Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas
(Fox; US theatrical: 22 Jun 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 Jun 2012 (General release); 2012)
If Lucio Fulci had directed the dynamic, multi-part PBS documentary The Civil War, you’d have something akin to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. History has never been this weirdly wacked out and yet addictively engaging. It’s like Inglourious Basterds for the North and South set, a revisionist reaction to post-modern horror (and the desire to reconsider the past) brought to brilliant, babbling life by splash flash Russian showman Timur Bekmambetov. If you didn’t like his equally insane Wanted, you’ll absolutely hate this over the top treat. If you bought into Bekmambetov’s violent vision of an ancient order of superhuman hitmen, you’ll dig this take on our towering 16th President.
The story starts before Lincoln is even old enough to vote, let alone run for office. After witnessing his black friend being beaten by a deranged dock owner (Marton Csokas), our young hero fights back. This gets his family in trouble, and sets up a scenario by which Lincoln loses his mother. Desperate for revenge, the older future statesman (Benjamin Walker) plots. He runs into a man named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who warns him that all is not what it seems to be. The villain in question is, in fact, a vampire, part of a much bigger family of ghouls led by a plantation owner named Adam (Rufus Sewell). Their goal? To use the South and its proclivity toward slavery to save their undead kind. With Henry’s help, Lincoln becomes a champion creature killer, setting himself for a showdown of epic Union/Confederate scope.
That’s right - everything you knew or know about the Civil War is wrong, at least according to this hilariously unhinged bit of revisions. We did not fight amongst ourselves for Federalism, States Rights, the indignity of slavery or the other theories that professors and scholars have thrust upon us for decades. Instead, a group of immigrant monsters, desperate for a land of their own, pit brother against brother in the 1860s so that they can raid the found indentured food supply and keep the shipments of sustenance coming from Africa. While it may sound like a spoiler, this is the entire foundation of this fascinating film. We are meant to view our greatest public tragedy in a different, demented light. Because of the tone taken with the material, the ruse works exceedingly well.
Indeed, it’s the often misunderstood Bekmambetov that deserves all the credit here. He takes the incredibly goofy premise and treats it with deadly, determined seriousness. We never see a wink, never acknowledge any potential nod to the camera. This could have easily been played for kitsch or camp ala the equally brilliant Don Coscarelli Elvis romp Bubba Ho-Tep. Instead, our filmmaker finds a definitive voice, making sure we get the deeper meaning behind every dropped name, the potential impact of events we’ve read about for eons. This is especially true of the middle act, when Lincoln learns of the South’s secret agenda. His hatred of slavery is doubled down with the discovery of blood sucking horror and it brings his motives into much sharper, much more meaningful focus.
It’s a core that complicates everything else. When we meet Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), there is none of the proposed mental instability that will eventually stain her legacy. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, however, gives her good reason to grieve. Similarly, Gettysburg and its fabled address get a last act set piece treatment that turns a deadly, bloody battle into something of a supernatural spectacle. Purist may balk at the way in which this movie treats such ‘sacred’ material, but all they have to do is look at the title and the last two words to realize that no one is out to make JFK here. Few classrooms will be calling up this gore-laden lunatic fringe fest as a means of explaining the War of Northern/Southern Aggression to budding adolescents.
Outside the half-assed history lesson, the film itself is fascinating. Everyone plays it straight, delivering indefensible lines about neckbiting fiends with fierce determination. Bekmambetov takes an approach similar to Ridley Scott in Gladiator, imagining his 19th century America in seminal CG swatches. As Walker narrates the adventure (taken from the supposed hidden journals of the late President), we see Washington DC in transition, various other locations realized with computer pen and ink. Later on, the high tech tweaks turn a typical train raid into an amazing hyperkinetic action experience. Yes, it’s all excessive and over the top. There is definitely a Phil Spector Wall of Sound feel to Bekmambetov’s approach. He may provide too much, but if the choice is between stark and surreal, we’ll take the latter.
It’s what makes Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer a Night Gallery piece of anarchic art. It’s a misguided masterpiece of EC Comics proportions. As it slowly marches toward its showboating finale, as it painstakingly revises the entirety of recent American history, we hunger for more. Bekmambetov can be accused of being almost all style over substance, but Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay (from his own bestselling novel) has enough subtext to get us past all the panache. There will be those who read the Snakes on a Plane like title and recognize a kind of automatic rejection. No movie which juxtaposes an iconic American figure and fright genre tropes will ever find purchase in their particular aesthetic. But for those who love a rousing good time topped off with tons of visual flair, this film fits the bill. It’s crazier than an antebellum bedbug, but Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is one of Summer 2012’s definite sleepers.