Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
The wild world of cult cinema has been in a slump over the last decade, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that. Sure, we’ve seen an onslaught of low-budget bizarro flicks – and even big-screen horror comedies – but most of them share the same problem: They’re too fucking self-aware. Nobody has the courage to make them with conviction anymore… they have to constantly wink at you while they’re doing it. Watching these movies is like being jabbed by an annoying frat boy who’s screaming, “HEY, YOU! YOU’RE HAVING FUN!!!! LOOK AT HOW MUCH FUN YOU’RE HAVING!!!!” This is the dividing line between genuine classics like Shaun of the Dead, where the world feels real and the gags come naturally from believable characters, and posers like Zombieland that hurl non-stop Twinkie jokes.
Based on the novel by mash-up author Seth Graham-Smith and directed by Night Watch‘s Timur Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is one of the most whackadoo concepts ever taken on in the big budget studio world, but it works precisely because it’s executed with a straight face. No wink, wink. No nudge, nudge. You’re either along for the ride or you’re not, but the film doesn’t stop to tell you when to laugh.
The story starts at Lincoln’s beginnings with young Abe witnessing the death of his mother by the local town vampire (one of many things the history books got wrong). Vowing vengeance, he grows up and becomes grasshopper to vampire hunter Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who sends him off into the night as an assassin of the undead. His ultimate target is plantation owner Adam (Rufus Sewell), leader of the vampires who engages in an epic battle with the North and even sends vampires to fight in Gettysburg.
Which makes this next statement hilarious but true: The film’s biggest surprise is its historical accuracy. Graham-Smith’s screenplay gives us a compelling and largely true account of Lincoln’s life from his courtship of Mary Todd to the Emancipation Proclamation; he just fills in the blanks with Honest Abe throwing down with vampire slavers. It’s totally absurd but always believable, largely due to Benjamin Walker’s Lincoln, who gives the kind of earnest performance that sells every moment – whether he’s swinging an axe or addressing Congress. Everyone in the cast and crew is clearly giving it their all, and there’s so much attention to detail, this could almost pass itself off as a straight Lincoln biopic if it weren’t for all the martial arts and decapitated heads.
Sadly, those elements are where the film largely drops the ball: The majority of the fight scenes are gaudy and crammed with so much speed ramping and digital fakery, you’d almost think they were intentionally mocking Zack Snyder movies. I realize that bitching about over-style in a Timur Bekmambetov flick is like scolding Sam Kinison for yelling, but that doesn’t change the fact that all the slo-mo wirework and computerized gore feels cheap and gimmicky when held up to practical well choreographed action (see: “>The Raid (Review)). The god-awful 3D post conversion doesn’t do it any favors either (stick to 2D screens), but I have to commend the filmmakers for keeping the action brief and in service to the plot (the film’s climactic action set-piece is still thrilling despite it all).
Even with its shortcomings, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a far better film than you’re expecting. History buffs and purists may decry this as a new low for Hollywood, but I can’t imagine Spielberg doing much better when his giant Lincoln biopic hits Oscar-bait season later this year. Unless Daniel Day-Lewis has a bullet-shooting axe.
3 1/2 out of 5