I'm sick of the sparkly, romantic vampires that are haunting the cineplex. Twilight seems to have infected all horror films, actually, and now everyone in the film is young, handsome and charming, and their desire to kill you by sucking your blood? Well, that's just an awkward bad habit that we should forgive because, well, they're so darn sparkly. Blech.
That's why I really enjoyed the historical mashup Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Based on the book of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, it posits a slightly different Civil War era where the Southern slave owners are actually all vampires, while the North fights not just for the freedom of blacks but also for freedom from the enslaving clutches of the vampire hoards. There are obvious parallels between our contemporary views of slave ownership and the vampire/victim relationship, but rather than be a heavy theme, this is played out in an amusing and entertaining fashion.
In fact I was surprised just how much I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as I delighted in the historical facts woven into the narrative and the bad-ass ninja Abe portrayed on screen by Benjamin Walker, spinning his silver axe blurringly fast as he kills the vampire hoards. With splendid special effects and some ingenious visuals that occasionally turned the action into sketched storyboards, it highlights the individual talents of director Timur Bekmambetov and producer Tim Burton.
The story starts with Abe as a young boy (played by Lux Haney-Jardine), working on the dock with his father Tom (Joseph Mawle). Slave parents are dragged onto a boat as their young son Will (Curtis Harris, played later as an adult by Anthony Mackie) fights to stay with them. When he's shoved down and beaten, young Abe runs to his rescue, just to be beaten too. Dad isn't okay with that and intervenes, just to have slaveowner and general bad dude Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) stop the fracas and threaten Tom that he'll have his revenge. And he does, killing Abe's mother Nancy (Robin McLeavy) while Abe watches, peeking through the bed slats.
That infuriates Abe and gives him his life's mission: revenge. Fortunately he bumps into the mysterious and charismatic Henry (Dominic Cooper), who promises to teach Abraham how to be a vampire hunter if Abe will pledge his loyalty to Henry and kill the vampires Henry identifies, not just go after Barts. This leads to one of the most enjoyable sequences in the film, the hero's journey moment of Abe learning how to channel his hate, his anger, his energy into a single thing: killing vampires. He chops down a tree with a single stroke of his weapon of choice: a silver-plated axe, and rapidly evolves from a hick woodsman into a ninja killer.
Along the way, much of the real story of Abraham Lincoln is woven into the movie, including when he moves to Springfield, Missouri and meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), though at the time she's apparently engaged to fiery politician Stephan Douglas (Alan Tudyk). She falls in love with the lanky, mysterious Abe, even as he's just a shop clerk working for the entrepreneurial Speed (Jimmi Simpson) while studying the law to become a lawyer. Of course, by night Abe has to balance out his courtship of Mary with his vampire hunting efforts, but he does a pretty good job of that, helping clear Springfield of a lot of baddies.
Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and Henry (Dominic Cooper) in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"
The film proceeds to where Abraham has become President during the darkest days of the Civil War, and the explanation of why battles like the Battle of Gettysburg were so deadly for the Union troops -- the Confederates were vampires and regular bullets wouldn't kill them! -- is both amusing and perfect for the story to proceed apace. If regular bullets don't hurt them, what's the best alternative? Students of vampire mythology know wooden stakes, but silver turns out to be effective too (remember, Abe has a silver-plated axe for his own vampire hunting efforts), so there's a frenzy of silver collecting in the North to create millions of silver bullets for the war efforts.
But how to get those bullets and silver cannonballs to the Union troops before the battle is lost and the vampire hoards of Confederate soldiers overrun the North? This plays out as one of the most epic train scenes in modern cinema, a fevered battle between Abe, Speed, Will and other Union soldiers against a mob of Confederate vampires, even as the train hurtles towards and across a massive burning trestle bridge. Surprisingly exciting and visually inventive where least expected.
What I found most enjoyable about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn't the action sequences or special effects, however, but was the way that the production team wove in so many historical figures from the era, including Underground Railroad slave emancipator Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis (John Rothman), along with a short vignette from the Lincoln Douglas debate. Lincoln also gives his famous Gettysburg Address and the last scene? You'll laugh at the irony and historical inevitability of it all.
I didn't expect to like this film very much. Most of these historical mashups seem daft to me, but I walked out of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter pleasantly surprised and highly entertained. It's a throwback to an era of vampire movies that were witty and engaging while also being scary and populated by smart, scary, vicious vampires who you did not want to have at your parties or visiting your place of business. Nicely done. Go see it and enjoy!