The film’s demise among the glut of summer blockbuster fare is not surprising. The idea of a revisionist history story of Abe Lincoln’s alter ego as a Van Helsing-like vampire hunter playing against the historical story of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves should never have been elevated above B-movie production values. Thus, the amount of money spent to make this movie (reportedly $70 million) is staggering. At best this is a Bruce Campbell movie (like Bubba Ho-Tep), an effect which raises our expectations for this idiosyncratic story of alternate history to actually penetrate the mainstream. It’s not all that bad, most of it is watchable, but at the end of the day, all people will remember of this film is its failure at the box office.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012) dir. Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie
By Alan Bacchus
There’s no doubt the mere title of this movie is intriguing, the kind of cross-pollination project screenwriters spitball and discard just for fun. Somehow this one stuck. Well, first it started with Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel, which he adapted into his own screenplay for this film. Secondly, there was the attraction of Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, who also paired on the animated film 9. Presumably on the strength of this power pair it was a good bet for 20th Century Fox, who produced and distributed it.
At its core it’s a superhero origin story, initially introducing Lincoln as a child witnessing the murder of his mother at the mouth and fangs of a particularly nasty blood-sucking vampire. Lincoln spends the rest of his life vowing revenge against this beast of a man. Eventually finding his Jedi-mentor figure in Henry Sturges (Cooper), Lincoln learns the ways of the vampire and the skills to hunt and kill these creatures, which clandestinely have permeated America and are plotting to take over the country.
And thus, while Lincoln is building his career as a lawyer, by night he’s killing vampires one by one with his expertly wielded axe until he reaches the killer of his mother. Years later, after he become President and once again faces the threat of vampires aiding the Confederate military in the Civil War, Lincoln comes out of retirement to kick some more vampire ass in the name of American freedom.
Courageously, Burton/Bekmambetov cast a new face in the role of Lincoln with Benjamin Walker, who wears the Lincoln top hat nicely and makes a good young Lincoln in the opening half of the film. Like most superhero films the origin stories are the most intriguing, and while Grahame-Smith follows the mythological template to the letter, Walker’s fresh-faced performance and Bekmambetov’s flare with the action make it all visually stimulating.
The film loses steam in the second half with the elder President Lincoln (Walker in heavy makeup) dealing with the political ramifications of Emancipation and the Civil War. The use of the historically significant ordeal of black slaves in this uniformly pulpy material is kind of off-putting. The strong feeling of guilt watching Anthony Mackie’s Will Johnson, who becomes a target for the racist Vampire Confederates, was enough to make me uncomfortable. Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith’s message here is trite and thus too exploitative of the issue of slavery.
But the film fails because of the lazy third act, an unmemorable action scene aboard a train, full of engorged and ridiculously unrealistic green-screen action, most of which is impossible by the laws of physics. And we don’t even get to see the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth played out in the end – what a gyp!
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.