Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
A mashup of literary classic and B-horror movie tropes, writer Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was not only released to great success, but it managed to spawn a rather unwelcome and short-lived sub-genre that seemed to plague bookstores for the next couple of years. At every Books-a-Million or Borders or what-have-you, readers were assaulted by piles upon piles of these goofy tomes. Android Karenina, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and the inevitable prequel and sequel to Pride all rode that original book’s coat-tails and polluted bookshelves.
Fortunately, the creator of this new literary movement had the good sense to not merely replicate his initial success, but alter it – this time giving us a historical tapestry with the horror woven in, complementing real events while telling an engaging genre tale. And while PPZ is still awaiting a film adaptation, Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has been given the silver screen treatment by producer Tim Burton and Night Watch/Wanted helmer Timur Bekmambetov.
Beginning with Honest Abe’s early days, Hunter charts the rise of America’s arguably most iconic president from childhood to his final night, all the while telling an alternate history of how Abe became a skilled…well, vampire hunter. After his mother is killed by one of the sucky undead bastards, young Abe (Walker) grows up bitter and vengeful, aching for a chance to avenge her death. This puts him into the path of Henry (Cooper), an old hand at vampire killing who’s all too eager to teach his trade to Abe. The two men become friends and allies, with Henry giving Abe vampire targets to execute while our hero bides his time and waits for his chance to enact his revenge. But even as they thin out the vampire population, they find themselves at odds with Adam (Sewell), an ancient vampire and self-appointed leader of the undead.
The most successful aspect of Hunter is its refusal to wink and nod at the audience at the absurdity of its concept. The story is told with all of the straight-faced sincerity as any recent Oscar-baiting biopic, keeping the film fully engrossing throughout. One imagines it would have been so easy to play the movie for yucks and camp, and this viewer was very thankful that the filmmakers chose a more restrained approach.
Credit must go to director Bekmambetov, whose energetic direction keeps the flick racing along for the duration (with the exception of a major third act misstep – more on that in a moment). Bekmambetov is building quite an impressive filmography for himself. There is not only the well-made Hollywood actioner Wanted, but also the fascinating duology of Night Watch and Day Watch. Each film is fun, action-packed, stylish, and smarter than it has any right to be. With its clever script and eye-popping setpieces, Hunter falls right into line with each of the director’s previous efforts.
And being a smart filmmaker, Bekmambetov seems to realize that a successful movie needs a strong set of performers, and he’s done well with his casting here. As Abe, relative newcomer Benjamin Walker proves himself to be a charming presence with great range, portraying Abe as a vengeance-driven young man, a bumbling suitor, a fiery politician, a well-trained monster-slayer, and ultimately a convincing leader. Likewise, Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a number of notes to play throughout the film as Mary Todd and does so admirably, even if her screen time is somewhat limited. Rufus Sewell continues his streak of essaying intelligent villains with his turn as Adam, while Anthony Mackie does great work as Abe’s closest friend and fellow vamp-killer William Johnson.
Unfortunately, for all that is done well, the movie makes one considerable mistake which hampers its success. While Grahame-Smith’s screenplay proves that he’s far more adept at adapting his own material (as opposed to someone else’s; i.e., Dark Shadows), he chooses to tell the story of young Abe for the bulk of the film, only to leap ahead several years during the film’s third act. While it’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to eventually marry their story to the indelible image of our 16th President, this gear shift kills the movie’s momentum so much that it only barely recovers before the climax.
As one would expect from a large studio release, Hunter’s image and sound quality are superb. The picture is fang-sharp and beautiful, with lush colors and deep, inky blacks. The audio is wonderful as well, ably presenting the softest of conversations along with the bombast of the film’s many action sequences.
The bonus features package is quite nice, though certainly not on par with Fox’s previous release of Prometheus (to be fair, what can compare with that set?). Still, what we have is impressive enough. There is the animated graphic novel The Great Calamity, featuring the voices of Abe actor Benjamin Walker and the always great Clifton Collins, Jr. Calamity is well-designed, if a bit blocky with its animation, and manages to weave Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Bathory into Hunter’s world. It’s an interesting short film, though ultimately unsatisfying as it never quite goes anywhere.
More impressive is The Making of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, an extensive look at the film’s conception and production. It can be viewed as individual featurettes or as a one-hour-plus documentary. It’s a fun, breezy look at the film’s making and features a good deal of interesting behind-the-scenes details.
Next up is an audio commentary with screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who also penned the film’s source novel. The commentary is a pleasant enough talk, and Grahame-Smith comes off as a nice, fairly humble guy while tossing off noteworthy anecdotes about the origins of the book and film. Most impressive is the moment the writer owns up to one of my major problems with the film – the unceremonious resolution between Abe and Adam. It’s nice when an artist can point out a flaw without needing to justify it or brush over it entirely.
In addition to the above, we get “Powerless”, a music video. Intercut with concert footage and clips from the movie, “Powerless” features a song performed by…wait for it…Linkin Park. No, I’m not joking. I’m not certain what the hell anyone was thinking here, but the combination of angsty nü-metal with images of the film’s period action is nearly laughable (even if the song isn’t completely terrible).
Wrapping up the package is the film’s theatrical trailer. Or, rather, its teaser trailer. It’s a pity the longer, final version of the trailer wasn’t included, as it’s a far more effective look at the film. Still, getting any sort of trailer on disc these days is somewhat of a miracle,so I’ll let this issue be.
While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is hardly a rousing success, it’s still very much worth watching for what it gets right: fun concept, great actors, fantastic action, beautiful photography. And, if nothing else, it’ll likely prove to be ultimately far more interesting than Spielberg’s upcoming (and quite dull-looking) Lincoln.
○ Dark Secrets: Book to Screen
○ On the Set: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
○ Vampire Hunting: Fight Choreography
○ The Art of Transformation: Make-Up Effects
○ A Visual Feast: Timur Bekmambetov’s Visual Style
3 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5