The notion of Abraham Lincoln fighting vampires screams b-movie schlock. And the trailers for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter haven't helped; audiences (including myself) have laughed with unbelief at over-the-top shots of our 16th president kicking undead butt.
However, I've learned not to judge a movie by its trailers, and this film reinforces that philosophy. Surprisingly, the horror-pulp premise and goofy name conceal an entertaining action ride with solid characters, surprises, humor and charm.
Perhaps the success of the underlying story shouldn't be a surprise. After all, when Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Pride, Prejudice and Zombies) released his 2010 book of the same name, the L.A. Times said, "a writer who can transform the greatest figure from 19th century American history into the star of an original vampire tale with humor, heart and bite is a rare find indeed." Because Graham-Smith adapted the book to the screen himself (with several smart additions/omissions), the movie retains much of that originality, fun and heart.
While dressed in horror movie motifs, this action flick plays much like a dark superhero film. By day, mild-mannered president. By night, an axe-wielding crusader. In fact, Vampire Hunter is modern folklore—a yarn about a man of mythic proportions performing amazing feats. Every generations' folk tales echo the themes and technologies of the day. Ours no longer drive steam engines or labor with an ox. They wear capes. Or kill vampires in 3-D.
It all begins when, as a boy, Lincoln witnesses a man attack his mother. His anger-fueled quest for vengeance leads a now-young adult Lincoln (stage actor Benjamin Walker) to the odd but charismatic Henry (Dominic Cooper). Henry reveals that Lincoln's mother was killed by a vampire, one of many blending in with normal Americans. Henry trains Lincoln to control his rage, become stronger, and slay these evildoers.
When Lincoln concludes his Jedi-like training, Henry sends him to Springfield where he studies law—and assassinates key undead targets. Here, he assembles a Scooby-Doo type gang of real-life Lincoln associates Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and, of course, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Eventually, Lincoln chooses to set aside his axe to fight the growing vampire threat with political might. This secret battle spans his entire life and touches all the major events in his life—the presidency, his family, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address and more. But before it's all over, President Lincoln may again be forced to pick up that trusty axe.
The vampire motif is cleverly woven through Lincoln's life during this key era in American history. It also changes the meaning of the Civil War. We learn that the vampires have built an empire in the American South; there, they take advantage of slavery as a means for a food source that, sadly, few will miss. Thus, Lincoln's efforts to stop the slave trade could be read here as having little to do with equal rights, personhood and freedom. Still, he is fighting for these people when no one else is.
The film waxes eloquent about the nature of freedom, personhood and slavery—and features strong African-American characters. Plus, characters throw out thoughtful nuggets like, "Power, real power, comes not from hate but from truth." But there were missed opportunities to go deeper; to explore the connections between vampirism and slave-ownership or between Lincoln's beliefs that all men are equal but vampires are not. The loss and moral lessons of the Civil War feel cheapened when it becomes clear that this Civil War, "a war for the soul of the country," is basically a power struggle between humans and vampires.
The movie has its own power struggle: in tone. There are almost two films here. One, an earnest period piece comparable to (despite different eras) the recent Sherlock Holmes films or Captain America: The First Avenger. The other, a geekboy-pandering action spectacle. Almost anytime the action starts, Vampire Hunter abruptly bursts into an over-stylized mix of 300's ultra-accentuated and gory spectacle, the choreographed slickness of The Matrix and so much slow-motion posturing that even John Woo would get annoyed.
This style is the signature of director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) who loves big, impossible action where characters (even humans) can do superhuman feats, where nothing has appropriate weight or registers believable impact. People fly 50 yards after being hit. Trees explode when hit by an axe as if shot by a cannon. All of it is done to look cool—and to pander to 3D.(Nothing strips away the poignancy and tragedy of witnessing a small black boy whipped like a slo-mo zoom on the whip's tip so it snaps in the faces of the audience.)
This over-stylization, disregard of physics and heavy digitalization (to the point of action sequences looking like The Polar Express) usually drives me crazy. Here, however, I found myself excusing it because of the strong story—sold by empathetic characters and sincere acting (especially Walker, Winstead and Cooper). When not in action mode, the movie has surprising appeal and power; it's interesting, charming and even moving. In fact, I was surprised by the restraint and gentleness shown in certain tough scenes.
Yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is ridiculous. However, the movie never winks at the audience. It takes all its preposterousness so seriously that I found it strangely endearing. The movie so believes that Abe Lincoln fought vampires for his country—and so passionately dives into that reality—that I did, too. When the cheeseball, unbelievable moments came, I found I was not rolling my eyes or laughing in mockery but legitimately enjoying myself in a crazy thrill-filled adventure. And even cheering on my new bearded superhero: "Heck, ya! Get 'em, Abe!"
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What do you make of how the film's re-written history changes 1) the lessons/meaning of The Civil War, 2) Lincoln's motivations/character, and 3) America's slavery chapter?
- Compare the vampires here with the "sexy," romantic vampires of Twilight. What makes them different? What do vampires usually represent in fiction? What do they symbolize here?
- There are passing references to Scripture and God throughout—from Genesis 17:5 to Judas to the traits and limitations God placed on vampires. What did you think of all that? Just banal references? Are they thought-provoking?
- Adam says, "We're all slaves to something." Is he right? What seemed to be his point? What commentary does this have on the real-life slave-trade?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Rated R for violence throughout and brief sexuality. While stylized, the violence is frequent, graphic and gory. Blood often splatters, vampires bite victims, a man is shot in both eyes, countless heads are cut off. A couple has sex in a bathtub; only the woman's back is seen. A woman's dead body is glimpsed topless. There is one f-word and a few uses of the Lord's name in vain.
Photos © 20th Century Fox
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