As action-fantasy-horror films go, you could do a lot worse than this, though I suspect the gnashing teeth and wars waged on its behalf as much as in opposition are both correct – a bloody vampire spectacle for sure, mingled and mangled history indeed, far too long than necessary and overly glib – but shouldn’t our modern-day monsters behave so necessarily fantastical? Sadly audiences and critics could not come to agreement or even compromised reaction to the material, based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the script. If you set aside the history of the film, as hard as that might be, you’re in for some of the most outlandish, visually stunning action sequences of recent memory, everything from the plausible though unlikely to the out-and-out ridiculously cinematic – but you have to want to give yourself over to the fun and mayhem because the film is actually quite entertaining once you’re there. I don’t remember when the gluttonous run-on, carbon copy brigade began or how long we’ve been living on the Kool-Aid of Hollywood mediocrity, but Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter is satisfying the moment you let go of the armchair and once inside it, lost there you can decide that serious and comedy thrive together and that an all out blood and gore fest can take you away on a much-needed vacation from your everyday. Given the upcoming Spielberg film of the same character it will be good fun to see how very different interpretations of our not so distant past will translate to the big screen.
As I said you could do a lot worse with a genre picture like this, steer too far to fantastical and you’ve got the relentless visual orgy of Sucker Punch, not far enough and you’re bumping around hum-drum on an empty tank of gas in the first Twilight film (which thankfully they corrected). The story does take an eternity to get going, filling in all that backstory and preparations of where the film is going and why, as well as what to expect when we get there. It is convoluted and contrived – of course it is – and it is a bit long as well, and bottom ended, a problem for audiences divided between the blood and violence and others looking for stoic, regal even Americana where solid characters do the solid work of history lessons, stories about proper and significant events and the like. But critics of that persuasion certainly missed the point of this film. It is true the film suffers for trying too hard to cater to the broadest demographic instead of the true core select – but then again when was the last time a film took such abandon? Even alienated fans at either end of the spectrum can agree at moments of delight and when you’re talking about a former president picking up an ax and chopping heads off, well that can be a little bit of a stretch for some and a hoot for many others.
It is 1818, and we find Abe (Benjamin Walker) living at home in order to set up his blood feud that will carry us through the first half of the story. It’s clunky but I suppose necessary in the way that all back stories are intended to give depth where none would exist otherwise. These scattered beginning vignettes are used to piece together Abe’s various encounters with necessary characters, a young African-American boy, William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), then a shopkeeper, Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) his nemesis Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) and mentor and friend Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper). These scenes are played with conviction and effect but for the hardened action-fantasy-horror crowd all these basic building blocks will fall with a resounding thud of “are we there yet?”. What ensues follows a loose path through history, giving reasons for Abe’s peculiar behavior and political career, his unlikely but beneficial relationships with the undead, both friend and foe. The most important story line is where history and fantasy mash-up, the warring sides of President Lincoln and the Confederate army driven by a tight affiliation with the undead, where vampires and their allegiances are made for some interesting correlations and some of the biggest set pieces of the film. There is no getting away from the unlikely merger of genres but for this very reason one must set aside your expectations and enjoy the ride. The trouble with so many attitudes about this movie is how they got away from the spirit of it all, how so many got to be so serious about their fantasy.