It’s not really until I watched this movie did I consider how ridiculous a premise this was: President Abraham Lincoln as a secret vampire hunter. It sounds like a spoof or something silly for Halloween (maybe a segment from The Simpsons latest “Treehouse of Horror” episode). However, this movie isn’t tongue-in-cheek. Except for some vampire sarcasm, it’s mostly done straight-up. Nevertheless, a large chunk of this movie takes place before Lincoln has become president. At age nine, a young Abe Lincoln watches powerlessly as his mother is killed by a vampire. After ten years, Lincoln tries but fails to kill that vampire. However, he meets up with Henry Sturgess (played by Dominic Cooper) who teaches him the ways of the hunter and sends him out to destroy other vamps. Eventually, Lincoln goes to law school and marries his wife Mary Todd, all the while keeping a sideline in slaying. When he becomes President of the United States, he finds out that there are vampires fighting along with the Confederate forces, trying to take over the country. Good thing the Americans elected the right man for the job without even knowing it!
I had not read Seth Graeme-Smith’s successful novel (the “genre mashup” on which he also based the screenplay for this film), so I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a “what if”-style alternate history. It turns out that it’s meant to be more of a “secret history”, as if it’s actually possible that Lincoln had hunted vampires in his spare time. If there’s anything that we’ve learned from the Winchester brothers of Supernatural, or from Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself, it’s that taking out the undead sure does eat up a lot of your time. It’s practically a full-time job. One would hardly have time to also get elected for president and run the fledgling American nation (luckily this movie kind of glosses over that part). So, apparently there were vampires in the U.S. (maybe still are) who were secretly planning on winning the American Civil War for the South, taking over the country and making it their own nation. Wouldn’t that be a problem? The thing about parasites is that they need their hosts around, otherwise they have nothing to feed on. That’s really only one of the logical weaknesses behind the background of this story. Maybe the novel got into more of the vampire nitty-gritties and showed a bit more thought, but that didn’t really make it into the movie.
Anyway, Rufus Sewell plays Adam, the leader of this faction of vampires (and coincidentally the boss of the vamp who murdered Lincoln’s mom as well). His performance is not particularly clever, charismatic, decadent, malevolent, slimy, or anything that we’ve come to expect from a boss-vampire. He’s just kind of your typical evil guy, delighting in hurting people and wanting to do it on a large scale. Benjamin Walker (a Hollywood newcomer) plays Lincoln at most ages. He was adequate, but again didn’t do a great job of lending any special presence to one of the most popular and famous presidents in American history. There was also the problem of his age makeup. Surprisingly he was more convincing as the fully-aged, presidential version than the younger Lincoln (who frankly I had no visual pre-conceptions about) and was distractingly difficult to accept as the middle-aged Lincoln. I’m not sure why he was cast in this role. Perhaps after his turn on Broadway as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, they just felt he’d automatically be good playing another presidential character. Sadly the rest of the cast is not that remarkable either, and it lends a blandness to the whole movie. Thankfully, director Timur Bekmambetov (like uncle Joe rescuing a dull party with his magic tricks) brought some life to this movie with his trademark slo-mo stunts that defy gravity and most other laws of physics. As he did in his previous films Night Watch, Day Watch, and Wanted, Bekmambetov is able to pull off stunts that are smooth, balletic, and full of flair and flourish. In fact, I’ve never been more impressed by a character wielding (or should I say “twirling”) an axe than in this movie (Go Abe!). If only that artistry could have rubbed off on the performances or the script. Instead, I found myself impatiently waiting between action sequences.
The story as a whole is surprisingly simple. It doesn’t involve much of Lincoln’s actual life as the President, so I have to wonder why (besides this gimmickry of it all) did they bother to make this a story about the president. The same story could have been just as interesting if it had been about some made-up person who hunted vampires during the Civil War. That’s again why I thought this would have been better as alternate history. Maybe there could have been a secret legacy passed on from one president to the next regarding protecting America from the undead. As it stands, they didn’t do enough with the plot or the characters to really sell the premise and so we’re left with something that looks good in parts, but is kind of lifeless and soulless (and not in a good way). (3 out of 5)