digital photography that made Michael Mann’s Public Enemies look so unconvincing. Also, it’s in slightly poor taste to suggest that there were vampires involved in the film’s climactic battle at Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle to ever take place on US soil.
Aside from those points, there’s really not much that can be said against a film that plays this fast and loose with audience expectations. It’s the kind of movie where Abe Lincoln has a horse literally thrown at him and where a vampire can literally lift a locomotive that’s about to plummet into a chasm back onto the tracks. It’s pure pop fantasy of the highest order, but with a greater sense of humour than Bekmambetov’s previous efforts (the only slightly humorous adolescent male fantasy of Wanted, the dour and inert Nightwatch and Daywatch). It’s so earnest in its playfulness and sometimes boorishly loud nature that it’s hard to say anything bad about it.
The dialogue is patently ridiculous as to create a tone of pomposity to rival more straightlaced historical epics. The movie makes the tone known up-front to attentive audience members when it says that people respond more greatly to big words, speeches, and deeds than to the simple story of a simple man. The cast plays to the material brilliantly for the most part, with Walker leading the way as the refined and dignified vampire slayer and Cooper coming mostly unhinged to devour the scenery as his teacher with a dark secret. Sewell’s character as a villain might be bland on paper, but his performance here hearkens back to the equally revisionist A Knight’s Tale where he also played a ruthless cad surrounded by historical figures that were never there to begin with. Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson have some great moments as Abe’s faithful right-hand men, a free black man and his former boss, respectively. Mary Elizabeth Winstead also shows up as Mary Todd Lincoln, and gets some of the funniest moments in the film almost without even trying. These people make the film’s comedy look and feel effortless amid the chaos around them.
Bekmambetov also uses the film as a fine display of his chops as an action director. While I’m not usually a fan of watching souped-up, bullet-timed, slow-motion set pieces, his trademark lesser-Wachowski style of filmmaking adds to the film’s revisionist leanings. While the director himself might not even fully understand the tone he was trying to achieve, he certainly understands the humour of the endeavour, never once attempting to take the film in deathly serious directions when they aren’t needed.
Sure, the way that time elapses in the film makes absolutely no sense and any sense of traditional vampire logic has been thrown out the window, but the emphasis here is precisely on creating something that audiences have never seen before as a whole, and in that regard Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is more than a guilty pleasure. It’s an outright success. If you don’t want to go along for that ride, stay home and watch the History Channel or a Twilight movie or a Merchant Ivory epic and stick to watching the same things that make you feel comfortable.
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Top image: A scene from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.