Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Review

There’s something to be said for those who know how to use artistic license. Some people succeed, many fail. But its the attempt at creating something bold and original that can make a person at least stop and take notice.

When author Seth Grahame-Smith set out to tell the fictional story of the man regarded by many to be the greatest president in American history, he decided to bring new meaning to the concept of artistic license. Rather than tell the story of Abraham Lincoln that we all learned in school, he  instead delivered the untold story of how Abraham Lincoln devoted his life to destroying the undead. Naturally, Grahame-Smith was the man put in charge of bringing this fictional tale to the big screen. Whether or not the film is a successful attempt at recapturing what his novel accomplished is a completely different story altogether. Here is my review of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a film based on the novel of the same name. The story tells of the secret life of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), a man fueled by vengeance and grief after his mother is murdered when he is a child. Abe vows to avenge his mother’s death by putting an end to her killer’s life. However, his attack proves futile when he discovers that his mother’s murderer is in fact a vampire. Lincoln is saved by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a man who aides in training the young Abe in the art of killing vampires. From there Abraham finds himself in a world crawling with the undead; a bloodthirsty hoard attempting to overthrow the Union, and only he has the ability the stop them.

Speak softly and carry a big fucking axe.

Benjamin Walker delivers a solid performance as Lincoln. He manages to walk that fine line of sincerity, anger, and somberness that the character requires. His delivery is believable, even when he is aged towards the end of the film to look more like Lincoln in his final years. Dominic Cooper is superb as the mysterious mentor Henry Sturgess. The character has a much larger presence in the film than in the book, and Cooper manages to take full advantage of every second he is on screen. Though she wasn’t given too much to work with, Mary Elizabeth Winstead brought an actual performance to her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln. Her character, much like Cooper’s, is given much more to do in the film, and is made a pivotal component to the overall story and its eventual conclusion.

Although no amount of make-up could ever make her look anywhere near as ugly as Mary Todd Lincoln.

The action sequences are very stylized and grandiose, grabbing obvious inspiration from films like “The Matrix” and “300”. For the most part this technique is used properly, never feeling as though director Timur Bekmambetov is browbeating you with just how cool everything looks. Every major action set piece seems to be larger than the last, getting exponentially over the top until we reach our conclusion that is almost too absurd for the average audience member to accept. However, the film manages to tow the line between falsity and realism rather seamlessly. So moments like a fight in the middle of a horse stampede can seem believable in the context of the film, rather than being ridiculous and unnecessarily over the top.

The design of the vampires themselves can be compared to those from the movie “30 Days of Night” in that they have a very menacing look about them. They are ruthless and ferocious, instilling fear every time Abraham must do battle with one. It’s refreshing to see the more terrifying vampire rather than the welcoming, attractive vampires that we have had in recent memory with films like “Twilight”. The film is not shy about getting violent either. Having a pretty decent sized body count is much needed for a story as bloody and violent as this one is intended to be, and it’s nice to see the studio make the right choice in not shying away from making it an R-rated film.

For those of you like myself who read the book, be ready to be surprised and possibly put off by its big screen adaptation. The book tells a very compelling character story of a man consumed by darkness and pain, fighting for the freedom of all men. Although the film is based on this general concept, it decides rather to focus more on “Honest Abe” being a badass vampire slayer. Where the book spends a good portion of time tying this fictional world to reality, the film jumps ahead and pays little attention to being historically accurate. And I feel as though it is successful in that endeavor. Rather than make the film a long, drawn out story that spans the course of Lincoln’s entire life, it is instead decided that the story be solely focused on Lincoln’s interactions with the undead and not much else.

I can see why many fans of the book could come out of this film feeling potentially disappointed and maybe even betrayed. Almost every scene in the film is either drastically different from the book, or not in the book at all. You could blame Seth Grahame-Smith for this; after all it was he who wrote both the novel and the adapted screenplay. However, I can not and will not point the finger at him for a very specific reason. To me it seems like Grahame-Smith felt as though a film adaptation of his book would be better as a straight up action movie rather than the subdued, thought provoking story that the book was. If he were to do the latter, I can’t help but get the feeling that the average film goer would have felt cheated out of what should otherwise be exactly what the title proclaims it to be; a silly, fantastical story about Abe Lincoln cutting the heads off of blood sucking demons from hell.

And boy does he.

I don’t feel as though Grahame-Smith missed the point of the book, nor do I feel as though he was unable to comprehend the source material. After all, he created this story, it was his idea. He clearly felt as though this was the right direction to take the story. And since the guy who came up with this world is the guy who is making the changes, I’m willing to trust that these changes were for the greater good of telling a proper story on film. Whether or not you agree with the decision is irrelevant. The film is a completely different creature than it’s novelized former, so if you didn’t enjoy it then your love and admiration for the novel won’t be tarnished or damaged in any way.

There’s many reasons why I should hate this movie. Being a history buff  (this particular time period especially) should make me hate the fact that the film is so historically inaccurate. Being an admirer of Abraham Lincoln himself should make me hate the fact that this movie didn’t spend much time telling the story of who our 16th president really was. Being a big fan of the book should make me hate that the film changed everything that I had previously known about this story.

But I don’t hate this movie. I actually quite love this movie.

Sure, it is guilty of all of those things that I just mentioned. But I love the attempt to deliver something new and fresh for audiences to experience. Artistic license is an idea that makes “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” the unique story that it is. It’s that ability to take a chance on an absurd premise such as this that gives me hope for the art of storytelling. Whether you like this film or not, the fact that originality still exists out there in the world is promising to say the least. When you look at it, Seth Grahame-Smith managed to give us an three stories for the price of one. He gave us the true story of Abraham Lincoln, he gave us the detailed fictional account of his days as a killer of vampires, and he gave us an action film that condensed those two things into a two-hour long thrill ride. And for that I applaud him.

Don’t go into this film expecting a biography. Don’t go into this film expecting historical accuracy. Don’t go into this film expecting to be moved by its gripping story. And don’t go into this film expecting to see the book retold on the big screen. However, what you can expect is to be potentially amazed at how anyone could take a man as interesting and awesome as Abraham Lincoln and somehow make him even more interesting and awesome. So the way I see it, you have two options. You can either stand on your soapbox and protest this film for its flaws. Or you can sit back, relax, and enjoy a creative, action-packed work of historical fiction come to life. Personally, I would go with the second option.

RATING: 8/10

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~ by Brandon Gnuschke on June 22, 2012.

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