Review: 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' Too Serious to Entertain
by Jeremy Kirk
June 22, 2012
There's a certain level of tongue-in-cheek expectation to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The thought of our 16th President swinging an axe through blood-suckers instead of cherry trees and slave laws - figuratively - could bring hearty laughs to fans wanting ridiculous action loaded with fun characters and interesting set pieces. This film brings the ridiculous action, however, the lack of charm it holds in its direction and plodding tale of one man's crusade against the supernatural is rarely fun and never comic. The adaptation latches its gums onto effects-saddled action but never finds room for anything else. Read on!
Based on the mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, the film tells an alternate biography to the famous President, played here by Benjamin Walker. As a child, the Abraham Lincoln of this story discovers that vampires walk among us when one attacks his mother at night. With vengeance in his heart, Lincoln swears to beast responsible for his mother's ultimate death. Enter Henry Sturgess, a vampire slayer who trains Lincoln in the art of hunting and staking the creatures of the night. Lincoln grows older, makes his way into politics, and begins a conquest against slavery and the undead.
The conceit of a man vowing revenge for the death of a parent and his education in the ways of killing is nothing new to director Timur Bekmambetov. 2008's Wanted carries a very similar backbone with it. Like that film's main character, the Lincoln here must put his thirst for revenge aside in order to carry out "hits" on vampires. The sequence where Lincoln must cut through a tree with a single strike of his axe, his weapon of choice, mirrors the "curve the bullet" scene in Wanted, as well. It's amazing how similar some of the plot points in these two films are, even though the events in each of them hit very differently.
Wanted, also weighed down by ridiculous acts of stunt work and aided by truckloads of CGI, was a blast, an action-fest of a movie that helped in your engagement with likable characters. Even the villains in Wanted carried a necessary level of charisma. Little of that remains here. Forget the one-dimensional baddies played here by Rufus Sewell, Erin Wasson, and Martin Csokas. There's difficulty in connecting with the man of the title here. Walker does his best with Lincoln, but, hindered by an exceedingly lackluster screenplay, what looks like 15 pounds of makeup, and little to do other than yell and swing an axe, the actor isn't helped by the film he's in in any way. The blase attitude towards his relationship with Mary Todd, played here by the always striking Mary Elizabeth Winstead, does nothing for the film's emotional side.
You get the feeling of something far more comedic, a play at the cult classic status the title of this movie is so desperately trying to achieve. From the first instance we see vampires and humans fighting, logic gets tossed right into the Mississippi River. These vampires, and, somehow, Lincoln, are able to do magnificent feats of strength and agility. By the time you see a horse being tossed about and flung by its leg, a weapon a vampire uses against Lincoln, you feel you should be fully on board with the camp. Unfortunately, there's too much getting in the way to ever let you sit back and have fun. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is humorless in everything but its action, and the too-little-too-late nature of it all digs into any idea of enjoyment.
The best comparison is to Van Helsing for more than the obvious reasons. Yes, the two films are period pieces about crusades against supernatural forces, but, like Van Helsing, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wants you to think it takes itself far more seriously than it deserves. Interesting ideas abound, particularly once the Civil War breaks out and we see the hand vampires had in it. Many of Lincoln's known, historical moments serve as structure points here, but Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov are only interested in passing by them, making sure we're aware of their knowledge of them before we're scurried off to another absurd set piece. The film plays like a Cliff's Notes version of a historical"What if?", one with its teeth dug heavy in the horror. The ties it creates between vampires and slavery are interesting and serve the narrative well with something of subtext, but they're barely noticed in the trifling heap of digital effects used to establish them. The best effect in the film is in the vampire's eyes, which, married to its better-than-average 3-D, results in an image of two holograms looking back at you.
Overall, the digital effects are obvious but slick and stylish with consummate cinematographer Caleb Deschanel making every shot at least aesthetically engrossing. Production designer François Audouy has a heavy hand in making that aspect of the film work, as well. But the style-over-substance argument is something else Timur Bekmambetov is familiar with. Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is his emptiest film, devoid of the campy edge of Wanted - this film's R rating does help but not much - or the grand world dynamic of Night Watch or Day Watch. This film tries for all of that, but the clunky structure, paper-thin characters, and tunnel vision it has to get to the next, epic moment of jittery action leaves it a deflated mess. It's a film that could have been brooding and serious or campy and fun. It's director, trying for everything, ends up with a film that accomplishes nothing.
Jeremy's Rating: 3.5 out of 10