Twisting history can be amusing and in some cases even insightful. Seth Grahame-Smith aimed for both with his book, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” but his film version doesn’t exactly achieve the balancing act.
Understandably, history takes a back seat in “Vampire Hunter,” but rather than go with a Gothic action approach to the vampire side of things, 20th Century Fox hired Timur Bekmambetov, who employs his hyper-stylized technique, which renders the film into a truly schizophrenic affair. It’s a gritty revenge tale mixed with campy horror and philosophical undertones about freedom.
Newcomer Benjamin Walker was an excellent choice to play Lincoln, and had he been cast in a non-fiction biopic, he would’ve excelled. He makes a downright convincing older Lincoln, the president/man we know him as, but obviously, that’s not the focal point of “Vampire Hunter.” Still, Walker’s not so bad with an axe. He will remind many of Liam Neeson, an actor capable of both action and drama, who had this been 15-20 years ago, would’ve been a great fit for the part.
The core of this version of Lincoln is defined by the death of Lincoln’s parents at the hand of vampires. After saving his childhood friend (Anthony Mackie) from abuse, Lincoln unknowingly got his dad mixed up with a vampire. When that vampire claims his parents’ lives, he grows up seeking revenge but knows not what he is getting himself into. With the help of another vampire hunter named Henry (Dominic Cooper), Abe trains himself with an axe to become a vampire hunter and dedicates himself to the profession despite being purely motivated by revenge.
Lincoln would rather moonlight as a slayer of the undead, however, and can’t help but fall for a local girl in Springfield named Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and pursue other ambitions, namely studying to be a lawyer and flirting with the idea of politics. But delivering rousing speeches and slaying vampires is a tough balancing act that costs him dearly.
And that problem is mirrored by the film. With its priorities on telling the vampire side of Lincoln’s life, it glazes over everything else in terms of motivation and ambition. We are to go entirely off of what we know about Lincoln from the real books, which ends up to be a big mistake on Grahame-Smith’s part in his screenplay. Although he is mindful of the real Lincoln and cleverly twists the real timeline to fit his vampire mythology, when the film fast-forwards to older Lincoln in the final act, we have no real sense of the character and how he has internally been able to reconcile his public and private lives.
It sounds like that’s asking too much of a film called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” and in a sense that’s true. As he did with “Wanted,” Bekmambetov delivers action and gore that will smack a stupid grin on your face whether you like it or not. It would just be nice if there was a little more effort put into linking the different element of the story in a more cohesive manner. Doing so would’ve at least enhanced the stakes of the plot, which won’t elicit any kind of emotion.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it overestimates how much its audience will appreciate its rhetoric as found in the narration. The idea of how history remembers events a specific way and leaves out certain details about the sacrifice involved is quite valid, but amidst the slow-motion baton twirling of an axe, it only has so much of an impact.
Bekmambetov’s reliance on digital effects also ruins how effective the movie can be, as much as it does make it “cool” at times. Films set in the 1800s usually don’t have this problem, but it is here. The style of the action is clearly valued over the style that would best suit the film as a whole. Even then, the budget allows for only a mediocre use of CGI at best, or at least that’s the impressive some of the effects shots give off. In today’s blockbuster market, you ca’t ever afford to look cheap, and “Vampire Hunter” includes too many cheap-looking effects shots. Some sequences benefit from a cartoony quality, but most don’t.
Butchering history (even literally) shouldn’t automatically discredit how seriously a film should be taken, but the decision to take factual liberties should at least be based in some creative justification. The mere concept of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” seems like enough to warrant creative freedom, but the film just doesn’t capture that spirit the way you hope something so absurd-sounding would.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay, book)
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell