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Camp works best when taken seriously. The more absurd a premise is, the more heartfelt the people advancing it should be in their belief. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has its premise spelled out in the title, and it would seem to demand a tongue-in-cheek treatment from that alone. But not only have the filmmakers (including Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel) played the premise straight, they manage to justify it by making the familiar undead hordes into a symbol for everything Lincoln was seen to fight against. While many have complained about the serious approach the movie takes, in the end we've got a really strong and skillfully done action movie which is just funny enough to temper our disbelief. It deserves better than it's getting.
Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker, who may or may not be Liam Neeson's clone) first encounters the undead as a child, when his mother is killed by a cruel merchant who runs the docks. Years later, he clumsily and drunkenly tries to take vengeance, only to find the merchant is really a seemingly immortal monster. Fortunately, he falls under the care of Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who makes Abe a disciple in a quest to rid the world of evil bloodsucking freaks. Of course Lincoln still goes to law school and heads to Springfield, where, much to Sturges' consternation, he falls in love with a woman named Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who I'm sure I'll get tired of looking at at some point but let's just enjoy for now), gets married, and starts up a career in politics, coming to see the plague of slavery as a greater threat to his country than any number of bloodthirsty ghouls. But the vampires have been using the slave states as a supply of easy food, and so when war threatens the nascent republic, there's no question of which side the vampires are on.
This is kind of brilliant. While most readings and retellings of the Civil War insist on emphasizing moral ambiguity and a complex issue that turns brother against brother, it's nice to have a story that outright says the Confederacy was built on a parasitic evil that needed to be cleansed from the country with blood and fire if necessary. You may think I'm reading too much into this, but the film isn't exactly subtle about the connection, especially when Lincoln and company are assisted by none other than Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming), and one of his friends (Anthony Mackie) is a free black man wanted by slave hunters for helping with the Underground Railroad. The climax, involving the battle of Gettysburg, is a particularly clever twist on historical events even if it messes with the schedule a little.
In the midst of this we get some rather inspired action sequences. Director Timur Bekmambetov has a tendency to overdose on slow motion balletics, but there's no denying the inventive choreography on display. There's a lot of CGI, but it doesn't feel cheap, and the sequences still have a visceral kick.
Boldly keeping a straight face despite so many temptations, Walker makes a very believable and amiable Lincoln; a tall, awkward, slightly nerdy man who is nonetheless possessed of a steely resolve. Humanizing one of America's foremost historical icons can't be easy, especially when he has to do kung-fu moves with an axe, but Walker's performance really anchors the film. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson, as the major villains, are the only ones who come close to hamming it up, but even they stay within certain limits. Everyone's really made an honest go at this, and it makes a world of difference- there's nothing more insulting than a movie that just isn't trying.
So, as was the situation with Battleship, a movie with a gimmicky premise turns out to have a little more under the hood, even if critics and audiences aren't that interested in looking. I'm not sure if this has any wider ramifications for film culture, but it's still unfortunate. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is at heart a goofy picture, but it never lets that be an excuse. It works hard to earn our involvement and never abuses our trust. It is, for lack of a better word, honest.
Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith based on his novel
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov