Director Timur Bekmambetov came to the attention of Western audiences in 2004 with his gritty, dark and stylish vampire thriller Nochnoy Dozor, perhaps better known as Night Watch. His first English language film was 2008’s Wanted, an adaptation of the comic series by Mark Millar and J G Jones, starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, and although he served as a producer on the 3D Russian set alien invasion film The Darkest Hour, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is his first 3D film as director.
Adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his own novel, like his earlier book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this is a mashup, taking an established literary work or historical event and reworking it with elements not normally associated with the original. How entertaining the audience will find this beyond the initial incongruity of the juxtaposition depends on how well the joke is told, and here it is that both Grahame-Smith and Bekmanbetov come unstuck.
Telling the story of Abraham Lincoln from his childhood in Indiana where he witnesses the death of his mother at the hands of the vampire plantation owner Jack Barts through his rise in politics to the presidency of the United States of America and his role in the American Civil War, actually a battle to free the southern states from the tyranny of vampire rule, it is neither sufficiently convincing to be seen as a drama nor entertaining enough to be seen as an adventure. While over the top, it lacks the sense of humour needed to support the ridiculous proposition, nor is there ever any sense of real danger or the importance of events, and the end result is without conviction or character, bland and directionless. As the leader of the southern vampires, Rufus Sewll’s understated performance is an unconvincing threat, overshadowed by the dead weight of the film.
As Lincoln, the whole film rest on the shoulders of Benjamin Walker, and while he has received acclaim for his stage role as another president, Andrew Jackson, here he is an absence where the heart of the film should be, lacking the required determination, charisma and resolve to be either a convincing leader or leading man. Only in the later scenes as the aged Lincoln does he improve, and here because the prosthetic makeup is doing the acting for him.
Fortunately, the supporting cast are good; as Mary Todd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead furthering her genre repertoire after her varied roles in Sky High, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and the remake of The Thing, is bright and vibrant; as Henry Sturgess, Lincoln’s guide to the art of hunting the supernatural, Dominic Cooper seems to be the only whose tone matches the premise. Alan Tudyk is excellent, his performance largely conveyed by looks, as with barely a dozen lines, his character vanishes entirely without ever being developed.
As a Russian director with a defined modern edge, Bekmanbetov was a bold choice for this subversive yet patriotic project, and not only is his unrestrained style totally at odds with the period, it has become so repetitious as to be pedestrian, and the addition of 3D only serves to emphasise how intrusive it is to the bare narrative. Screaming gimmick over an already cliched script, it demonstrates a grasp of the technique akin to Revenge of the Creature, objects thrusting out of the screen, and editing that doesn’t allow the eye time to adjust. When deep emotion is required, computer generated dust motes floating in sunbeams don’t add to the realism, they just cry out how fake the scenes are.
There are many more flaws in the film, from a training montage mere minutes into the first reel before any character has been established, through a horse stampede that resembles a cartoon, and the decision to drain colour out of the film as though to resemble early photographs, an effect that makes it seem even more lifeless. Most damning is the finale told in an artificial environment with fake peril, pretend daring and make believe rescues. When everything on screen is digitally created, there is nothing real for an audience to engage with, and the ruse cheats the audience just the same as the intended target of the vampires, the cinematic equivalent of a corrupt politician.
Most curious is the role of the southern vampires, who offer little menace and have no desire other than to protect their own business interests until they are challenged, portrayed en masse rather than as individuals, the fulfill a role in the film equivalent to that which other minorities would in earlier decades, and Lincoln’s quest is not so much righteous as revenge. The film carries the conviction that vampires are bad and slavery is wrong on its tongue, but not in its heart, and by portraying the American Civil War as a game with disposable pawns upon a map, a conceit directly portrayed on screen, it diminishes the importance of the real historic events and the many lives that were lost on both sides of the conflict.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is currently on general release