Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really shouldn’t work. Apart from the title and the completely ludicrous play on history that suggests, it’s a period vampire epic requiring a budget big enough for the vision, an R-rating, and a cast of character actors as opposed to shirtless Teen Beat coverboys. The fact that this thing even got made is a bloody miracle. The fact that it actually works and is a shit tonne of campy fun is completely inexplicable.
If the title intrigues you, you simply can’t get to the theatre fast enough to watch Honest Abe emancipate the nation while kicking some good old-fashioned vampire tuckus. If not, then chances are the movie isn’t for you. Even though it’s ultimately dopey, vampy, gory, silly, inane genre movie fun, this thing makes no attempt to pander to the masses. You’ll either laugh and cheer along with this clinically insane concept or you won’t be able to roll yours eyes far enough into your head. In theory, it shouldn’t be possible for that kind of divisive entertainment to come out of the summer blockbuster conveyer belt, but somehow it happened and we should all be grateful. It’s not often a blockbuster emerges with cult appeal and if that’s not enough to make a movie geek giddy, then what the hell is?
Adapted from the best-selling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the screenplay himself), the film finally, after years of unnecessary censorship, tells the true story of Abraham Lincoln’s heroic life/presidency. Yes, he freed the slaves. We all know that and good for Abe. But in the grand scheme of things Lincoln’s finest achievement was secretly ridding the South of that pesky vampire problem. You see as a child, Lincoln’s mother was bitten by a vampire and he swore revenge. As a young man he trained extensively in the fine art of vampire ass-kickery under the tutelage of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), a master of such things. Lincoln’s weapon of choice was a silver-covered axe that he wields like a ninja while slicing n’ dicing his way through bloodsuckers.
Eventually Sturges sent Abe to Springfield on a vampire killing assignment. While there he fell in love with and wed Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), became a lawyer, became a passionate human rights activist, entered politics, and of course axed his way through all of the fanged fiends in town. As we all know, he eventually became president and was pretty good at the job from what I understand. Unfortunately, there was one problem. The vampire leader Adam (Rufus Sewall) never forgot about Lincoln’s killer past during the presidency and eventually offered an army of unstoppable vampires to help out the south at Gettysburg. Of course, if the history books have taught us anything about Lincoln, it’s that he fucking hates vampires and is more than happy to come out of retirement to swing that axe once more to rid the US of slavery/vampires and become a national hero/superhero.
The film is directed by Russian genre specialist Timur Bekmambetov who was previously responsible for the subtitled vampire epic Nightwatch and the comic book adaptation Wanted. Bekmambetov has always been a style over content filmmaker who tends to favor trailer-reel set pieces and visual pyrotechnics over story and characterization. The guy definitely brings his considerable stylistic gifts to this project, creating an incredible array of axe-based bloody battles (one scene involving two good guys, one axe, and a pile of dead vampires is particularly fantastic) and huge action scenes. It’s packed with rip-roaring entertainment and thanks to a solid script from Grahame-Smith and a game cast led by Benjamin Walker’s stately badass version of Lincoln.
As you’d hope from the title alone, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a pretty funny movie. Yet Bekmambetov plays things so straight that at times you have to wonder if he was even aware he was making something loosely comedic. Certainly that was a clear intention of the book and it’s easy to imagine this exact screenplay being played purely for laughs by a more comedy-minded band of filmmakers. Yet, Bekmambetov didn’t cast comedic actors (with few exceptions like Alan Tudyk who wisely plays along) and doesn’t so much play the comedy as deadpan, but completely straight as if it isn’t there. As a result, the humor comes out of the inherent absurdity of the material and is there only if you’re looking for it while most viewers (and possibly even the director) won’t even notice. That gives the film a unique tone that adds a lot to its potential cult appeal.
It’s not exactly a surprise to say that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a movie that will divide audiences. Some will appreciate that lunatic combination of revisionist history and ludicrous genre thrills, while others will fall asleep. With this type of movie, you wouldn’t want it any other way. The fact that it even got made by a Hollywood studio on a blockbuster scale is incredible and an audiences just insane enough to enjoy it are sure to find and embrace this thing. The combination of thrill ride and camp comedy is impossible to resist if you fall into the weirdo target market. The movie walks that fine line between clever and stupid that the boys of Spinal Tap noticed long ago and qualifies as the most pleasant surprise of the summer so far. It probably won’t be a massive hit because it’s such a niche property, but this time of year that’s a welcome relief.