The battle of Gettysburg was, by all accounts, a turning point in the American Civil War. But thanks to best-selling author Seth Grahame-Smith, and the cinematic adaptation of his Lincoln “biography,” future generations may view the battle in a different light.
Grahame-Smith’s "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is no longer just a sleep-deprived writer’s fevered expansion on Honest Abe’s “lost journals.”
Under director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”), Lincoln comes to life in a way he’s never before been envisioned: as a warrior, fighting the damned for the soul of our nation.
From the first minutes of the film, Grahame-Smith (also the film’s screenwriter) riffs off of Lincoln’s life, taking some liberties while leaving the basic structure intact. Young Lincoln is still the son of poor parents who struggles as a child with the death of his mother. But according to Grahame-Smith, she died not from an intestinal disease but from a vampire’s bite. It changed Lincoln’s life forever.
As an adult, Lincoln (an earnest Benjamin Walker) sets out to exact vengeance on Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), the vampire who killed his mother. His first drunken attempt to kill Barts fails, and Lincoln only survives because a mysterious man named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) intervenes.
Henry takes Lincoln under his wing and teaches the future president about the existence of vampires. The blood suckers have turned the American South into a haven, and they buy African slaves not for service, but for food. Henry teaches Lincoln to hunt the monsters, and Lincoln hopes to gain the strength and training he needs to finish Barts.
The film’s set-up has the feel of Bekmambetov’s “Wanted,” with Lincoln undergoing a Spartan-like training regimen. After training, Henry sends Lincoln to Springfield where Abe begins to hunt vampires one by one. Each mission brings new difficulties for Abe, which he often just barely survives.
Bekmambetov films all of this in a "Wanted" and "300" style, full of slow-motion and sped-up action, as an ax-wielding Lincoln slices and smashes vampires into oblivion.
In Springfield, Abe meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his future bride. She inspires him to fight for justice and freedom through politics. From there, Abe’s a few speeches and a fight or two away from the presidency – that’s how it happened, right? – and the Civil War.
Considering the expanse of Grahame-Smith's book – Lincoln's entire life – he does a good job of condensing the work into a manageable story that feels mostly complete. Lincoln's children are reduced to a single Willie Lincoln, and Lincoln's political rise becomes hugely meteoric. But aside from the occasional monologue inserted to summarize what the film couldn't show, it's a relatively well constructed story.
Fans of the book will notice a number of missing plots, but considering the new surprises Grahame-Smith adds, and the general atmosphere the film retains from the source material, they’re likely to forgive any differences.
The talented cast certainly helps. Even the most ridiculous moments are highly entertaining with Walker, Cooper and Rufus Sewell (vampire villain Adam) battling it out. The stars take the movie seriously while avoiding the tendency of many B-action films to become overly dramatic and cheesy.
Entertainment takes priority over dramatic speeches, character development and historical fact. For that we can all be grateful.
On the effects end, “Vampire Hunter” easily measures up to other blockbusters. From a bridge burning out beneath a train to Lincoln versus a vampire army in a southern mansion, everything looks stylized but realistic.
What's best about the film (aside from its very premise and bloody action) is that it steers clear of any political clutter it could have picked up along the way. Bekmambetov is Russian and sees no need to add a political agenda to the film. Instead he delivers exactly what his preview promises: a slightly ridiculous action-packed biopic about America's greatest vampire hunter, a much-loved president whose personal acts of courage saved our nation from a lot more than most people realized.
One downside to the 3D version of the film is that the glasses darken the screen. In a movie set largely at night this is problematic. The 2D version is fine for “Vampire Hunter” – Abe’s still got a silver axe to grind with the undead, and you get to watch him do it.