"Abraham Lincoln" Aims a Stake at the Heart, and Sometimes Hits It Review

It must be an exciting time to be Seth Grahame-Smith. The scribe hit the jackpot a couple years back with his Jane Austen mash-up novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which sparked a wave of (mostly inferior) imitators and fed the public’s lasting appetite for the undead. He then turned his hand to screenwriting, co-penning Tim Burton’s recent film Dark Shadows, and released his second original novel, Unholy Night, a bizarre version of the legend of the Three Wise Men. Most recently, however, he wrote the adaptation for the film of his first novel, another alternative take on what has been accepted by most Americans as simple historical fact.

That film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is released in theaters this weekend, in both regular and three-dimensional formats. It showcases what has become obvious to those familiar with the author’s material: that one of Grahame-Smith’s biggest talents is indeed riffing on other people’s material, whether it is fiction or fact. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as both a book and a film, is exactly what it sounds like. It strives to take an established American hero and transform him into an alternative action hero. However, whereas the book was a nonstop thrill ride, in both its dark and weirdly humorous moments, the film version is more of a mixed bag. Even as adapted and altered for the screen by the book’s author itself, it somehow manages to not speak with the same voice. Things that on the page strike the reader as clever and funny come across as cheesy and borderline clichéd on the big screen. Yet that does not keep the film version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter from being enjoyable in its own way.

The film opens as a young Abe, always striving to do what’s right, picks a fight with the malicious Jack Barts in order to protect his dear friend Will from being beaten due to the color of his skin, despite being born free. However, Barts doesn’t take insult easily. When Abe’s mother is stricken with a mysterious illness and dies shortly after Abe witnesses Barts breaking into their cabin, the young boy refuses to rest until he has had his vengeance.

Little does he know, as difficult as killing a man might be, killing the undead is even harder. After one brutally violent one encounter that nearly results in Abe’s death, he embraces the tutelage of the mysterious Henry Sturges, played by the always charming and charismatic Dominic Cooper. Cooper has played both villains and heroes, in pieces both contemporary and historical. His broad range of talents is perfect for a film of such a hodge-podge of genres as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Sturges trains Abe in the fine art of slaying those who should already be cold in the ground, which results in an epic montage of axe throwing that merely hints at the action sequences yet to come.

Cooper is not the only actor in the ensemble who seems weirdly well-fitted to such material. The rest of the cast is talented too, and embrace their roles in the absurdity that follows with much aplomb. Best of them all is the film’s leading man, Benjamin Walker, as the adult Abraham Lincoln. Walker is best known for playing another alternative version of an American president, the title role in the Tony Award-winning musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  He brings his theatrical chops to the role of Lincoln in a way that makes his axe-wielding action sequences just as believable as his great orations. He also bears a remarkable resemblance to Lincoln himself, which is enhanced through makeup as he ages from youthful law student and warrior to leader of a nation. His dedication to the role makes the insanity of the plot and the inanity of most of the dialogue much easier to swallow.

The film hits all of the basic historical milestones—meeting Abe’s wife Mary Todd (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, someone who while enjoyable to watch, has a rather modern brand of beauty that seems out of place in the Civil War era), the Emancipation Proclamation, the heartbreaking violence of the Civil War—while also implying that while Abraham Lincoln was struggling to unite our country, he was also secretly trying to suppress a vampire uprising led by a cold-blooded killer named Adam (Rufus Sewell). Yes, the entire thing is ridiculous, and borderline offensive, and there are a few heavy-handed slavery allegories, but no one should go into a showing thinking that such a story would be a paragon of tasteful storytelling anyways. Said story doesn’t skimp on the violence on any fronts, which ends up being its biggest strength. What the film lacks in dramatic heft, it makes up for in some mind-blowing cool fight scenes pitting an axe-wielding Abe against multitudes of vicious vampires, complete with gratuitous blood-swirls and slow-motion leaping. Herds of horses, carriages, and burning trains all become involved as one battle segues into the next without much time for exposition. Yet, is exposition the main reason why anyone sees a film called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Grahame-Smith’s script is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who has done brutal violence as a bloody dance before in the film Wanted, and vampires before in the Night Watch trilogy. He therefore could not have been more perfect to take on this material. The film’s stylized Gothic quality is enhanced by plenty of fog and shadowy cinematography, as well as a great musical score. Tim Burton’s name is attached as a producer. And yet somehow, with all of these big names  prominently credited, I know that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will probably tank at the box office. It’s not a film for everyone and should not be marketed as such. It might have high production values, but Grahame-Smith’s story is one that belongs on the midnight cult-movie circuit. If you walk into a screening with that expectation, you will groan in equal amounts at the gore and the goofiness, but you’ll also have a good time. 

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" opens June 22, 2012 and is rated R. Action. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell.

Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 


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