A film that delivers on everything it promises in the title. Big and fun, the impressively staged action and an earnest cast lift this out of B-territory.
After a series of parody and non-fiction books, writer Seth Grahame-Smith struck upon gold with the mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The success of the film was parlayed into the 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which relied on the ‘secret diaries’ of the 16th president of the United States, giving an alternative history from his childhood through to his assassination. The high-concept speculative fiction is something that has been sorely absent from cinemas of late, and the fun (if uneven) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter aims to return this to audiences.
As a young boy, Abraham Lincoln sees his mother (Robin McLeavy) attacked by vindictive plantation owner Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), and she later dies. Waiting until his father shuffles off the mortal coil, the adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) unsuccessfully seeks revenge on Barts, who overpowers him with unnatural speed. Catching the attention of the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), Lincoln learns that not only do vampire exist, but Barts and his powerful master Adam (Rufus Sewell) are some of the baddest of the breed. Trained by Sturgess in the art of vampire slaying, Lincoln continues to fight the good fight, even as his life progresses in different directions with new love Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a blossoming political career.
Grahame-Smith has always insisted that with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the joke ends with the title, and it is immediately striking just how seriously the film takes itself. Mixing historical fact with speculation, as all good biopics do, Grahame-Smith’s script is careful not to betray the legacy of one of the most famous presidents in US history. Indeed, many of the background elements mirror significant moments in Lincoln’s past, recreating the period faithfully, albeit one that has vampires in it. Sure, it takes the same liberties with the material as any filmmaker would, such as glossing over the fact that Abe’s closest confidant, the African-American William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), was his valet and barber and actually died of smallpox he contracted from Lincoln. Yet the film posits itself as a secret history, rather than an alternative one, and some of the fun comes in seeing how Grahame-Smith weaves milestones such as the Gettysburg Address into a vampire narrative.
Walker, who previously played the seventh US president Andrew Jackson in the comic Wild West Broadway rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, embraces the role of “Honest” Abe. Portrayed as a stickler for the truth above all things, Walker’s unwavering earnestness sells the more outlandish elements. Cooper effortlessly plays the roguish mentor, while Sewell has to do very little to convey cat-stroking sinisterness at this point in his career. The capable Winstead and Mackie are both underused, although the pair bring an unmistakable screen presence that belies their supporting roles.
Above all things, it is the stamp of the mad Russian Bekmambetov that defines the film stylistically. Full of stop-start slow-motion sequences, this technique is starting to feel all played out, although a climactic sequence aboard a train ranks highly with recent action films. The film certainly jumps around narratively, Grahame-Smith cutting out the guts of his original novel and giving us the Reader’s Digest version. Regardless, even if the plot holes are big enough to sink several fangs into at once, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a joyously over-the-top mash-up, and there is much enjoyment to be had if you just let yourself go with it.