The contemporary mania for the mash-up, blending genres and historical eras (think Steampunk) borrows much of its jouissance from the pure joy of mixing things that don’t belong together. It’s an act of artistic transgression, done just because it can be done.
Seth Grahame-Smith succeeded with this once with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The novel that followed it, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter proved a hit with readers and critics alike.
Arguably, the fun should have stopped there. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter deflates our suspension of disbelief with its absurd premise. But the novel so submerged the reader in the actual biography of Lincoln, complete with not a few primary documents repurposed to tell the story of the President as vampire slayer, that it was easy to get over, or really come to believe in, the title. The immersive experience recreates the feeling of the 19th century, so much so that Grahame-Smith deserves praise for writing an excellent historical novel as much as an excellent piece of genre fiction.
The film couldn’t develop this world for us in an hour and a half and some of its limitations are due to this fact. As Grahame-Smith describes in his excellent audio commentary, the film had to be episodic, have a clear single villain and, of course, a thrilling climax. All this forced him to hustle us through the narrative.
But critics have been too hard on the film. There are some beautiful, painterly shots here and there. And there are elements here anyone can enjoy. Grahame-Smith’s script moves fluidly and plays the story straight, just as the novel did. Benjamin Walker carries a tough role well and plays the vampire slaying President in a way that keeps this from making it to some list of worst films ever made. The climax, B-movie silliness about trying to keep vampires from stopping a trainload of silver bullets from making it to Gettysburg, is a stunning action sequence (Bekmambetov loves a good train fight sequence as every fan of Wanted knows).
Of course, there are serious problems, as well. The profusion of CGI at times makes the film look so clean that the 19th century world the novel evoked looks too bright and shiny, simply not lived in. Moreover, if you despise director Timur Bekmambetov’s signature style of photography, action sequences slowed down to a crawl and lots of phantom image camera work, this movie is definitely not for you.
The blu-ray edition of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter comes packed with a rich set of extras. Certainly the most rewarding is the animated feature “The Great Calamity” that sketches out a side of the novel unexplored in the film, the relationship between Abe Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe and the story of vampires coming to America. Directed by Javier Soto, it’s beautifully realized and will be a special pleasure for fans of the novel and those who want to explore Grahame-Smith’s secret history of America.
Seth Grahame-Smith provides audio commentary. This obviously gives the commentary a heavy focus on the nature of the narrative and the relationship between the book and the film. It also means that less emphasis on the making of the film is provided, in part because, as Grahame-Smith notes, he was not present for much of the filming.
In the commentary, Seth Grahame-Smith describes the fairly outlandish premise of the project as a “chocolate and peanut butter” moment. While he travelled the country promoting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, he found piles of Lincoln books appearing because of the 2009 bicentennial of his birth. These, he says, were always stacked near the Twilight table. In certain respects, this really was a project born out of our cultural obsessions of the moment and worth reading, and watching, for this reason alone.
The “Making of” feature contains five segments dealing with the origins of the film in the novel, on location photography, fight choreography, visual effects and a segment on director Timur Bekmambetov’s visual style. The last is especially interesting, given that Bekmambetov’s aesthetic tends to be either loved or hated. This featurette obviously provides much praise for his work but also explains the process of “speed ramping” that gives a sense of the art and design behind the CGI effects. Moreover, it makes the point that Bekmambetov’s background in production design influences his aesthetic as a director in a way that at least gives us some sympathy for the look he tries to achieve.
Fans of the books who skipped the film in theatres will enjoy Grahame-Smith’s involvement with the blu-ray and should give the film another chance. It’s a basically sturdy action flick stumbling under the weight of its title and needing to tell a bigger story to justify it. But it also has the 16th President of the United States beheading the Undead with an axe he wields like a katana blade. Lower your expectations and enjoy.