There was a point, somewhere around 2005, that Timur Bekmambetov was touted as a filmmaker to watch in a post-Matrix action cinema world. After the international release of Night Watch, his nonsensical but stylistically bonkers Russian vampire flick, it looked like he would take Hollywood by storm.
In the years since, however, this hasn’t been the case. Apart from 2008’s Wanted, Bekmambetov has been remarkably quiet since making the leap onto the international stage. But now, he’s back, with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, adapted from the Seth Grahame-Smith ‘mash-up’ novel and co-produced by head goth Tim Burton. Curiously, that’s the same creative team behind the quirky dud that was Dark Shadows earlier this year, and while there is a generic gulf between the two films, they are both cut from the same pop-culture-clash cloth.
The title explains it all, really. This is an alternate history tale where Abraham Lincoln, as well as being the 16th president of the United States, an abolitionist, and the proud owner of a mighty fine chinful of facial hair, was also a proto-Buffy slayer of vampires.
After the sudden death of his mother, young Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) swears to battle the dark forces that hold the southern States of the Union in their cold-blooded grip. Luckily, he has seasoned vampire hunter Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) to advise him in the arcane ways of disposing of the pallid undead. Before long, he’s swinging his silver-coated axe and beheading his prey like a pro, but Abe soon finds himself drawn to the world of politics in search of a more permanent solution.
Storytelling has never been high on Bekmambetov’s list of filmmaking qualities, but that is something of a benefit here. The director skips gleefully through Grahame-Smith’s clunky and overwrought script, trimming dialogue and cutting scenes down to the bone in favour of getting to the next action sequence as quickly as possible. It makes for an easy ride, with nary a second put to bad use in the film’s first 45 minutes.
Walker proves to be a compelling protagonist, displaying the charm of a young Liam Neeson, while also evoking the broad-shouldered toughness of Neeson’s more recent roles. And, as Lincoln becomes a veritable whirling dervish with his axe of choice, Bekmambetov opens up his box of tricks, letting loose stylised colour correction, slow-motion acrobatics and meticulously bonkers choreography in equal measure. Some of the action scenes are completely crackers, reaching a manic peak with a chase sequence that takes place within a stampede of horses. Few directors have both the vision and the flair to pull off such mad ideas; Bekmambetov is one of them.
Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter suffers from many of the problems that sunk Dark Shadows. For all of his smorgasbord-style sampling of genre cliches and pop culture – or, in this case, historical – references, Grahame-Smith can’t break free of his very superficial mash-up conceit. This film’s strict adherence to the president’s biography may give it a fundamental narrative structure that Dark Shadows’ script – essentially a melding together of many soap opera plots – lacked, but it lumbers the story with elements that would be the first to hit the cutting room floor if this were the work of a keener imagination.
Indeed, Lincoln’s political career proves to be a narrative brick wall, putting the fun on hold for an obligatory half hour so that the hero can hang up his axe and ease into middle age, before picking it up again during an escalated final act push.
The association with Abraham Lincoln also inspires Grahame-Smith to weave the president’s fictional enemies – vampires – into the 19th century political climate. And so, we are presented with vampiric slave masters who suck their plantations dry – which, in its fictionalisation of a very real blight on American history, and pinning of the blame on non-human agents, is in danger of being downright irresponsible. This is similarly true of the film’s representation of the Civil War, which paints the southern states as vampire-led goons.
Such a reductive approach to character, genre and history is a real problem in Grahame-Smith’s film work to date. On screen, his references points both mean and signify nothing. They are simply shortcuts and shoehorns that work in service of the one central concept. For the most part, fortunately, Bekmambetov is capable of wringing as much visual excitement out of the proceedings as possible, but flair can only go so far.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter may be a hollow sort of entertainment, but at least it’s entertainment. And that, at least, is a definite improvement on Dark Shadows.
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