The title alone for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter delivers most of the information audiences need to know about what sort of film they are about to experience. It’s a preposterous title for the preposterous idea that the 16th President of the United States had a secret life as a vampire hunter. It’s not even a concept that can be seriously regarded as an attempt at alternate history, but rather a mash-up of historical biography and B-grade horror designed to be as outlandish as possible. The film is adapted from a 2010 novel of the same name, written by Seth Grahame-Smith who also wrote the 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There have been several novels capitalising on the growing trend in mashing together literary texts or historical records with pulp monster movie or science-fiction concepts, with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter being the first major film adaptation.
Part of the recent trend that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino began with Grindhouse (2007) has been to make films that pay homage to cult B-grade and exploitation films. With the notable exception of Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’s wonderful Machete (2010) most of these subsequent films have been unsuccessful for either simply mimicking the appearance and ultra violence of an old ‘video nasty’ (for example, Hobo with a Shotgun) or containing an outrageous premise that the filmmakers are so pleased about that they forget to actually develop a film worth watching (for example, Iron Sky). The worst trend in the homage to so-called trash cinema has been the excessive winking at the audience. With a few sly exceptions, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is played straight, which provides far more laughs and a general sense of fun than the self-aware approach. It’s far closer to a classic exploitation film than most other films that claim to be. After all, what could be more exploitive than appropriating sensitive chapters from American history for the purposes of making a ridiculous vampire film?
The degree to which the film can be regarded as successful will depend largely on expectations. It almost seems redundant to point out that people keen for historical accuracy will not embrace it. It’s not a classic vampire story either in the sense that many established ‘rules’ of vampire physiology are not adhered to. For example, the vampires that Lincoln faces are mildly discomforted by sunlight rather than sunlight being something that can kill them. The film introduces other concepts that stray from traditional vampire mythology to suit the film’s own narrative purposes. None of this is really a problem since vampires aren’t real and the mythology about them is open to interpretation, adaptation and manipulation. The key is plausibly establishing such concepts within the context of the film.
What makes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter so enjoyable is the extent it abandons so many established rules not just in terms of history and genre, but also physics. As Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has demonstrated previously in films such as Wanted (2008), Day Watch (2006) and Night Watch (2004), he has little interest in obeying things like the law of gravity when creating action sequences. By undermining so many fundamental principles of how objects move through space and how time works, Bekmambetov has been carving out a niche of spectacle cinema that has more in common with classic Warner Brothers cartoons or some of Stephen Chow’s films than it does with other contemporary action films.
The resulting spectacle that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter delivers is reliant on bewilderment and absurdity. During a chaotic horse stampede scene a horse is thrown as a projectile and then the characters leap from horse back to horse back as if jumping over moving platforms. Another scene features a horse and carriage crashing through a wall like a speeding car. Most bizarrely is a scene where the slow motion seems to be used so that one character can get to another character in time to stop them falling to their death. It may be a stretch to call Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a work of surrealism, but when the actual film style manipulates the onscreen action in such a way, it does suggest some kind of demented dream logic is at play. Complementing the plausibility defying action is the heavily colour graded visual style Bekmambetov adopts that gives the film a strange otherworldly-like appearance. Bekmambetov resists the temptation to repeat set pieces and sight gags, and makes great use of the 3D, particularly with some of the more creative focus pulls and first person shots.
As Lincoln, Benjamin Walker is a highly unconventional hero, initially appearing lankly and ‘common looking’ until later scenes in the film see him adopting the iconic beard and hat. The film’s very casual explanation for why he is so irrationally powerful while wielding an axe dipped in sliver, is because he has learned to be motivated by truth rather than anger and a desire for revenge. Like the protagonist in Wanted, he is an ordinary man made extraordinary from tapping into power from within. While the source of power in Wanted is a set of dormant hereditary superpowers, Lincoln’s powers are a belief in truth, justice and equality. These are the character traits that make him ideal for standing up to the vampiric oppressors whose crimes in the New World include introducing slavery. The metaphor in the film is not a subtle one: people who are pro-slavery are undead monsters who drain the lives of others for their own comfort. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is admirable for making the metaphor work as well as it does with Lincoln entering politics so that his fight against the vampiric slavery scourge can reach the entire nation. Underneath all the gore, over-the-top action and flamboyant use of history is an impressive dedication to Lincoln’s vision of a free (and living) America.