Crackpot History and the Right to Lie: 'Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter'

It's crazier than an antebellum bedbug, but Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is one of Summer 2012's definite sleepers.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas
Rated: R
Studio: Fox
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-22 (General release)
UK date: 2012-06-22 (General release)

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.






Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".


Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.


Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.


On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.


Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".


Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?


London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".


Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.


Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.