It turns out Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just a lawyer who became the President of the United States and led the winning side in the Civil War – he actually did it all to battle the undead. Well, at least that’s what happens in this version of history.
As a child, Abe watches as a vampire sucks the life from his mother, an event which shapes his entire life, so that once he’s grown (into the form of Benjamin Walker), he wants nothing more than to kill the man responsible. After an attempt to shoot the vamp goes wrong – he’s not using the sort of ammunition that can kill bloodsuckers – he’s saved by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper). Turns out Sturgess makes it his mission to destroy bad vampires, and trains Lincoln up to take on the undead.
Luckily in this world, humans can become supernaturally powerful (it’s something to do with anger or pain or truth or something – the film doesn’t seem quite sure why Abraham can chop down a tree with a single axe blow), which is handy when it comes to destroying the incredibly vicious vampires. At first Abraham just takes out bloodsuckers one by one, but soon comes to believe he needs to take bigger action and run for office. He has always believed that slavery is wrong, but when he realises that vampires are essentially using slaves as both a buffet and as a basis to try and take control of the country, he’s spurred into action.
It’s a slightly insane story and the film is just about as nuts as you’d expect, complete with action sequences that don’t just stretch credibility but blow it completely out of the water. That’s not to say they’re bad, as there are several action sequences that are quite a sight to behold, such as one where Abraham battles his mother’s vampiric killer in amongst a herd of stampeding horses. There is a slight mismatch between the insanity of the action and the rather po-faced attitude of the rest of the film, but when it comes to sporadic excitement, the film does deliver.
The problems come elsewhere, with a script that’s all over the shop. And I do say the script, as the problems are similar to the ones that bedevilled Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, and it can’t be a coincidence that they were both written by Seth Grahame-Smith (with Vampire Hunter also based on Seth’s book). There are plenty of good ideas, but the film has a tendency towards the random, uncertainty over what it’s doing thematically and every time it seems like it building towards something more than just silly vampire action, quickly undermines that with a trip back to the arbitrary.
This is particularly true of the supporting characters, who are rather short-changed and treated like chess pieces to be moved around to serve the plot, rather than seeming like actual people. Again it’s the script that’s the issue here (and it’s what was most frustrating about Dark Shadows), which only has a clear idea on who Abraham Lincoln himself is. It’s a bit of a shame, as potentially this could have been a film that wasn’t just about the silly but fun idea of Abe Lincoln killing vampires, but could have used it to tell quite a powerful symbolic story. It tries to do this but fails. This is nearly all down to a muddy script and the fact it’s clear the film has been fiddled about with a lot during editing (as revealed by some rather obvious continuity errors).
With Honest Abe, the screenplay knows what it’s doing and Benjamin Walker delivers a great performance in the role, offering just the right level of stern resolve and humility. Walker is certainly a talent to keep an eye out for, and is one of the few actors you would take seriously as both President of the US and an axe-wielding bloodsucker killer.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a film that promises a lot and only partly delivers. The action is great fun, with director Timur Bekmambetov showing he has a real eye for visuals, especially when it comes to highly stylised fighting – as he previously proved in Wanted – but the things that surround that are rather problematic. If you just want OTT action sequences with plenty of blood-soaked vampire axe-killings, you’ll be okay with the movie, but if you expect a bit more than that – most particularly having one than one fully developed character – you’ll find the film frustrating.
Overall Verdict: Some good action, but the script’s randomness, underserved supporting characters and a rather confused feel mean that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ends up as a stylised mess. It doesn’t completely lack entertainment value, but it could have been much more than it is.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac