Seth Grahame-Smith is the mastermind behind the bizarro Jane Austen tribute novel Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which took the entire text of Austen’s original classic, but added a few ancillary scenes of the undead and zombie battles. It was a cute gimmick that attempted, I assume, to draw in younger readers who have no interest in the romantic dealings of young Victorian women, but who do like a good zombie battle. He followed that success with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, a pretty straightforward biography of this nation’s near-mythic 16th president, complete with all his struggles and political battles, only with a few newly-revealed chapters that exposed the great railsplitter’s skill at slaying a secret cadre of immortal blood-drinkers over the course of his life.
That book was adapted to film earlier this year with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, and recently released on Blu-Ray. The resulting picture is… well, who would have thought that such a MAD Magazine-ready premise (this film is just a hair away from something like Gandhi II) would be treated with such bold earnestness? Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a slick, professional production that takes every line of its bonkers dialogue totally seriously. There is not one wink to the camera, and no indication from the filmmakers that they were making anything but the most serious of historical action/dramas. I think a greater filmmaker than Bekmambetov would have perhaps squeezed the flick for laughs, making something a bit broader and fittingly enjoyable; think of a colorful action farce like the underrated 1999 film Mystery Men. But there’s a lot (rather a lot, really) to be admired for the action-packed earnest approach that seeks thrills and monster mayhem with a serious eye, and has no interest in its own ridiculousness. There is a mania in that seriousness that makes the film rather impressive. So when a young Abraham Lincoln (as played by Benjamin Walker) is tied by his feet, dangling upside down in front of a vampire sadist, it only makes perfect sense that he should shake a knife free from his belt, catch the falling knife in his teeth, and swing his head around, effectively slashing his attacker’s throat. By the time a vampire is lifting whole live horses and flinging them bodily at a pursuing Lincoln, silver axe in hand, you can’t help but let out a few guffaws.
The vampire mayhem is tempered and punctuated by a few accurate retellings of events in Lincoln’s life, including his friendship with Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), his law career, his move into politics, and his courtship of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But this film, while masked as a history lesson, actually glosses over a lot of the important details. Lincoln’s actual election to the presidency is just sort of a casual occurrence, as is the outbreak of the Civil War. Not to be outdone by actual history, the filmmakers also repurposed a lot of what we know, and filtered historical events through a vampire filter. Did you know, for instance, that much of the Southern army was made up of vampires? And that Lincoln personally helped to deliver a trainload of silver (which is poisonous to vampires) to the front lines of the Union battlefield? I have a feeling that the filmmakers feared being bogged down with actual history, and skewed vampire when they could. The vampires are led by a master vampire named Adam (Rufus Sewell), who seeks his own form of emancipation from the tyranny of the non-undead. I was kind of hoping that Adam would turn out to be a vampire John Wilkes Booth, and that he would kill the president shouting “Sic Semper Vampiris!,” but no such luck.
Lincoln was, by most accounts, a rather gentle man, and this film imagines that gentleness as an aw-shucks Clark Kent nerdiness.
I enjoyed the film immensely, but I can’t tell you if I was on its wavelength. It’s a riveting and awesome action film, but I felt that it perhaps didn’t know that it was also totally silly. Bekmambetov has previously made Wanted and Night Watch, witch suffer from similar problems; all three are gritty, stylized and awesome (if perhaps a bit clunky), rounded out by dour photography and a ponderous tone, all of which stands in direct contrast to their off-the-wall premises. Is this a film I’m supposed to laugh at, or laugh with?
I suppose it doesn’t matter, as I was laughing nonetheless. I loved the bonkers stuff and the sheer audacity of it all.
The Blu-Ray comes with special features that shed no light on the tonal clash. There is a cartoon short attached that explains the origin of vampires in The New World (complete with the secret meetings Lincoln had with Edgar Allen Poe), and a music video from Linkin Park. It’s all technical. The actual intentions, I think, may be left to you.