I found my enjoyment of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the new film by Wanted-helmer Timur Bekmambetov, to be a bit come and go. It’s an ‘almost’ film. Good, but not great.
Most of the issue seems to rest in the fact that the film has such disparaging tones from one moment to another that it’s hard to get a constant feel or atmosphere. (Granted, part of this may be the fact that I think there was something going on with the digital projection of the film; it seemed muddy, washed-out and slightly out of focus for most-to-all of its running time.) While it keeps a deadly serious tone throughout, it goes back and forth between melancholy historical drama (with corresponding atrocious “old age” makeup) and the kind of wildly exaggerated action sequences that Bekmambetov has excelled with in the past. The beginning of the film seems quite slow with a few punctuations of horror entered into it, taking some time to get the ball rolling. The sequences here often seem too short to be action sequences, but they’re cut like action sequences instead of horror. If they’d been the second, it may have helped in the end. The book the film is based on (by Pride and Predjudice and Zombies scribe Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted the screenplay himself) is much drier and, dare one say, boring compared with the promise of the concept. The film never sinks that low, though it seems to be lollygagging in places.
At least until a vampire picks up a horse and throws it at Abraham Lincoln.
If you have the same pleasure centers as me, you know how great that is. There are a few of these sublimely ridiculous moments in the film that elevate it to being nigh-grindhouse fun. When Honest Abe spins his axe around like a woodsman version of the swordsman from Raiders of the Lost Ark, splitting open skulls and decapitating everything in sight as blood flies across the screen… it’s something that truly has never been seen on film before. It’s also likely something you’ll never see again, for good or for ill. (For ill, in my opinion.)
Another good thing about the film’s mere existence is that while most vampire sagas these days are centered around tragi-romantic figures, the vampires at the end of Abe Lincoln’s silver axe are true monsters. They do not sparkle and they do not emit angst like a teenage ennui lighthouse trying to keep happiness from crashing into its shores. They exist to violently and matter-of-factly kill people, sometimes playing with their food before they eat it. They align themselves with the Confederate cause so that they can have an endless supply of worry-free meals from their slave populations, basically making themselves some of the vilest of movie villains in some time.
Something that goes both ways is the casting. Lincoln himself, played by Liam Neeson look-alike Benjamin Walker, is fine through most of the proceedings, though as previously stated, the make-up applied during a time-jump of many years is some of the most mediocre I’ve seen in a while. The same goes for the always pleasant to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead (of Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim), who plays Mary Todd with her usual charm. In an uncredited role, it’s great to see Alan Tudyk as Stephen Douglas. On the other hand, while I enjoyed Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark immensely, he just seems out of place here as Lincoln’s Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts. The same goes for some of the other characters, even the ones that historically did exist, like Joshua Speed and William Johnson (who especially feels shoehorned in as the film presents them as childhood friends.) (Fun fact: Oddly enough, a somewhat lengthy subplot of the book Lincoln meeting Edgar Allan Poe is completely excised from the film, which seems like something that would have been right at home among the proceedings.)
Regardless, for all it’s ups and downs and goods and bads, when all is said and done, it’s a movie that, while not perfect, is something that I’m very glad exists for the sheer audacity of itself. We may get several R-rated action and horror films every year, but few with true imagination. Amidst all the Paranormal Activity rip-offs and sequels and the aging steroid icons, it’s truly a breath of fresh air to see a man in a stove-pipe hat hacking up the undead.
(Three out of five stars)