On Honest Abe’s birthday, lets give an honest assessment of one of the silliest films in recent memory.
While we whip together a totally serious list of movie presidents to honor this President’s Day weekend, we decided to get out in front with a totally not-serious entry. Abe Lincoln has been getting his name attached to a lot of dumb shit lately, so we figured we’d remind people of how Lincoln really rolled: shrewd state-craft, soaring speeches…and a big friggin’ axe. Let’s swing away.
Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter (2012)
While still a boy, Abraham Lincoln loses his mother to a vampire’s bite. He vows revenge, but fails in the attempt, narrowly escaping with his life. He is rescued by Henry (Dominic Cooper), a charismatic vampire hunter who instructs Abe in the fine art of dispatching bloodsuckers. Abe (Benjamin Walker) continues his fight against the undead well into adulthood and his presidency, making a last stand against the ultimate vampire foe (Rufus Sewell) on the eve of the Civil War’s defining battle.
What Went Wrong?
- Serious Camp. Nobody expected high drama from Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter…except for the director, apparently. Timur Bekmabetov caught attention for his gloriously over-the-top duology, Night Watch and Day Watch, about supernatural cops who keep the eternal truce between night-walkers and day-walkers. So, he’s not exactly a new hand at adapting gonzo ideas. While AL -VH has the ridiculous swagger of those movies, it doesn’t have the self awareness. Too often, the film plays its ludicrous bits with deadly seriousness.
- Stiff Collars. AL-VH has an enviable cast. I liked Benjamin Walker in In the Heart of the Sea. I loved Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Dominic Cooper’s turn in Preacher made me a giant fan of an adaptation of a comic book I hated. Anthony Mackie, mostly relegated to action fare, does action fare particularly well. Rufus Sewell…well, he’s also talented, when not slumming it as a stock villain (spoiler: he’s totally slumming it here.)
That’s a fantastic roster, that mostly fizzles on screen due to the scripting, at least for most of the film. I think they just didn’t know how to write young versions of these characters, and that difficulty led to some pretty flat portrayals. By the time we get to a grizzled, bearded Lincoln, the acting and writing is miles better. You just have to put up with about an hour of dodgy film before that point.
- Story Beats. The movie is markedly different from the novel. A few of the edits make sense: there isn’t really a central baddy to set up a big conflict at the climax in the novel, in fact the Civil War just kinda ends in the book. Other edits just gum up the works: Changing Henry and Abe’s relationship, ginning up another personal nemesis for young Lincoln, changing his family’s history with regards to vampires, and most of Rufus Sewell’s characters motivations are pretty clunky.
It makes for choppy storytelling, an overly bloated first and second act, a lot of nonsensical character motivation, and a noticeable disconnect in tone going from the early film to the later parts.
What Went Right?
- At Least Nobody’s Mugging. While the over-serious tone makes for some head scratching moments, at least we don’t have actors rolling their eyes at the camera. Lots of these silly mash-up films just can’t help but wink and nod. So many of the characters could have eaten their way through the scenery with a fork and knife. It’s nice that everyone bought in to the concept.
- Honest Abe’s Biggest Hits. I was not much in love with Benjamin Walker’s casting for the first half of the film. He didn’t much look like a de-aged Honest Abe, and he’s a bit too gawky to pull off the action hero look. When the film time-jumps and we get to see Walker as President Lincoln, you can see why they cast him. He totally pulls off the look, has plenty of gravitas, and positively comes alive giving Lincoln’s famous speeches. He even finally gels with all of the supporting cast. It feels like the whole film was reverse engineered to get to the final half hour.
- That Train Scene! As I said, the film lives and dies by its final act…and it mostly nails it. Every actor who seemed to be chafing in an ill-fitting suit for most of the film suddenly feels just right. Their character interactions become clear, explicable, and engaging. Then you add the big flaming train to the mix.
The final set piece of Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter is almost worth all of the dross you have to wade through to get to it. It’s well shot, where most of the other action scenes felt jerky and hard to follow. It hides its CG much better than anything that had come before. Everyone gets a chance to have a badass moment. The sheer bravado of executing a long fight sequence on a moving train THAT’S ALSO ON FIRE really takes chutzpah. Sure, you can see lots of the movie magic tricks, but the film finally earns its swagger with a rousing climax.
How Bad Is…Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter?
As you may have guessed, I had a lot of problems with AL – VH. I don’t dislike crazy concept films (I have seen Army of Darkness more than twenty times, so there’s that!) I just like my crazy concept films not to feel like I’m sitting through a church service. Too much of this movie is dry and serious when it should be brash and bold.
There’s definitely some life in this corpse, making it not a complete slog to get to the good parts. The final action sequence shows just how gloriously audacious this film could have been all along.