Fearless forecast: Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is going to be remembered as the better Lincoln film by the end of the year. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis will probably put in another intense performance, and the Spielberg Dream Team will hit all the requisite Oscar-bait-y beats. But AL:VH will stand as the movie that took more risks and entertained more people (although some may be loath to admit the extent of their amusement). With the negative buzz and unapologetically ridiculous premise (particularly to non-Americans), I was ready to groan through what would most likely be a painful mess. But by the first chilling flash of full-on vampiric menace, I bought into this unlikely summer sleeper.
The period details and historical events really act more like window dressing here, fleshing out what would have been a run-of-the-mill slay-the-monster hero’s journey on top of a rather ponderous historical biography. AL: VH could have had the worst of both genres, and it does sometimes over-reach with all the mixed metaphors and mashed-up movie tropes. However, for the most part, the narrative clichés help keep the story moving at a decent clip while still leaving room for some of the more quotable and notable moments in Lincoln’s life. It’s kind of like The Greatest Hits of The Great Emancipator. The presidential biopic part is played relatively straight, and Ocar-nominated Caleb Deschanel’s luscious cinematography plus the evocatively exaggerated color-grading anchor the film with some necessary visual gravitas. So when the action-horror aspects kick in, you really appreciate how more imaginative the movie is than what you’d expect of it. Your mileage may vary in terms of swallowing some of the more over-the-top stunts and effects in the big set-pieces, but for me at least, there’s true wit, and even real beauty to some of the sequences. Although the latter “boss battles” seem to owe more to Nintendo than Nosferatu. As a vampire film though, another thing the movie has going for it is that it features some of the most effective vampire make-up/CGI work in recent memory. These vamps look FIERCE, and I mean that both in the Tyra Banks and Fangoria sense. Fiercest of all is supermodel Erin Wasson as vamp Vadoma, reminiscent of Lisa Marie’s turn as Vampira in producer Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.
Benjamin Walker may be physically appropriate but he’s merely dramatically adequate as Honest Abe. This could be giving him the benefit of the doubt, but the prosthetics and fancy axe-work, plus the burden of carrying his very first big Hollywood film, may all have overwhelmed him enough to blunt his performance. Rufus Sewell can pretty much play a big bad in his undead sleep by now, while Dominic Cooper continues to bide his time before snagging his real break-out role by lending support as the mysterious mentor here. Mary Elizabeth Winstead comes a long way from Ramona Flowers by proving she can get all laced up in a corset, and act motherly and mature to boot. Unfortunately, Anthony Mackie underwhelms as an underwritten token sidekick.
Seth Grahame-Smith may be no Stoppard or Sorkin, and he’s not getting any Writer’s Guild noms for this one for sure, but he does more focused and effective story-smithing here than he did for Burton’s Dark Shadows. Having a Kazakh helm this material was a clever move since vampire genre vet Bekmambetov (whose Nightwatch single-handedly dragged Russian horror out from the cold) obviously had no qualms about thoroughly messing with the Lincoln legacy. I believe that some critics who’ve been harsh on the film may be expecting some sort of post-modern self-aware in-joke that its title sets it up to be, instead of the period gore/lore piece it actually ends up as. You don’t really have to lower your expectations to enjoy AL:VH, you just need to have different expectations. As far as would-be bipolar blockbusters go, I think it’s a good thing to keep the Burton-Bekmambetov-Grahame-Smith ward off their meds.