Sometimes the concept of a movie – the very idea behind it – leads us to believe we have it all figured out before the first frame is shown. When you hear about a film that posits that Abraham Lincoln was a killer of vampires, one can make the assumption that the movie will just use the novelty and disharmony of stately Abe fighting vampires as its sole merit.
So imagine my surprise when Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter come along to prove that while novelty can be the bait, the real hook of a film in this vein – aside from ample and masterful action – can be the full commitment of everyone involved to the premise and story at hand.
The story is in the title; Abraham Lincoln grows up in the shadow of his mother’s death, which was the result of a vampire attack, and becomes trained as a vampire hunter by a mysterious stranger. In a fairly succinct first act we get the full story, watching as Honest Abe is ushered into a life of secrecy, taught to tap into his inner power, and given the tools and training needed to take on an invisible enemy.
Sure, this sounds like a cut and dry case of mindless entertainment, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ends up being so much more than that. Easy accolades first – this is a thrilling film with visceral scenes of supernatural action and bravado. This should come as no surprise, given that it’s directed by Timur Bekmambatov, the mind behind Wanted and the Night/Day Watch movies. This is a man who has given us some of the most off-the-wall and ridiculous set pieces in recent cinema history. He has a way of making ridiculous or cliched moments seem fresh and new. A man doesn’t just get thrown into a building; he gets thrown against it so hard that he break the wall and continues to travel up the side until he clears the roof. Abe Lincoln doesn’t just use an ax to kill the undead; he twirls it with acrobatic vigor and installs a gun in the handle.
There’s a strange, anarchistic beauty to the things that happen during this film. To spoil some of the greater moments would be a crime, but every actor commits fully to the reality and actions of this story. This is important, because it ties in pretty heavily to the more existential accolade that I’ve put off so far.
Of all the things one would expect from a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the least would be narrative earnestness and sincerity. There is no winking or nudging in this tale. This isn’t a film that smiles at the audience or acknowledges the inherent nonsense of its premise. It plays things so straight that it becomes something of a minor miracle when, half way through, I began to find myself wondering which things in the story were fabrications and which were re-appropriations.
People, places, and events are all handled with equal weight, leading to a sense of full integration. There are no hard breaks between truth an fiction, and the basic outline of Lincoln’s life is adhered to so fully that one begins to wonder at what actual secrets might fill the gaps this film has chosen to exploit.
But it’s not just the biographical aspects of Lincoln’s life that the film works with. The whole story is predicated on the brewing questions of slavery in the South, and the growing rift between the Union and the coming Confederacy. It tackles the ideas of liberty and slavery not just allegorically, but with full-throated reality. There is something noble about this combining of fact and fiction. I don’t feel as though the film belittles the reality of slavery, or undermine the truth behind the Civil War. Rather, AL:VH overlays a strange amount of logical vampiric deviousness over the real life events. It evinces a supernatural conspiracy theory, yes, but it does so with such actual purpose and intellect towards the reality of our past that it never felt exploitative.
It is at the intersection of these two aspects – furious action and odd historical/narrative earnestness – that I found the most surprising aspect, however. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter actually does a strange kind of honor to the memory and idea of Abraham Lincoln. The film acts as a natural extrapolation of the best parts of Honest Abe – his bravery, his idealism, and his commitment to unity and equality – into their logical conclusion should vampires have ever existed. He battles against the exploitation and subjugation of people who cannot defend themselves and he never backs down in the face of a greater foe. He stands in principle, and remains undeterred by tragedy and strife.
A lot of the credit for this must go to Benjamin Walker, who portrays Lincoln as an earnest, loyal man with deeply moral motivations and strength of character and will. At the end, there is a real thrill when he infers that vampires aren’t the only things that never die. Along with Dominic Cooper as his mentor, Jimmi Simpson as his unwitting right-hand man, and Anthony Mackie as his childhood friend Will, they make a formidable and motley team that you can’t help but root for.
It’s a strange thing to say, but I can’t think of any other way to put it. This a strange, exhilarating historical fantasy that not only somehow respectfully confronts a dark chapter in our national history, and also pays homage to a great man while at the same time elevating him from historical figure to mythic hero. So if anyone is looking for epic action, thrilling historical supernatural fiction, and a premise that goes beyond mere novelty and embraces the fantastic possibilities therein, I couldn’t help but point them toward Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.