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Fox campaigns to draw box-office blood for its ‘Vampire Hunter’-in-chief

Gina McIntyre and John Horn
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — The swoony, sparkly vampires in the “Twilight” saga have sold a bloody fortune at the box office, thanks largely to a devoted fan base of young women and teenage girls. But will young adult men respond in the same way to the vicious vein-drainers in the far more grown-up “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”?

Opening in wide release Friday against Pixar’s animated “Brave” and Focus Features’ apocalyptic love story “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” Fox’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” presents an alternative biography of the 16th president in which the great orator is actually an ax-wielding monster slayer determined to avenge the death of his mother and rid the nation of an unseen, undead menace.

The 3-D film casts newcomer Benjamin Walker (who starred on Broadway in the rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) as the Great Emancipator. It charts his evolution from a young man out for vengeance through his budding interest in politics and his ascension to the White House. He is guided by a mysterious ally named Henry (Dominic Cooper), but his superior fighting skills draw the interest of an ancient adversary named Adam (Rufus Sewell).

It’s an oddball concept, but one that carries some pop-culture cachet. The movie is adapted from the bestselling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith — who wrote the screenplay with Simon Kinberg (“Sherlock Holmes”). Tim Burton is a producer, as is director Timur Bekmambetov, the Moscow-based filmmaker who demonstrated his aptitude for balletic R-rated action in 2008’s “Wanted” with Angelina Jolie and two earlier Russian-language vampire flicks, “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch.”

This is the second summer movie Grahame-Smith has penned featuring a sanguinary plot: He shared a screenplay credit on Burton’s critically drubbed “Dark Shadows,” which quickly disappeared at the box office following its May premiere. Whether moviegoers will turn up to see his take on extreme historical fiction remains to be seen.

Audience tracking surveys suggest that “Brave” should win the weekend by a wide margin, grossing as much as $65 million in its first three days of release.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is generating healthy interest from just one slice of potential ticket buyers — men age 25 and younger. Fox assumes that 65 percent of ticket buyers will be male, concentrated between the ages of 17 and 34. But because the film is rated R, many teens won’t be able to purchase admissions. (The movie opens just two weeks after Fox released another R-rated summer film, Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.”)

Early reviews for the $69-million film have been mixed to positive, and if word of mouth runs favorably, the movie might gross $20 million or more in its debut weekend.

Fox has worked hard to woo a core audience of younger men while also trying to broaden the film’s appeal. In addition to promoting “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” at March’s WonderCon convention in Anaheim, Calif., the studio invited bloggers to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, where they met with the filmmakers and toured the archives.

Rock band Linkin Park incorporated clips from the movie into a music video for the group’s song “Powerless,” which plays over the end credits, and a premiere was held for military personnel deployed in the Middle East aboard the Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Walker attended in full Lincoln makeup.

On the Louisiana set last year, the film’s cast and crew seemed convinced of the appeal of the far-fetched tale, with Bekmambetov suggesting that this muscularized take on Lincoln was entirely in keeping with other summer movie fare.

“It’s a unique chance to make a superhero movie about a real historical figure,” the director said between takes. “In the structure and the tone and style of the movie, it’s a superhero movie. It’s about the young boy whose mother is killed by supernatural creatures and he’s spent all his life to fight with them. He had a secret life, like Spider-Man, like Superman, any of them, Batman, and he has his ordinary life. He has responsibilities, like Spider-Man, he had power. All the rules of the superhero movies are here.”

Walker lost 30 pounds to play the famously lean president and underwent extensive physical training to become adept with an ax for the extensive action sequences, but he also researched Lincoln’s life and donned a period-correct three-piece wool suit and facial prosthetics to deliver the Gettysburg Address in a Civil War scene.

Despite the genre trappings of the story and the stylized moodiness that is a hallmark of Bekmambetov’s, the actor said history buffs will still recognize the man he calls “one of the greatest American heroes” on the screen.

“We get to see Lincoln become the Lincoln that we know,” Walker said. “He just also happens to kill vampires.”

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