With Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell, Dominic Cooper, Alan Tudyk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Rated R (for violence throughout and brief sexuality). 105 minutes.
You either get it or you don’t. ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER is an insanely absurd fun mash-up of horror and history that manages to be simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous. Turning our 16th president into the 19th century version of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” may not seem like a great idea for a movie, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief to the point where it’s gagging and gasping for air, you won’t be bored.
The premise of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay (based on his novel) is that Abe Lincoln’s mother died after being attacked by a vampire and thus he devoted the rest of his life to seeking revenge against not only the perpetrator but all of their kind. The story mixes some actual facts from Lincoln’s life with many elements of fantasy and horror, creating a movie unlike anything you’ve seen. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (“Nightwatch,” “Wanted”), it plays like a cross between “The Matrix” and 19th century tintype photos by Matthew Brady.
The filmmakers realized that if the movie is to work at all, it was important to play the material absolutely straight. There are no winks or asides to the audience. When Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) dispatches the fanged undead with a silver bladed axe, he’s deadly earnest. The reason he uses an axe is that he had a mishap attempting to take out a vampire with a gun. If you’re already rolling your eyes at such antics then perhaps you should go see something more realistic, like “The Avengers.” This is a movie that has Lincoln fighting vampires one moment and debating slavery with Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) the next. Mixed in with all this is a vividly reimagined 19th century America combining sets and CGI to good effect.
This falls within the genre of “alternate history” that has a strong literary tradition but only rarely appears on screen. In the movie, vampires settled in the South and slaves provided not only labor but blood. Thus when Lincoln becomes president and the Civil War erupts, the bloodsuckers commit their forces to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, imagining they will end up running the show. This leads to one of the most bizarre depictions of the Civil War on film, as the Battle of Gettysburg rages with vampires wearing the Gray. Lincoln comes up with a way to counterattack, leading to the big action sequence that dominates the last part of the film. (If vampires in the South seem odd, think about it: doesn’t that explain Newt Gingrich?)
Walker, primarily a stage actor, brings off Lincoln’s earnestness and sadness, mixing the vampire killing with elements of the real man. Other characterizations may be less grounded in reality, although Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a nice job as Mary Todd Lincoln. The cast includes Dominic Cooper as Lincoln’s mentor in vampire hunting, and Rufus Sewell as “Adam,” supposedly the first vampire.
Viewers looking for an unusual horror story, or who know enough history to be able to laugh at the absurdity of the proceedings, should have fun with “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” Those who insist on screaming that it didn’t happen that way should probably give this a pass. The humorless get no sympathy, but let’s take a moment to pity the high school American history teachers who are going to see “facts” from this movie pop up in student papers and exams for years to come.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.