CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: The battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Present Day. MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES walk through the area.)
MICHAEL ARRUDA: This has got to be one of the most somber places I’ve ever visited. You can almost feel death all around you. (turns to LS) Or maybe that’s just you.
L.L. SOARES: No, I know what you mean. I was surprised you chose this place to do our review. Not the usual locale for Cinema Knife Fight shenanigans.
MA: I just thought this location would be the perfect setting to make my point, that today’s movie, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012), in spite of its ridiculous title, is not a comedy. It plays it straight throughout.
LS: It may not be an intentional comedy, but it’s not a reverential piece of historical filmmaking, either. It’s a silly vampire movie! Hardly worth this location!
MA: Perhaps, but it just felt right. The hero of this movie is, after all….Abraham Lincoln!
(Orchestral music plays in the background)
LS (grimaces): What’s with all the seriousness? Man, are you a buzzkill!
MA: Anyway, I hadn’t planned to stay here. Let’s take advantage of the magic of Cinema Knife Fight Land and go to a more appropriate place. (Snaps his fingers, and suddenly they’re in a crowded pub surrounded by folks in 19th century garb.)
LS: Now that’s more like it! But why is everybody dressed so funny?
MA: I dunno. Maybe this is the cast party for the movie. Or maybe we went backwards in time. You can never tell around here.
LS: So why don’t you start the review? I’m going to grab a couple of cold ones from the bar.
LS: Why are you thanking me? Get your own!
MA: Sometimes you make the Grinch seem generous.
LS: The Grinch is a wuss!
MA: Anyway, in today’s movie, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also penned the screenplay, young Abe Lincoln witnesses his mother attacked by a vampire. Years later, as an adult, Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) seeks revenge against the vampire who killed his mother, but not knowing anything about vampires, his attempt at retribution is a complete fail. He is nearly killed, but a stranger (Dominic Cooper) comes to his aid and saves him from the vampire.
The stranger’s name is Henry Sturgess, and he actually had met Lincoln earlier in a bar, a lot like this one, and it turns out Sturgess knows a lot about vampires. He’s a vampire hunter, and Abe Lincoln agrees to be his protégé and learn all there is to know about hunting vampires, with his eventual goal being to avenge his mother’s death.
LS: Excuse me, was I snoring? Must have dozed off for a second.
MA: Aren’t you supposed to be getting yourself those cold ones?
LS: Oh yeah.
MA: Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he finds a job working in a general store for an amiable young man named Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), who quickly becomes one of Lincoln’s best friends. It is also here where Lincoln meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the woman he eventually falls in love with and marries.
When he’s not working or studying to be a lawyer, Lincoln’s busy as a vampire hunter, using his weapon of choice, an axe, to destroy the multitude of vampires living in Springfield. Lincoln learns about these vampires through letters sent to him by Henry Sturgess, who sort of acts as Lincoln’s “mission impossible” contact. You almost expect the letters to self-destruct into puffs of smoke after Lincoln has read them.
LS: Don’t forget, it’s not just a normal axe. It’s blade is coated in silver! The dreaded enemy of vampires. Or was silver the one that werewolves don’t like? I’m not sure. It gets so confusing sometimes. Everyone has their own rules. But in this movie, vampires can go out in sunlight and can do all kinds of cool things you wouldn’t think they could do. But they hate silver. Oh, and they can turn invisible! How convenient!
MA: Yeah, the invisible part was silly, but the hating of silver can be traced back to several of the Hammer Films. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stabs Dracula (Christopher Lee) with a silver knife in DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972), and in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) Van Helsing attempts to shoot Dracula with a silver bullet. In both those movies, silver was fatal to a vampire.
LS: In the trailer, when they poured liquid over Abe’s blade, I thought it was holy water, not melted silver. But it’s been a long time since anything religious hurt a vampire in the movies, so I should have known better.
MA: Lincoln and Sturgess eventually cross paths with the vampire leader, Adam (Rufus Sewell, in a deliciously evil performance) who’s been in existence for 5,000 years! He makes Dracula seem like a baby! Lincoln also learns that Adam is using the black slave trade to his advantage, using the slaves as food for his vampires. So, Adam is definitely a proponent of the slave trade and aligns himself politically with the folks in the south.
LS: Rufus Sewell is “deliciously evil” here? Man, you have no clue what evil is all about, do you? He’s a cartoon. And he’s not scary for one instant. I thought Sewell was completely miscast as the king vampire here. But more on that later.
MA: No idea was evil is all about? Pardon me, Mr. Evil Know-it-all!
Lincoln has a personal investment in the welfare of the slaves, because one of his best friends is a free black man, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), who becomes one of Lincoln’s closest advisors.
LS: Just to play Devil’s Advocate here—a role I enjoy, by the way—I wasn’t sure whether having slavery and the Civil War tie into the vampire agenda was clever or kind of offensive. It kind of trivializes the real horrors of slavery, doesn’t it?
MA: Not really. Slavery is still horrible. The vampires were simply using it to satisfy their own needs.
Realizing that the problems in the world are too big for just one man, Lincoln throws his hat into politics, hoping to become part of a system that can make a difference in the world. He marries Mary Todd, wins the presidential election, and eventually finds himself fighting vampires on the battlefield, as Adam and his vampires have aligned themselves with the Confederate army.
(LS returns with two beautiful women, one on each arm.)
MA: Aren’t you married?
LS: Not in Cinema Knife Fight Land!
MA: I thought you were getting some cold ones?
LS: I changed my mind and went for hot ones.
(Women bare their fangs to reveal they are vampires)
LS: Oh well, I guess they are cold ones, after all. Care to take a nibble, ladies? I’m sure I’m quite delicious.
(Vampire women each sink their teeth in a side of LS’s neck)
MA: Aren’t you worried they’ll suck you dry?
LS: Not really. This is Cinema Knife Fight Land, and here I’ve got unlimited blood.
(LS smiles and raises a mug of ale and drinks along with the vampires)
MA (shaking his head): The things we do for this column. Anyway, back to our movie.
I fully expected this movie to be a complete turkey, but I have to admit, I liked it.
(LS makes turkey noises in the background)
MA: That said, I still don’t get the concept. Why choose Abraham Lincoln to be a vampire hunter? It still seems almost like a random thing to do. Hmm, who should I choose to be my hero in this alternate history tale about vampires? Stick my hand into a hat and pull out Abe Lincoln!
LS: Makes as much sense as using any other historical figure, I guess.
MA: Of course, Abe Lincoln is one of our most beloved U.S. presidents of all time, and so it’s certainly not a random act, and this affection for Lincoln is one of the things that works to the film’s advantage, but even so, I’m still not ready to concede and call this combination of history and horror a stroke of genius. But I do have to admit, in a strange way, it works!
LS: I dunno, it didn’t really work for me. I thought the title was clever for about two seconds. The concept is mediocre at best. “Let’s take a famous historical figure and turn him into another BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.” Whatever…. (Yawns)
MA: First and foremost, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER looks terrific. I saw it in 3D, and it pains me to admit it—again because I expected this one to be awful— it’s one of the better 3D movies I’ve seen. The visuals were almost as good as what we saw in HUGO last year.
LS: I saw it in 3D, too. Not intentionally – it was just the best show time for my schedule. But you’re right, the 3D effects were better than we normally see in these kinds of movies. But I wouldn’t go so far as to compare them with HUGO. The 3D here isn’t that good.
MA: I don’t know if it’s because Civil War America is more picturesque than alien worlds or haunted forests, but I enjoyed the look of ABRAHAM LINCOLN better than the look of other movies we’ve seen recently, like PROMETHEUS and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. I think director Timur Bekmambetov did a great job at the helm.
LS: The setting was okay, I guess. I could take it or leave it. No way is it as visually rich as PROMETHEUS or SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. It’s all rather drab—which is fine in a vampire movie—but nothing I’d single out as a plus. As for the direction, that’s another kettle of fish entirely.
MA: ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is also helped by its R rating. While the film isn’t scary, there are lots of bloody killings. There’s even some nudity and language. I was surprised, but ABE LINCOLN kinda earns its R rating.
LS: Barely. I actually went into it thinking it was PG-13, and it was a little while before I realized it wasn’t. The nudity happens in brief snippets for the most part. Some of the killings (of vampires) are graphic enough to make me realize it was an R movie. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say it earns its rating.
MA: The look and feel of this movie reminded me of a Disney film for adults. It had that look, that attention to detail, that made it look almost like a richly animated movie. The movie looks like what would happen if you put both Disney and Hammer Films inside one of THE FLY’s machines and had their respective filmmaking genes spliced together.
LS: Yeah, it actually reminded me of a Tim Burton movie, like SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) maybe. Except SLEEPY HOLLOW is a much better movie. This is no coincidence, though, because Burton produced ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. Hell, it might have been a better movie if he actually directed it, since he’s comfortable with this kind of stuff.
MA: Another reason I liked the action sequences in this movie—and again I’ll give credit to director Bekmambetov—is that they were quick. So often in today’s movies, because directors have the technology to do so, the action scenes go on forever, and this becomes boring as the movies play out like extended video games. Not so here in ABE LINCOLN. The action scenes are quick and bloody, and they’re supported by lots of scenes where we get to know the characters.
LS: Quick? Ninety percent of the time they played out in slow motion! It got incredibly tedious after a while. All of the action sequences have the same “by-the-numbers” feel to them. Once you see one, you know what to expect. And the alternating between fast movements and irritating slo-mo ones just bored the hell out of me. And you know what, the action scenes did have a kind of video game look to them! They were so stylized, they certainly didn’t look realistic.
MA: But they didn’t go on and on and on. That’s what I meant by quick.
LS: Not quick enough for me.
MA: There’s also a strong sense of story, and you can tell this movie was based on a novel. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith does a nice job here adapting his own novel, and he achieves better results than his last screenplay, for the muddled DARK SHADOWS.
LS: Really? You thought this was a big improvement over DARK SHADOWS? Well, I’ll agree that at least it doesn’t constantly go for cheap laughs. I really think Grahame-Smith’s screenplay for DARK SHADOWS was the main reason that movie was so disappointing. Here, his script does come off a little better, but I wasn’t all that amazed by it. I’m glad everyone plays things straight, at least. But I didn’t find this movie very exciting.
MA: DARK SHADOWS was horrible compared to this movie.
LS: Let’s face it. DARK SHADOWS was horrible. Period.
MA: I liked that this was a serious vampire story. It wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. We didn’t have to suffer through Abe Lincoln delivering one-liners after every vampire kill. ABE LINCOLN is not VAN HELSING (2004), thankfully. This could have been a very silly movie, but it isn’t. Then again, maybe I just have a soft spot for vampires.
LS: If this movie has anything going for it, it’s that it plays things straight. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make for a great flick – vampire movie or otherwise.
MA: Speaking of which, I wasn’t too crazy about the look of the vampires in this movie, and their movements were way too fast and very fake-looking. They weren’t bad, but they were just a little too exaggerated for my liking. And like the rest of the movie, they weren’t scary.
LS: No, the vampires didn’t look very good at all, and they weren’t scary. In fact, to go back to a previous point, I found Rufus Sewell as Adam (he’s called that because he’s the vampire all the others come from – oooh! how frightening!) to be a major flaw in the tension. I like Sewell enough as an actor—he was great as the lead in 1998’s DARK CITY, for example—but he’s completely miscast here. He is not intimidating, he doesn’t seem dangerous at all, and he is NOT scary in the slightest. There are so many better actors they could have chosen to play this role. This is the big bad villain, and the character should have real presence. Sewell just doesn’t cut it.
MA: Really? I thought Sewell oozed evil.
LS: Well, he might have oozed something, but it wasn’t evil.
The funny thing is, I found Marton Csokas as Jack Barts— a flunky of Sewell’s Adam—to be much more convincing as a dangerous vampire, and there were times where he even seemed a tad scary. He should have been the lead vampire! I also liked Erin Wasson as Vadoma, Adam’s right-hand woman vampire, who was also more formidable than her “master.” I really hated Sewell in this role, because he was such a damned weak bad guy!
MA: I liked the characters and the performances throughout.
Abraham Lincoln as your main character—how can you not like him? Well, if the lead actor stunk, that’s one way, but Benjamin Walker doesn’t stink at all. He brings Lincoln to life and makes him a very likeable person.
LS: I thought Walker was okay in the lead role. He actually reminded me of a young Liam Neesom at times. He has a similar face. But overall, I wasn’t all that impressed by him. He was okay in the role, but nothing special. Kinda bland, actually.
And as for that fateful trip to the theater at the end—hell, any kid who has read a history book knows what happens then, so it’s not a spoiler—does that mean that John Wilkes Booth was part of the vampire conspiracy? Was he a VAMPIRE HUNTER HUNTER? Something to ponder, perhaps.
MA: Henry Sturgess is an interesting character. As the vampire hunter who trains Lincoln, he’s a multi-dimensional character with a curious back story, which hearkens back to this being based on a novel. Dominic Cooper, who played Howard Stark in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) does a nice job here as Sturgess.
LS: Dominic Cooper is one of the best things about this movie. I liked his performance here very much, even more than Walker’s Lincoln. But this brings up a big complaint of mine. In the movie, we find out how Henry Sturgess was able to acquire his skills and amazing strength—there’s a legitimate reason why he’s so affective as a vampire hunter—but we never once get an explanation as to how Abe Lincoln is so good at it. He does these amazing martial arts moves; he’s able to cut down trees with one mighty swing of his axe (once he gets the hang of it); and he can take on several vampires at once. How? Is he a superhero? Is he from another planet? Not once does the movie explain his “powers,” and for that reason I didn’t buy them for a second. There is no way a normal man can do this stuff. And if vampires are supposed to be much stronger than humans, then Lincoln’s entire story here is actually kind of stupid.
MA: You know, I can’t argue with you on that point, and I’d go so far as to agree with you that Lincoln possessing these powers is stupid, but again, for me, in spite of this, somehow it worked.
LS: For you, maybe. Not for me.
And hell, even if he is superhuman (and he clearly is), his fighting style is impossible for the time period. Asian martial arts just were not taught to Westerners in those days. It was forbidden. But ever since BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992), ever single vampire fighter is an expert in martial arts. It’s kind of embarrassing. And isn’t there any other way to fight except showing off with all kinds of karate/kung-fu moves and fancy kicks? This has become a very annoying cliché at this point. How about making Abe a super-powerful boxer, instead? It would make more sense for his time.
(LS and MA are now sitting at a table, drinking ale, when a shirtless BRUCE LEE suddenly approaches them)
BRUCE LEE: I find this movie offensive. Here I go and revolutionize martial arts in American movies during my lifetime, and now, ANYONE can do what I did. All they have to do is call themselves a VAMPIRE HUNTER.
LS: I can’t disagree with you there.
MA: Come on, it’s only a movie. It’s silly entertainment.
BRUCE LEE: It completely trivializes the years of work and skill that goes into being a true martial artist.
LS: (nods) I dunno, Michael, he has a point. Plus, give me something like ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) over ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER any day of the week. It’s a helluva lot more entertaining.
(BRUCE LEE goes to start a brawl at the back of the room)
MA: I don’t know why he was so upset. It’s just a movie.
Ever since I saw Mary Elizabeth Winstead in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) I’ve been a big fan. She does an excellent job here as Mary Todd Lincoln, a female character who gets to do more than just be rescued by a male lead. She grows with the story and becomes integral to the plot as the movie goes on.
LS: I like her as well. I don’t think she’s amazing as Mary Todd, and I certainly don’t find her convincing as the former first lady—this is clearly a completely different person than the real Mary Todd—but she’s enjoyable enough when she’s onscreen. She certainly doesn’t contribute to the more annoying aspects of the movie.
MA: Jimmi Simpson as Joshua Speed, and Anthony Mackie as Will Johnson, do nice jobs in their respective roles as friends of Lincoln. These characters are multi-dimensional as well, and they are much more than just your average token buddies.
LS: I liked Joshua Speed. He was okay. It’s funny that Jimmi Simpson’s career is actually rooted firmly in comedy, with a recurring role as “Lyle the Intern” on the LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (from 2008 -2009) and as a semi-regular on the hilarious show IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, as the weirdo Liam McPoyle. It’s good to see him playing a serious role here, and his character was likable enough. As for Anthony Mackie as Will Johnson, I found him rather bland. They don’t really give him an awful lot to do, except hang around with Abe and seem earnest.
MA: I also really liked Rufus Sewell as the main baddie in this movie. His vampire Adam is an imposing adversary for Abe Lincoln and company. Sometimes a movie is only as good as its villain. In this case, Adam is a powerful foe, and Sewell delivers a commanding performance as the deadly vampire who’s been alive since the days of ancient Egypt. He’s one of the movie’s strengths.
LS: If a movie is only as good as its villain, then ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER isn’t good at all. As I’ve already said, Sewell is a very lame villain.
MA: I also loved the climactic battle aboard the train between Lincoln and friends and Adam and his vampires, as this sequence on a burning trestle was very cinematic. Again, a nice job by director Bekmambetov.
LS: I found the climactic battle aboard the train really boring in parts. It went on way too long, and I just didn’t care about any of the characters enough to be emotionally invested in it.
MA: Had this movie been scary, it would have been great.
LS: Well, it would have been an improvement. We’re in agreement that this movie is not scary.
MA: I expected it to be horrible, and so I’m shocked to say that while ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is not a great movie, it is a very good movie.
It’s better than both the TWILIGHT series and the UNDERWORLD movies because it has something that both those series lack: an imagination. And some good old-fashioned bloody oomph!
(EDWARD CULLEN, the vampire from the TWILIGHT series, approaches their table)
EDWARD: Vampires that don’t sparkle? You’ve got to be kidding me. Who would believe that?
MA: There were tons of vampires before you that didn’t sparkle!
EDWARD: That’s ancient history, old man. I am what today’s generation wants in a vampire. If you want to be cool, then you gotta sparkle. Abraham Lincoln would never be able to stop me.
LS: He may have a point. The sparkly vampires are kind of strong…even if they look like they were caught in an explosion in a glitter factory.
EDWARD: And vampires are more civilized today. I would invite Mr. Lincoln to sit down for a cup of tea. We wouldn’t have to fight at all. Instead, I could spend the time bemoaning how sad I am.
MA: And where is the excitement in that?
(LS snores loudly)
EDWARD: Oh, you’ll never understand me! You don’t even try to!
(EDWARD leaves in a huff)
MA: Wake up! (nudges LS). Where was I? Oh yeah, I was going to give this movie my rating. I give ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, three knives.
LS: I think this movie thinks it is a lot cleverer than it really is. But writer Seth Grahame-Smith is clearly the “flavor of the month” with his DARK SHADOWS script and now this. I can only hope he disappears as quickly as he showed up in Hollywood. This is the same guy who gave us the novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, which started the whole horror/history mash-up genre, and it’s gotten incredibly tired in a very short amount of time. It’s like a flimsy joke – it may work once, but it won’t have any staying power. Neither does this one-joke genre.
And I think writing should be as limitless as one’s imagination, so it’s not like I don’t think anyone should be allowed to play around with actual history. I think a really talented writer could take this concept and do something interesting with it. But that writer was nowhere to be found when they were making ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER.
And I wasn’t all that impressed with the direction by Timur Bekmambetov here. This is the talented Russian director who gave us the really enjoyable movies NIGHT WATCH (2004) and DAY WATCH (2006). I suggest people check out those movies on video instead, because they are works of art compared to ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. I give it one and a half knives.
MA: Well, we disagree on this one. I thought it was a handsome production, and I for one got caught up in the look and feel of this movie, and so I happily went along for the ride.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a couple of cold ones of my own.
LS: Be careful. They bite.
MA: Not those kinds of cold ones. I’m talking the kind that comes in a mug with a frothy head.
LS: Like that one? (points)
(MA looks over his shoulder to see a severed head floating on top of a huge mug of beer on the bar.)
MA: (throws up his arms) I give up! (Exits)
(LS goes over and lifts the big mug and brings it to his lips)
LS: Head for the mountains!
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER ~ three knives!
LL Soares gives ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER ~one and a half knives.