Film Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Producer-director Timur Bekmambetov and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith deliver a canny mix of action, horror and alternate history in what should be a bona-fide blockbuster.

You know slavery was the hot-button issue that drove the Civil War, but unless you’ve heard about the vampires, you don't know the half of it. Producer-director Timur Bekmambetov and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith deliver a canny mix of action, horror and alternate history in what should be a bona-fide blockbuster.

1818: While working alongside his father at a riverside shipping depot owned by the cruel, ruthless Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln sees a terrible sight: His friend Will's parents—both free people of color—shackled like slaves and herded onto a small boat while Barts flogs their weeping son. Young Abraham runs to Billy's defense; when the dust-up is over, his deeply indebted father is unemployed. And grim though that is, the worst is yet to come: That night, Abraham sees Barts creep into the family home and hover menacingly over his sleeping mother; within days she's dead of some ghastly fever.

Lincoln grows into a bitter, hard-drinking young man (Benjamin Walker, of Broadway's Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), consumed with the need to avenge his mother's death, and it's in a bar that he meets the stranger, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the skills he needs to be a killer. Henry also opens Lincoln's eyes to a monstrous truth…literally monstrous. Vampires aren't just the stuff of bogey tales for children: They prowl the still-New World, abetted by the willful blindness of Americans determined to put the past behind them, and by the rigors of life at a time when disease, accidents, Indian attacks and even childbirth made death a constant companion.

When Lincoln has mastered the art of vampire slaying, Henry dispatches him to Springfield, Indiana, where he studies law and later begins to dabble in politics, finds a new friend in Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), reconnects with an old one in William Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and shyly steals the heart of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from his future political rival, Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk). Oh, and he starts killing vampires who, the odd pair of wraparound sunglasses aside, look just like everyone else until they transform into shark-toothed, blood-spattered fiends.

That Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is entertaining is no huge surprise: Seth Grahame-Smith's novel (the follow-up to his surprise bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is an audacious blend of reality and fantasy, the same delicate mix that the Russian-Kazakh Bekmambatov pulled off brilliantly in Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006)—though not in his unfortunate English-language debut, the 2008 Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted. And the cast is exceptionally rich in theatre-trained actors with movie experience which, as the Harry Potter franchise demonstrated definitively, can give genre fiction just the right touch of gravity without spilling over into pretention.

The surprise is how respectful it is of Lincoln's legacy, preposterous though that sounds. In Graeme-Smith's novel and screenplay (which he stripped of its modern-day framing device, the better to get straight to the bloody heart of things), vampires aren't just a pulpy metaphor for slave owners, they're the supernatural expression of pure human wickedness. Again, casting presses the point home: U.K. actor Rufus Sewell isn't camping around as ancient bloodsucker Adam. Sure, it's clear at a glance that he'd eat Twilight's sparkle vampires for breakfast, but he's as driven as Lincoln by a larger purpose, a sense of responsibility to his people—why shouldn't they have their own nation too? The film is a remarkable balancing act, pure pleasure to watch with just enough tragedy to temper the adrenaline rush.