If you are going to re-imagine the 16th president of the United States as a vampire hunter, go big or go home. ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER has chosen the former. If the book on which the film is based took a more literary stance, echoing the idioms of scholarly inquiry and historical documentation, the film itself embraces the idioms of the contemporary CGI spectacular. A risky move, but one that pays off in the way it respects the strengths of both mediums.
In this telling, little Abraham was deeply scarred as a child by two things. One was seeing his best friend be sold down the river despite being free-born. The other was seeing his mother being killed by a vampire. That he was able to spy upon the latters demise in the marital via the space between the floorboards of his makeshift loft bed introduces an unappetizing suggestion to at least part of how young Abe spent his evenings after lights out, but its one that is, thankfully, never explored.
Instead, he grows into a gangly young man bent on revenge, a quest in which he receives the unexpected help of the urbane and slightly decadent Henry (Dominic Cooper), a total stranger with his own motives that dovetail nicely with Abes. He reveals that Abes quarry is a vampire, one of a goodly number that have infested North America since colonial times and then sets about training the future president in the fine art of killing them. With a background as a rail-splitter, Abe, of course, chooses an axe as his weapon of choice and while it all sounds very clunky, as brought to life by some dazzling moves by Benjamin Walker as Lincoln, it is, astonishingly, not just credible, but effective, though the axe itself has been enhanced with a silver coating and a few nifty surprises.
The story skips along, with only time for the highlights of Lincolns rise from humble rail-splitter to country lawyer to politician (note the Obama-like gestures in his first stump speech) to presiding over the Civil War as Commander-in-Chief. The public life contrasts with his private life, one spent removing the blood-suckers. Alas, there are so many of them that its a bigger job than even Abe can handle, and so, in this timeline, he is forced to take them on in his public capacity when they side with the Confederacy.
Yes, its a stretch, but Seth Grahame-Smith, author of the novel, is also the writer of the screenplay. If the spark between Abe and Mary (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is less than bright, if the idea of a sitting president and his lady running secret missions strains credulity, the direction by Timur Bekmambetov has a wry sensibility, the same one he brought to DAYWATCH and NIGHTWATCH, his Russian-language vampire classics. Admittedly he is more at home with the action and the hyper-reality of the dark side living side-by-side with the light, than he is with the more tender emotions, but he finds a soulmate of sorts in the suave person of Rufus Sewall as the vampire king, and a quiet hero in Anthony Mackie as Abes lifelong friend who takes up the fight against vampires with the same quiet determination he evinces in the fight to end slavery
He is also wonderfully at home as the sumptuously scholarly prose of the book gives way to the sumptuously atmospherics of the film, a dark and brooding look that encompasses the primitive nature of a country going through its growing pains, and the primal nature of an uber-predator using it as a hunting ground. The painstaking attention to period language and authenticity gives way to spectacular set pieces in which Honest Abe is relentlessly pursued by murderous vampires through, amid, beneath, and astride a stampeding herd of horses, and along the length of a runaway train as it makes its way over a trestle ablaze and about to topple. It is a shock, but a bracing and not unwelcome one as the seductive quality of the visual design creates a dynamic alternate universe recognizable but far more intriguing than this one for the alien qualities neatly folded into it.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER defies logic, but with a bravado that finds a horrific elegance in pure evil, and a fiery energy in the excesses of both that and of its action sequences. Make no mistake, it’s a popcorn flick, but one of the most intriguing, unpredictable ones to date.