Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
By Matthew Huntley
July 6, 2012
However ridiculous it may seem, don’t judge Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by its title, because it’s actually quite fitting. Indeed, the movie asks us to believe that the 16th president of the United States - the same man on the penny and five-dollar bill - was more than just a skilled politician and moralistic leader; he was also a skilled huntsman who specialized in killing vampires. Armed only with a silver-coated axe, hand-to-hand combat skills and a fiery need for vengeance, Honest Abe took to the streets at night to rid the divided United States of undead vamps. Politicizing and running the country may have been his day job, but he did something else entirely at night.
Now before you write the movie off for its ridiculous premise, consider this: in the world of Batman, Bruce Wayne is a philanthropic billionaire who dresses up in a rubber bat costume to rid Gotham City of criminals and histrionic foes. And yet, when audiences see the name Batman or The Dark Knight, they tend not to laugh like they have already at Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. True, most of us haven’t heard of the latter before, and it’s not part of our collective culture, but that’s not to say its plot is any less plausible. It should be allowed to compromise a real-life legend and present an alternate view of history in any way it wants, so long as it’s creative and tells an interesting story.
With that said, let me be the one to say it’s not that creative, nor does it tell all that interesting of a story, despite its catchy title. The movie is based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, which is unread by me, but I’m willing to bet it makes better literature than a loud, over-stylized action movie. The director, Timur Bekmambetov, takes the story seriously, but not the storytelling. So much of it feels rushed and Bekmambetov seems so eager to get to the hyperkinetic action scenes that he lets everything in between zip by. We’re not given enough time to get behind the plot or characters to really care about them.
One scene that illustrates this takes place when Abraham (Benjamin Walker) is given his first vampire hunting lesson. His trainer, the drunken and hopeless Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), tells him to chop down a tree with a single swing, which means harnessing all his hate and anger into a single blow. Although we know he’ll eventually do it, there’s no tension or buildup to it. The movie doesn’t first have Abraham fail, learn a few things, and then come back to it. It’s in a mad rush to get to the vampire violence and gore. Wouldn’t the character be more realized to us if we saw him struggle a little bit longer?
Other scenes feel just as hasty, as when Abraham meets his future wife, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He’s working in a drug store run by his new friend Speed (Jimmi Simpson) when Mary walks in. She introduces herself so blatantly that even those unfamiliar with U.S. history will know they’ll eventually be married. I’m not saying their exchange is unbelievable, but the way it’s performed makes it seem like it’s something the filmmakers wanted to hurry up and get out of the way because there were more important things at stake. Unfortunately, the result is very little romantic chemistry between Abraham and Mary. Their relationship feels more inevitable than genuine.
Even though Abraham weds Mary, he’s not allowed to reveal his nocturnal duties to her. He shouldn’t even be involved with her anyway, since part of his oath to Henry was that he’d dedicate his life to slaying vampires, which means having no friends or family. But Abe is not only smitten by romance, but also ideals and politics, and he soon sets his eye on the presidency and abolishing slavery. In fact, what starts the story is Abe defending his black friend, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), from a vicious slave owner when they’re kids. But Henry advises him abolition is a bad idea since vampires depend on slaves for blood. The head vampires, a brother-sister team named Adam (Rufus Sewell) and Vadoma (Erin Wasson), team up with Jefferson Davies to ensure slavery is kept intact. Otherwise, they’ll unleash their kind on the entire country.
The movie has enough over-the-top action scenes to keep us from being bored, but not exactly engaged. I admired some of the stunts and special effects, especially a rousing horse chase between Abraham and the vampire Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), who killed Abraham’s mother when he was a kid, triggering his need for revenge. This scene is exciting if only for the fact we’ve never seen anything like it before.
But do we invest in Abraham Lincoln the man, or vampire hunter? Or his family and friends? The answer is not enough. What we mostly get are expensive-looking sets and standard fight scenes that don’t really impact us the way Bekmambetov intended. That’s probably because there are no worthwhile characters in front of or behind them. We take the movie seriously enough not to laugh at it, but not enough to care about it.