Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Marton Csokas, Robin McLeavy, Jimmi Simpson, John Ruthman, Erin Wasson, Alan Tudyk.
You probably thought you knew everything about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States – how he led the country through the turbulent years of the Civil War and was assassinated in 1865. You also know how he liberated the slaves, and you have heard of his famous Gettysberg Address. But what you didn’t know was his secret history as an 18th century fearless vampire slayer, despatching the undead with the aid of an axe. It’s the kind of minor detail that wouldn’t escape notice nowadays, especially given the intense level of public scrutiny to which aspiring politicians and world leaders are subjected.
But then again, this is a work of fiction. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is based on the 2010 novel written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also introduced zombies into Jane Austen’s gentle tale of manners and romance with Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. Grahame-Smith obviously loves injecting a touch of supernatural horror into familiar tales, and here his revisionist take on history turns Lincoln’s legacy into an 18th century slasher movie. Depicting Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer is a novel gimmick, but it wears thin fairly quickly.
We first meet Lincoln in 1818, where as a young boy he watches as his mother is murdered by a vampire (Marton Csokas). This sows the seeds of his virulent hatred of vampires and he is determined to wipe them all out. But it is only when he meets Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper, from Mamma Mia! etc) that his hatred is channelled with steely discipline, weapons training and martial arts training. In a montage sequence the young Lincoln is schooled in the art of detecting, hunting and killing vampires. But as the shopkeeper turned lawyer sets his sights on politics the vampire slaying takes a bit of a backseat.
That is until President Lincoln (played by Benjamin Walker) realises that his nemesis, the suave but malevolent vampire leader Adam (Rufus Sewell), is planning on taking over America. The Civil War is not so much between the northern states and the southern states over the issue of slavery, but between the living and the undead for the future of America itself. The south is controlled by the vampires who suck the lifeblood out of the Negro slaves and plan on enslaving the rest of the human population. The link between the blood sucking vampires and slavery, which was the life-blood of industry in the south, is a rather crude but apt analogy, although it is not handled with any great subtlety.
This is the first major role for Walker, a theatre actor who rose to prominence playing President Andrew Jackson on stage in a Broadway musical, but his performance is fairly wooden. He seems unable to inject much life into his character, and his Lincoln is rendered rather dull and uncharismatic.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a feisty quality to her role as Lincoln’s wife Mary. Anthony Mackie (from The Hurt Locker, etc) struggles to do much with his role as William Johnson, a free slave who was Lincoln’s loyal valet and barber, although here he also becomes his principal adviser in the war against the vampires. Cooper brings plenty of spark and a touch of humour to his role, while Sewell oozes menace.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton and Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted, etc), both of whom are very visual and visceral filmmakers who possess a vivid imagination that at times can barely be constrained by the screen. Bekmambetov is a dab hand with pyrotechnics and stylistic visual tricks, and the action sequences here are well choreographed, with lots of his trademark slow motion takes. However, Bekmambetov’s love of CGI special effects is particularly obvious in two key scenes – a horse stampede and the fiery destruction of a trestle bridge while a train is crossing it – that look fake.
Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has shot the film nicely using the widescreen, but it has been unnecessarily retrofitted for the 3D process, which detracts from the visuals.
Had Bekmambetov actually had more of a keen sense of humour, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter could have been a lot more fun than this dour and humourless mashup of fanciful history and horror proves to be.