While you might think you know what you’re getting with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, director Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith seem bound and determined to defy any expectations viewers bring with them. While some might initially lump this in with 1966’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and other fodder that’s knowingly bad, those involved with this mash-up play it straight, delivering the story as if it were a groundbreaking documentary on The History Channel. Surprisingly, it works, as the cast and Bekmambetov never waver in the serious tone they take. This results in a movie that’s far more entertaining than it has any right to be, while it makes some surprisingly pointed metaphors as it draws comparisons from its outlandish premise to the War Between the States.
The film wastes little time filling in the gaps of our history books. It opens up on a young Lincoln growing up in Indiana, witnessing the vagaries of slavery firsthand when he sees his young friend Will abused at the hands of his master. Interfering when he shouldn’t, the would-be emancipator sees his family targeted by a group of vampires who are in league with local slave-runners. Seems the undead have set up their headquarters in the Deep South where feeding is easy, what with the slave population so readily at hand. While historians may claim Nancy Lincoln died of milk poisoning, revisions must be done as the film assures us that she was a victim of a vampire attack.
As Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) grows, his thirst for vengeance consumes him. Under the tutelage of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), he learns to dispatch vampires with a single whack from his silver-headed axe, going from town to town on his personal scorched earth campaign. Finally settling in Springfield, he meets and marries Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), enters into a life of politics, which leads to the White House, all the while being closely watched by Adam (Rufus Sewell), the king of the undead, who’s eager to test Lincoln’s mettle.
In keeping with the film’s serious tone, the production values are top-notch. All of the period costumes, sets and locations have a worn, authentic feel to them. This helps considerably in creating a genuine sense of a past in which supernatural beings might thrive, fueled by a pervasive belief in the supernatural. However, the most effective tool in selling this tale is how Grahame-Smith weaves his alternate history with real-life events. Slavery is equated with vampirism as similar states of being undead. It proves to be an unexpectedly powerful metaphor, especially once the Civil War gets underway. We see rebels and the undead fighting side-by-side to preserve their way of life.
The script has plenty of holes in it (Lincoln and his aides are able to melt boxcar loads of silver and fashion it into cannonballs and bayonets overnight), but Bekmambetov wisely keeps things moving at a near breathless pace, moving from gory battle to historical interlude and back again with a fluidity that effortlessly sweeps you away. While Walker is a bit stiff early on, he grows into the role. Winstead humanizes Mary by giving her a fiery wit and sense of resolve in the face of considerable adversity.
Against all odds, Lincoln proves to be a bloody good time that works because it refuses to play things tongue in cheek, maintaining a consistent tone throughout. This is wise, as a film divided against itself cannot stand.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.