About two years ago I read Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and was immediately struck by its power and purpose in having a little fun with a historical figure, the mythology surrounding him, and giving a new interpretation on why the Civil War was fought. It was brave and bold and did not shy away from the title’s purpose. The book – presenting Lincoln as a crusader against the undead and their stockpiling of slaves for food - was truly genius and I couldn’t wait to see that story turned into a film.
The news broke about six months after the book took off. Rather quickly, Tim Burton bought the rights and I was elated. Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) was chosen to direct and I leapt even higher. Then, I read that the author was going to adapt his own material and I sighed with relief. There was no way Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was going to disappoint. No way.
I was wrong.
The screen version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not the story presented in the novel. Containing maybe 20% of the book’s bravado, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter gets a mere two kudos from me for the use of its gore and its vampire designs. The rest is, disappointingly, one steaming pile of dookie.
Old honest Abe’s (Benjamin Walker, who works much better as a young Lincoln) fight against the undead begins with the death of his mother. With little paternal guidance (as suggested by the book and even less family ties), he is quickly plucked out by blood-sucker Henry Sturgess (a relatively bland Dominic Cooper) and recruited to seek revenge against all vampires. Sturgess doesn’t want the bad vampires to spread, but – unlike the book – doesn’t present us with good vampires.
Really the battle between the living and the dead is orchestrated by Lincoln, two friends - Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson as Will Johnson and Joshua Speed (both serviceable, but oh so bland) – and (a completely miscast) Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln. Together, the team tackles the revenge mission against a hammy Marton Csokas and a very flat Rufus Sewell.
With only two B-movie inspired spectacle fight scenes – one in the middle of a stampeded (which is gloriously over the top) and the other on the top of a train bound for glory across a burning bridge, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter barely registers an undead pulse. The violence is solid and some of the kills work - no reason to see this in 3-D though - and the blood gets gooped on thick. Lots of heads roll, but lots of eyes will roll, too. Especially from those expecting to see even a bit of what they fell in love with as they read.
Who do we blame? Look no further than author of both script and book Seth Grahame-Smith. He has turned his book into a gutless mess. Gone are the connections of vampires to the Lincoln family, gone are the real reasons the Civil War was fought, gone are the MLK connections, gone is the idea that Lincoln is still alive, and gone, gone, gone is the imagination that guided the book into a ballsy category of historical revision.
Instead of a fearless vampire killer/crusader we get the neutered PC-version of Abraham Lincoln who tackles the Civil War because it’s the morally right decision (and not because most Southerners were vampires who kept slaves as food). We also barely get the political tensions between Lincoln and Steven Douglas (Alan Tudyk) and their fight over Mary Todd. The real intrigue of the original narrative has been jettisoned by a script the plays it entirely too safe.
You get one shot at this material and, while Bekmambetov gives us the visual flair he is known for, Seth Grahame-Smith doesn’t give us the substance. Fans of the book will be disappointed. Those who have never read the book might be entertained, but – because they will eventually want to read the book – will miss seeing the real story of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on the silver screen. Hell, after seeing the movie, all you have to do is look up the synapsis of the book and be disappointed. That's STILL the narrative I want to see. Usually, I can seperate the book and the movie but, when the author of both is the same person, I really have to argue against the "safe" changes that have been made to the story...especially when the screenplay conintually drops the ball and lets the axe chop away some delicious parts.
Unfortunately, Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can’t commit to historical revision the book so boldly presents its audience with. Oh, it commits to its R rating, but the story is just so … bloodless. This is meandering entertainment at best and, as a result, it’s a complete and honest shame.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t completely suck but its fangs barely leave a mark.
MPAA Rating: R for violence throughout and brief sexuality.
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith
Cast: Benjamin Walker; Dominic Cooper; Anthony Mackie; Mary Elizabeth Winstead; Robin McLeavy
Tagline: Are you a patriot or a vampire?
Memorable Movie Quote: "There is darkness EVERYWHERE! You are not the only one who has lost everything!"
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Release Date: Junie 22, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Synopsis: Visionary filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov reinvent the time-honored genre and present the terrifying creatures of the night as they were meant to be experienced -- as fierce, visceral, intense and bloodthristy. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter brings to the screen the secret life of our nation's favorite president . . . as history's greatest hunter of the undead.