“...seems more in service to its premise than to a good story"

Unsatisfying Delivers as Advertised

(062912) The Civil War was fought to free the slaves from vampires. In any other context, it would be a shot-in-the-dark history exam answer given by a kid who hadn't studied. But in the bizarro universe of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (novelized and scripted by literary mash-up specialist Seth Grahame-Smith, of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fame), it is a plausible enough reason for Confederate Southerners to insist on securing their supply of fresh blood from Africa.

Whatever else it is, it is not a case of misleading advertising. Apart from the odd, perverse, self-aware line (e.g. "Hurry, Abe, we'll be late for the play!"), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes its preposterousness seriously enough to make it fun.

Fun, that is, like a cleverly photo-shopped picture that gets shared every which way on Facebook. After a while, the novelty wears off. And so it is with the perverse thrill of seeing the stove-piped hatted Great Emancipator (Benjamin Walker) swinging a silver-tipped axe and decapitating bloodsuckers as if they were just that many more rails to split. It's such a strangely cool image, it makes one wonder why Americans just don't elect bad-asses as President (Harrison Ford beating down terrorists and yelling, "Get off my plane!" comes to mind).

You would expect a film called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to be both low budget and low brow. Even if it wasn't those two things you'd expect the movie to go all out in the camp department, with its tongue placed firmly in its check. You'd expect a movie about the United States' 16th President killing vampires to be full of bad puns, winks at the camera and goofball antics.

What you wouldn't expect is for a film where Abraham Lincoln uses a silver-tipped axe to chop of vampires head to be played straight. Well, as straight as an action film featuring a Civil War jam packed with vampires can be.

In fact, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter spends most of its time in Lincoln's youth, wherein he loses his mother to a vampire, setting him on his pre-Presidential course. Vampire Hunter is like that, taking actual events in Lincoln's life, like the death of people in his life, and attributing them to vampires. Wife Mary Todd's famous depressions? Hey, a plague of vampires would depress me, too.

And within the confines of its gimmick, it actually sticks to as much history as it can. His partner in vamp-killing, Joshua F. Speed (Jimmi Simpson), was Lincoln's real advisor. He really did woo Mary (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) away from her then-fiancé, Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), the same man with whom he'd engage in the legendary debates. Which doesn't mean that the Confederate soldiers at the first battle of Gettysburg were vampires, impervious to normal bullets (silver kills them -- yeah, I know, that's supposed to be werewolves, but Grahame-Smith messes with vampire lore, suggesting that they've also "adapted" to sunlight).

And it doesn't necessarily mean that Lincoln and his childhood friend, a former slave (Anthony Mackie) single-handedly decided the outcome of the war with a two-man stand against a small army of vamps atop a speeding train. So kids, ignore these parts if they come up in the exam.

Director Timur Bekmambetov recreates the stylistic flare he brought to Wanted, and the acting is game throughout, considering no character is exactly fleshed out. As Lincoln, Walker is never more expressive than we'd expect from a guy whose face seems historically chiseled from rock, but he swings a mean axe. Rufus Sewell gives his patented bad guy portrayal as king of the Southern vampires, and Dominic Cooper has screen presence as Lincoln's vampire ally and mentor.

The film is far from flawless, however. The pacing is all over the place, as is the story at times. Obviously condensing the book into a two hour film caused some trouble for the screenwriter as he often seem to lose his own storyline. It leads to some moments where what's going on isn't always clear. It also causes a few issues with expository stuff about how vampires work in this particular fiction. Eventually that all gets sorted, however. You're already being asked to believe that Abraham Lincoln was a secret vampire hunter so making some other leaps in logic doesn't really hurt the film all that much.

The result is a movie that seems more in service to its premise than to a good story. But at least it's different.

Directed by:    Timur Bekmambetov
Written by:    Seth Grahame-Smith, screenplay based on his
 novel of the same name
Starring:    Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell, Dominic Cooper
Released:    06/22/12 (USA-wide)
Length:    105 minutes
Rating:    R for violence throughout and brief sexuality

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