Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith
Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas
How long is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? 105 minutes.
What is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter rated? R for violence throughout and brief sexuality.
Completely silly, thoroughly entertaining revisionist history swept under the rug by Pixar’s latest.
It’s sweltering throughout the southern US right now, and in hot weather people flock to theaters – it’s dark, cool, and often foolishly entertaining in there this time of year. On June 22nd, theaters around the country were packed with people anxiously awaiting Pixar’s latest (and from all the preliminary reviews, greatest). So when I waltzed into the theater showing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, prepared to scout out seats for myself and a few friends, I was stunned to see the trailer for Django Unchained playing to five hundred empty seats.
The great thing about an empty theater is that you can act out your own (not as awesome) version of MST3K, project your aggression onto the characters onscreen, and generally act like a fool. In other words, it’s the best environment in which to take in a movie like Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Fantastical revisionist histories are not a new thing (see: CSA: Confederate States of America, Red Dawn), but inserting supernatural beings into great literature (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies) and into the lives of America’s most beloved presidents is a fairly recent trend. In Timur Bekmambetov’s latest offering (penned by and based on the titular book by Seth Grahame-Smith), Honest Abe, that lanky gentleman with the top hat whose pleasant face graces our least valuable coin, is…well, what else? He’s a vampire hunter. Grahame-Smith weaves Lincoln’s passion for Abolition together with his other, secret obsession: ridding this great nation of vampires.
During the 16th President’s childhood in Indiana, Grahame-Smith writes, Abe got on the wrong side of a slaveowner as boy-Abe struggled to protect his black best friend, Will Johnson. Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), wearing darkly tinted sunglasses and a perpetual sneer brimming with ragged yellow teeth, is not just a simple Southern man; he attacks Abe’s mother in the dead of night, sucking the blood from her body as Abe watches.
Years later, a teenaged Abraham (Benjamin Walker, a perfect casting choice if ever there was one) seeks out Barts to wreak vengeance for his mother’s murder. So begins our nation’s forefather’s journey into the depths of hell – and one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve seen in awhile. Every vampire hunter needs a mentor (Buffy Summers has Giles, Blade had Whistler), and in Abe’s case the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) provides. Sturgess warns him, “No friends, no wife; you can have no one.” Well, as we all know, that isn’t how it worked out. Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was at the time engaged to senator Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), finds herself infatuated with Abe’s passion and sense of adventure, and before long the two are married. (As a side note, using “Firefly”’s favorite pilot and Scott Pilgrim’s favorite lady in one movie ups the nerd factor in a good way.) Lincoln’s life progresses the way the history books tell it – he becomes a successful lawyer, attains the Presidency, and has a son with Mary, all while struggling to keep the nation safe from the undead.
These undead, led by Adam (perpetually spooky Rufus Sewell), saw slavery in the US for its lucrative properties…but also as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Seeing as how people were effectively chattel, they made very easy targets for the bloodsuckers. These undead led the Confederate Army into battle – and how could the Yankees fight the immortal?
But that would be revealing too much. What you need to know about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is this: you’ll almost certainly enjoy yourself. You will laugh. The characters do unbelievable things with ordinary tools; they toss each other like rag dolls; they bounce back after mortal blows. You know that scene in every second action film where a hero and villain battle atop moving traffic, leaping improbable lengths while hurling objects at each other at the expense of public safety? Well, no one had mass-produced automobiles yet in the beginning of Abe Lincoln’s life, so instead there are mustangs (it’s brilliant). The final scene takes place atop a moving steam locomotive (Wanted‘s Bekmambetov enjoys trains).
I’m wary of 3D, as anyone who’s read my writing before knows. I blame James Cameron for this blight on cinema. It’s a scam. So few filmmakers know how to use it correctly, so few theaters truly understand how to accommodate the technology, that it often makes for a more frustrating moviegoing experience than plain old 2D.
That’s not true of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. 3D is a perfect venue for a movie like this one. Bekmambetov’s vampires have shimmering eyes whose effect is truly chilling with the extra “dimension;” their eyes glint like a cat’s in the dark. The filmmakers’ meticulous attention to detail graces the viewer with glowing cinders and floating dust motes that stir pleasantly to and fro in the depth of the frame. Further, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel evidently worked closely with visual effects crew to ensure that the movie is filmed brightly, starkly, so that the darkening effect of 3D glasses doesn’t detract from what you see onscreen.
The writing, while snappy and catchy, is trite and worthy of good-natured mocking. “True power lies not in hatred, but in truth!” Sturgess screams to Abe, as the not-yet-Pres sends a whole tree flying with one blow of his axe. “Men have enslaved each other since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it,” says Adam, threatening Abraham. As with Bekmambetov’s other films, the emphasis here isn’t on reality, but fantasy. The director’s signature speedy, frenetic zooms punctuate a film that’s smoothly paced and winkingly earnest. The characters perform impossible deeds in stylized slow motion so that we’re too enamored of how cool it looks to care that it’s impossible.
I won’t go so far as to recommend intoxicants to go along with Abe Lincoln. However, I can suggest that it might be even more entertaining, if that’s your thing. The empty theater on opening tells a tragic story of audience apathy, but you’ll come away satisfied. It’s not good; not by a long shot. I predict a small cult following, but only after the Brave hype dies down. Anyone who’s enamored of Bekmambetov will enjoy herself, and anyone who takes pleasure in revisionist history will love the intertwining of reality and fantasy (or is it fantasy?). It’s a fun movie for a hot summer evening – and after you’ve seen Brave (Because who are we kidding here? That’s obviously your priority), you’d probably do well to check it out. Or, you know, you can wait until DVD.