“For whatever else I am — a husband, a lawyer, a president — I shall always think of myself first and foremost as a hunter.”
Chad’s rating: History gets thrown out the window in this tonally weird horror take on Honest Abe
Chad’s review: The American Presidency is one of those real-world institutions that Hollywood loves, as it’s the perfect setting for corruption, lies, sex, and violence. John F. Kennedy has been the most visible president on celluloid due to our endless fascination with the 1960s. The great Franklin D. Roosevelt has had many screen iterations thanks to Hollywood’s constant supply of War World II flicks.
But for sheer epic scope and drama, Abraham Lincoln, arguably America’s greatest leader, is still the one to beat. Honest Abe guided our country through the Civil War that nearly tore the country apart, a historical backdrop perfect for the cinema.
Yet we’ve never had a Lincoln interpretation quite like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The film is the brainchild of writer Seth Grahame-Smith, the author behind the parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where he took Jane Austen’s romantic novel and embellished it with an Evil Dead-style makeover. He does a similar trick with Lincoln’s autobiography, writing the book like a journal, chronicling his secret adventures hunting vampires that blend with Lincoln’s real-life story. It’s a wacky concept that’s a fun comedic spin on America’s most revered presidential figure.
So, it was sad to see Grahame-Smith jettison that parody spirit when he adapted his novel into a screenplay. This may have had to do with acclaimed Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, known for his edgy and kinetic action films. Bekmambetov was flirting with Hollywood after his first English language success, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted. This odd pairing of Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov resulted in a brooding, gore-filled film filled with thrilling hi-octane monster sequences with nary a humorous nod to its quirky source material.
It’s a shame because the movie’s first half is surprisingly engaging, as we follow a young Abraham Lincoln witness a vampire feeding on his mother, draining her where she dies of infection. Lincoln vows vengeance against the vampire race as he grows into a strapping young man with serious axe-wielding skills. The young hero in training gains a mentor when he meets the mysterious Henry Sturges, a monster killer with a deep knowledge of the shadowy bloodsuckers. But Sturges only agrees to teach Lincoln his trademark hunting skills under the condition that his pupil let go of the anger driving his quest to avenge his mother’s tragic murder.
The early Lincoln section of the film strikes just the right balance of mixing the real-life events of the future president with its bloody premise. Here, Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, and gets a job as a store worker to pay for law school. We also get introduced to real-life historical figures like Joshua Speed, Stephen A. Douglas, Will Johnson, and the future Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Todd. But soon, Lincoln sets up his vampire operation, seeking to destroy the growing undead menace.
Bekmambetov shows off his unique visual flair in these early scenes, giving the film an old-school monster tone. The cinematography draws inspiration from the classic Hammer Horror ambiance of moonlit shadows and fog-filled atmosphere. And the movie earns its “R” rating with intense, bloody sequences as Lincoln swings his famous silver-coated axe like a battering ram. Even though the director succumbs to the “Zack Snyder” school of slow-motion shots, the early axe-wielding scenes are full of explosive, high-propulsive energy.
Thankfully, the actors do the heavy lifting to make this strange premise watchable. Benjamin Walker was perfectly cast as the title character, with his tall, lean frame and chiseled features resembling Lincoln’s unique physicality. He’s nicely paired with Dominic Cooper as his vampire mentor, Henry, whose menacing glare masks his tragic backstory. And it’s fun to see early appearances by Anthony Mackie as Lincoln’s valet, Will Johnson, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his spirited wife, Mary Todd.
And a warning to any Bram Stoker purists, but the movie plays fast and loose with classic vampire lore. Many fanged monsters have different abilities, like super speed and invisibility. Some older nocturnal bloodsuckers can walk in sunlight, no longer creatures of the night. And most interesting, vampires cannot harm another vampire, which explains why Henry recruits Honest Abe to be his undead hunter. The variations are fun and novel, yet it’s transparently obvious that the film is channeling the superhero genre dominating the box office in 2012.
But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter falls apart during the second half, where the film chronicles the Civil War. For one, they give Walker cheesy old-age makeup with Lincoln’s singular beard, making our hero look ridiculous. They also introduce a subplot of evil vampire leader Adam wanting to create a vampire nation where they use the slave trade to feed. Eventually, Adam works with Confederate president Jefferson Davis to supply the south with his army of undead soldiers.
Look, I’m not expecting a Ken Burns-style documentary here, but mixing the tragedy of the Civil War with the film’s wacky high-concept isn’t clever and is in borderline bad taste. Especially when the Gettysburg address is delivered over a gruesome battlefield of humans fighting the vampire legions.
And that’s the movie’s major flaw: The filmmakers never lean into the absurd humor of the quirky premise. When your movie’s called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you better deliver a funny, rollicking good time. At least the other adaption of Grahame-Smith’s work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was full of many nods and winks that let viewers in on the joke. Instead, AL: VH was made with the intensity of an action thriller, without an ounce of campy humor, creating a disconnect with its intended audience.
In the end, I was disappointed with the finished product. I remember watching the first trailer in hushed anticipation, only to hear the audience giggle when they saw the movie’s title. It was frustrating to watch an author butcher his unique and clever idea into the standard Hollywood blockbuster. I think the film would’ve worked if they focused on Lincoln’s early years, ending the film once he was elected President. Where Lincoln gained the steely resolve to hold the Union together by killing the undead creatures of the night.
Alas, it’s ironic that this was released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. At least in that movie, Abe cracked a few jokes and laughed a little.
O, I totally agree. However, I think Pride + Prejudice + Zombies got de-humored as well. I mean, the book had a scene wherein Elizabeth + Mr. Darcy found a field of ripe cauliflower, which a bunch of very confused + frustrated zombies were trying to eat because they looked like human brains. I was so disappointed to not see that in the film.
Anyways, try Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Or Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter. Or the book series’ Jesus Hates Zombies + Loaded Bible.