The genre mash-up trend has been one of mixed results. Author Seth Grahame-Smith kick-started things with his turgid, uninspired Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, before following it up with the marginally better thought out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. At this point I dropped out; it was clear this was one literary trend that just did not work on me. I would even go so far as to call it the cash-grab work of a lazy hack.
So, when the genre mash-up made the transfer to movies, I wept. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies went through more directors than the undead go through intestines, preventing it from every seeing the light of day, but not every project would be held back by serendipitous (for me, at least) production problems. Cowboys and Aliens was a boring slog and I was positively mortified at the idea of producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov bringing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to the big screen. Burton being a parody of his former self and Bekmambetov last directing Wanted, a movie that I hated with all the intensity of pissing chlamydia. How could anyone turn this one-note concept into something worthwhile?
Consider me humbled when I say Bekmambetov actually managed to pull it off. With a few concessions, of course.
One thing that needs to be established early on; the only real joke in this movie is the title. This is not some irony-buffet where everything is delivered with a sly wink and a misplaced tongue, this is 100% sincere in its efforts. This is perhaps why it is such a fascinating and often perversely entertaining film.
In essence, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a biopic. It functions in every way as a biopic should, using the same sort of structure that any number of biopics (such as the recent J. Edgar, for example) employ.
This is part of what makes the movie so interesting but is also its greatest failing, it often plays out with the same wonky storytelling that cripples most biopics, rushing through ideas and scenes to touch on the greatest hits of a person’s life, while leaving little room for real development. Lincoln is best known for being a President and guiding his country through a bloody civil war, so the film needs to get to that part of his life as quickly as possible and, as a result, we don’t get a lot of time to settle into his early vampire hunting days or his budding romance with Mary Todd.
To help speed things along, we get a lot of on-the-nose foreshadowing, the kind of thing that would feel supremely grating in a serious drama (see, again. J. Edgar) but feels oddly at home here. The early fight scenes are brisk and to the point but always visually spectacular. By the time you get to the first major set piece of the film, featuring Abe chasing a vampire through (and across) a bullet-time horse stampede, you begin to forgive the film its narrative fumbling.
Timur Bekmambetov is a singular voice in action cinema – a lot of directors employ bullet-time or speed ramping, but none with quite the same psychotic verve as this Russian auteur. His action operates within its own universe, with its own logic – that of a maniac who gives a defiant middle finger to physics. It can be a very silly experience, but if you embrace the insanity of it all, you will find something worthwhile here.
The times where Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter allows itself to go off-the-deep-end crazy, it’s a truly fascinating oddity. I could realistically see the estimation of this title growing with age, where a very particular breed of future movie fan will seek out this movie in the same way we seek out films like Buckaroo Banzai. This fringe weirdness is made all the more remarkable when you consider this was produced on a major studio’s dime.
It may be completely mental but it’s not without its share of surprising intellect. The film is aggressively forthright about its subtext; slavery was the product of parasites, in the story, it is the result of vampires literally feeding on the blood of innocents. Criticising slavery is hardly a difficult stance to take, but I have never quite seen it handled in such an extreme way. One the nose? Sure, but effective? Definitely.
Along with Bekmambetov’s insane visuals and the super-sized subtext, what makes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter work so well is Benjamin Walker in the lead role. Walker gives a complete, evolving performance successfully filling in the gaps that the ever-skipping narrative misses out on, and treats the movie as if it were a real Lincoln biopic. His scenes during the President Lincoln phase of the character’s life are surprisingly stirring. He takes the role seriously and helps steer the overall tone of the film away from parody, without him the film could have very well become the one-note disaster that I predicted. My stovepipe hat goes off to him
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also incredibly affecting as Mary Todd-Lincoln, she too takes the entire thing seriously, providing her effervescent charms to the early scenes and real pathos to Mary’s Civil War years. I must also note that the film boasts far better make-up effects than either J. Edgar or The Iron Lady, which is more than a little embarrassing for those supposed prestige pics.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter shouldn’t work. It comes perilously close to being a complete disaster, but Bekmambetov, along with the surprisingly great work of Benjamin Walker, manages to keep things on track. Maybe the genre mash-up isn’t as doomed as I originally thought.