Election Season Vampire Hunting: 'Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter'

This is an action flick that stumbles under the weight of its title and needs 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.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Director: Timur Bekmambatov
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Dominic Cooper
Distributor: Fox
Release date: 2012-10-23

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.