Met on a Great Battlefield
So many things about Abraham Lincoln they did not tell us in school! His mother was in fact killed by a vampire when he was a child, and then he dedicated his life to bringing vengeance down upon her undead murderer. He studied the huntery of bloodsuckers with at least as much zeal as he studied the law. And boy oh boy, are there things about the Civil War that have been kept secret from us! It’s gotta be the greatest conspiracy theory in history. Except for the one about aliens building the pyramids.
The best thing about this pile-on of pulpy historical pseudo revisionism: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter works. I’m stunned beyond words, because it shouldn’t work and I expected it wouldn’t. I haven’t read the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] (who also wrote the screenplay), but if it’s anything like his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… well, that bit of novelty classics-fucking is so spectacularly dull that I couldn’t be bothered to finish reading it (and I never don’t finish books). We must credit, then, perhaps, director Timur Bekmambetov, who proved with his assassins-guild thriller Wanted that he can take a bunch of hoary storytelling tropes and make them feel fresh, and who proved with his Russian-language vampire diptych of Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor) and Day Watch (Dnevnoy dozor) that he can juggle a ton of cool-looking action horror stuff without dropping a single flaming chainsaw.
And so here he takes a concept that is more than a little bit thrilling — history holds glorious undiscovered mysteries! — and more than a little bit ridiculous — Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter! — and gives it to us straight. No winking. No nudging. No snark. Bekmambetov treats it sincerely, but cheerfully so: the film isn’t without a subversively gentle sense of humor, and it’s never so earnest that it stumbles over into cheese. Yet its utter lack of reflexive meta self-awareness is what gives it a surprising heft. It’s having an intellectually stirring sort of fun with the American mythological story, both its positive and negative side, recasting the horrors that have been done in the name of American freedom as a kind of vampirism, and the internal American pushback against its own wrongdoing as a kind of rebellion against the nation’s very roots. Abe Lincoln swinging an axe at slaveholding vampires is sorta exciting not just in itself, as a movie thing, but for its electric jolt of symbolism that sings with raw — and unexpected — power. This Lincoln’s antislavery position is a lot thornier than dry schoolbooks would have it, and its metaphor for pre-Civil War America a lot more barbed.
Which isn’t to say that actual history isn’t totally fascinating! Just that in the retelling — in classrooms; onscreen — it very often becomes an indifferent recitation of names and dates. Vampire Hunter reinjects life and energy and a magnificent mojo into a fusty historical figure: “Abraham Lincoln, action hero” is not at all an inapt way of looking at one of the towering entities of American history. Especially when the vampire stuff is merely layered over all the amazing work the real Lincoln did. Of course that is given short shrift next to the vampire hunting, but it’s still intriguing enough that, say, the few brief appearances by Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s famous debate opponent, made me wish for more (and not just because Douglas is played by the always criminally underused Alan Tudyk [Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Transformers: Dark of the Moon]).
There’s a genuine sweetness, too, to Benjamin Walker’s (Flags of Our Fathers) Lincoln: he is no more a typical sort of action lead than his character is the typical sort of action hero, and in his first major role, he carries the movie with effortless aplomb. Whether he’s wooing Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead: The Thing, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) with a bashfulness that is as much about him hiding his secret work as it is about his feelings for her, or sparring — physically and philosophically — with his vampire-hunter mentor, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper [Captain America: The First Avenger, The Devil’s Double], a potent presence here), Walker is an appealing combination of charm, masculine grace, and unfussy physicality. He looks like a young Liam Neeson (and in fact played the younger version of Neeson’s titular character in Kinsey), and shares that actor’s generous onscreen spirit as well.
There’s less action here than you might expect — though when it comes, Bekmambetov has lavish and clever fun with it — and less vampire horror, though it gets novel spin enough to seem like something new. There is innovative atmosphere galore: this doesn’t look like much of anything we’ve seen before. Mostly, though, the overwhelming impression I’m left with is sheer delight, that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is so very much better than it has any right to be.