One of the biggest question marks of the summer movie season has been “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Timur Bekmambetov‘s $70 million R-rated historical mash-up that sees the sixteenth President of the United States fighting undead creatures and the evils of slavery, all at the same time (in 3D, no less). Based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay (with uncredited help from Simon Kinberg), and produced by top ghoul Tim Burton, the trailers and television spots didn’t completely convey whether or not it was supposed to be funny or scary, serious or silly. It turns out that (brilliantly) — it’s both. Somehow the movie manages to be fun and tongue-in-cheek without ever seeming disrespectful. It’s a winning combination of history and horror where Honest Abe is able to kick serious ass.
The movie starts out with the very simple premise that Abraham Lincoln (played by Broadway sensation Benjamin Walker) has, from a young age, been a ruthless assassin of the undead. The reason for his vengeful spirit is that his mother, Nancy (Robin McLeavy), was killed by a vampire when Lincoln was just a boy, murdered by the monster (Marton Csokas) because of a debt Lincoln’s father Thomas (Jospeh Mawle) owed. Abe wanted revenge but promised his father that he wouldn’t seek it. Naturally, as soon as Lincoln’s father passes, he figures he can now exact his revenge. But he’s clumsy and ill prepared, and falls under the tutelage of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who gives Lincoln the tools he needs to battle the fanged forces of darkness.
Henry explains that his mother’s killer is just one of a number of powerful vampires, led by Adam (perpetual old timey villain Rufus Sewell), who want to use slavery as a means of trafficking an unlimited food supply for the vampire underground. Henry gives Lincoln a list of vampires to kill and together they begin ridding Illinois of its demonic population. From early in the movie, the story of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” dovetails nicely with actual historical events – his ascent as a young lawyer, courtship of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and his interest in politics and equal rights for every American. It gives the movie nice railroad tracks for the narrative to follow and grounds it in some reality, even when Bekmambetov, the noted stylist behind the “Nightwatch“/”Daywatch” movies and the Angelina Jolie assassin thriller “Wanted,” goes completely, wonderfully off the rails (like he does during a dusty stampede chase sequence).
As the movie progresses, it also becomes way more fun. Bekmambetov, Burton, and Grahame-Smith portray Lincoln as a kind of historical superhero – he wears a long leather duster, fights with a silver-dipped axe, and has the ropey frame of a bare-knuckle brawler. When we finally see Abe in the guise that we all know so well – funereally black suit, shin-lining beard – it’s in a slow motion roll, the historical figure stepping forth out of the darkness. It’s a powerful image (in 3D even more so), and goes a long way in exemplifying why “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” works so well – it clearly has a sense of humor about its subject matter (unlike, say, the similar mash-up concept behind “Cowboys & Aliens“) but isn’t afraid to be faithful when necessary, in a way that doesn’t disrespect the plight of slavery and those that laid down their lives in the Civil War that followed.
It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” pulls off with ease. As his political power rises, his vampire hunting is on the backburner, but once Adam starts supplying vampire troops to the South in the Civil War, Lincoln steps up. This climaxes with a truly amazing sequence set on a speeding locomotive, as Lincoln and his partners (including a stoic Anthony Mackie as William Johnson, his friend and confidant, and Jimmi Simpson as Joshua Speed, the fictional owner of the feed store Lincoln once worked at) try to get a batch of silver to the frontlines to fight the vampire menace. It’s a virtuoso, multifaceted sequence that showcases Bekmambetov’s visual genius and the way he plays with the physics of a setpiece, bending it around and stretching it like taffy. The sequence is also the best use of 3D in the movie, with flickering embers gliding through the frame, chocking smoke hanging in the air, and bright splashes of goopy blood flying towards the camera as vampires are slashed, staked and beheaded. When Abe goes Buffy on these bloodsuckers, look out.
“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is a proudly B movie, and as such sometimes favors empty spectacle over genuine cleverness. Sometimes you’ll wish the story delved slightly deeper into history, to make it resonate even more, and the ending of the movie, altered drastically from the novel (and not for the better), errs on the side of convention when it could have been slightly bolder. But these are minor quibbles with a picture that is surprisingly solid, a genuine treat in a summer filled with manufactured spectacle. The beautiful cinematography by Caleb Deschanel owes a considerable debt to the “pinhole” style that Roger Deakins used for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” giving the center of the frame the most important spot and then slightly blurring the outer edge, like an old western photograph, a bold stylistic choice for a movie this expensive (and, it turns out, the right choice). Bekmambetov, Burton, and Grahame-Smith have created the rare historical-based fantasy that seems authentic enough to snuggle next to the real thing, anchored by the heartfelt and dynamic performance of Walker as Lincoln. His Honest Abe not only speaks with the eloquence and conviction we’ve come to understand from the history books, he fights with it too. [B+]