As patently absurd as the title suggests, yet unflinchingly straight-faced to the bitter end, Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter offers a revisionist fantasy spectacle served up in genuinely dazzling fashion, courtesy of five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and a curious attention to detail capable of inducing cerebral hemorrhages in humorless historians. At the same time, for die-hard genre fans and curious moviegoers, it's a wild ride that's possibly just original, stylized, and entertaining enough to court a devoted cult following.
As a young boy, Abraham Lincoln watched his mother Nancy (Robin McLeavy) suffer an agonizing death following a midnight encounter with malevolent bloodsucker Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Nine years later, a vengeful Lincoln (played as an adult by Benjamin Walker) attempts to vanquish Barts and has his first terrifying encounter with the creatures of the night. Fortunately for the future of the nation, the would-be assassin is saved by determined vampire hunter Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) at the last possible moment, and he lives on to perfect his vampire-slaying skills under his rescuer. Flash forward to 1837, as Lincoln arrives in Springfield, IL, and quickly lands a job as a shopkeeper under Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), while also dividing his personal time between studying law and slaughtering vampires. Shortly after falling under the spell of beautiful Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Lincoln has a belated reunion with his childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), who reinvigorates his passion to fight for freedom. But a war is coming, and immortal plantation owner Adam (Rufus Sewell) is determined to use it as a means of gaining the upper hand against mankind. Years later, as the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln is joined by his old friends in a last-ditch effort to save not just the Union, but the very future of humanity.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was adapted from the novel of the same name by author Seth Grahame-Smith, who also served as an executive producer on the film and recently made an inauspicious splash in Hollywood as the sole credited screenwriter of Tim Burton's disastrous Dark Shadows. But don't be fooled -- save for some familiar incisors, Dark Shadows and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter couldn't be more different. Unlike the stillborn melodrama of Burton's supernatural sudser, the focus here is largely on action, and few contemporary directors can match Bekmambetov when it comes to creating outrageous set pieces. Surprising as it may seem to some, there's a genuine artistry on display in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that even the most ardent critic would be hard-pressed to deny. A battle between young Lincoln and Barts amongst a herd of stampeding horses at dusk could be one of the most strikingly gorgeous sequences ever captured by a cinematographer with one of the best résumés in Hollywood, and even once Bekmambetov's severe overuse of slow motion starts to grate, Deschanel still manages to captivate with every painstakingly beautiful frame. Meanwhile, Grahame-Smith keeps the story moving at a satisfying pace, using some unexpected revelations to continually throw us off balance while occasionally weaving historically accurate details into his imaginative fiction.
As the president who would go on to deliver the Gettysburg Address (a speech cleverly re-created in a key sequence), Walker carries himself with an impressive mix of executive dignity and fiery determination. Frequently resembling a younger Liam Neeson (perhaps no surprise, since the actor made his feature debut as a younger version of Neeson in the 2004 biopic Kinsey), Walker inhabits his historical character wholeheartedly, whether pondering the future of the Union or fiercely separating a bloodsucker's head from its body. His energy is easily matched by co-stars Mackie, Cooper, and Simpson, each of whom also handle action and drama with equal conviction. Winstead is suitably regal and charming in the crucial role of Mary Todd, and Sewell uses his sharp features to distinct advantage as the serviceable villain presiding over an army of demonic vampires.
In the end, your enjoyment of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will likely depend on your willingness to accept the fact that the filmmakers are steadfast and determined to maintain an impenetrable poker face at all times. They know what they're doing is ridiculous, and we know it too. If they blink just once, the illusion is shattered and they've stumbled into comedic territory. If not, they've done their job, and every time you look at a $5 bill you'll get a little laugh of your own.