Abe Lincoln hunting vampires? On paper that sounds like a horrible idea.
Actually, on paper it was kind of fun. I read and enjoyed the 2010 book by Seth Grahame-Smith that the film is based on. I thought it was creative how he was able to use actual historical events and characters and reconfigure it to include vampires. It definitely put a different spin on The Civil War. It was an interesting choice for the man who sparked an entire literary fad when he wrote Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, but it totally worked once you got over the idea of Honest Abe as an ax swinging vampire killer. The book may not have won the Pulitzer, but it was entertaining. It proved that Grahame-Smith could write a book on his own merits, rather than just altering and expanding an existing piece of fiction.
What the film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter proved is that Seth Grahame-Smith should stop writing screenplays or, at minimum, should stop having any association with Tim Burton, who produces the film. Grahame-Smith was the writer on Burton’s abysmal Dark Shadows, which I was willing to chalk up to the difficulty in adapting an obscure supernatural soap opera with a cult following. Not the easiest source material to be working with. But when you do a poor job adapting your own book, it might be time to hang up the screenwriting hat.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is very different than the book and not for the better. The film only loosely resembles the original story – many of the plot developments from the book are jettisoned and others are changed completely. New characters are added to the film in an attempt to serve as shortcuts for the material that was eliminated, but they are not fully developed or used 100% effectively. The film chooses style over substance in the decision to focus more on the actual battles with vampires than on plotting or character development. A lot of the elements that I enjoyed from the book didn’t make it on the big screen. I understand that changes often have to be made when transitioning a book to a movie, but the end product in this case bears very little resemblance to the original source material. Perhaps without the rabid fan base that other films have to worry about (The Avengers, Twilight, Hunger Games), they felt that they could take more liberties. I would have been fine with that if they had actually improved the finished product. But they failed to do that.
One possible reason that they had to omit so much of the original story was to make time for the director’s penchant for the use of slow motion in all the action scenes, a la The Matrix. Much of the epic battles are filmed at quarter speed, I assume for dramatic effect, but the effect is just overused. Once or twice to highlight a particular stunt or effect would have been fine, but the repetition of the technique was just tiresome by the final battle, when its usage would have had the most value. If all the fights were done at regular speed, they probably would have had at least 15 extra minutes to use for other things and perhaps wouldn’t have had to make so many alterations to the story.
Despite all of this, I can’t say that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was terrible. It definitely wasn’t great, but once I accepted that this wasn’t the story that I thought I was going to see, there were some aspects of it that were engaging. The encounter on the train in particular was visually pretty cool and did feature some exciting sequences. The film does not shy away from the gore just because they man slaying vampires just so happens to be destined to be the 16th President of the United States. The actors all do a good job – Ben Walker manages to look a lot like Lincoln and his has convincing chemistry with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), though there are not hints of her rumored instability . I do wish that Dominic Cooper, playing Lincoln’s mentor Henry, had been given a bit more to do as he has a definite presence on screen (you should check out his fantastic work in The Devil’s Double). I think the whole production would have benefited from little injection of fun. When your entire premise is that Abraham Lincoln is killing vampires, I think it is ok to turn the camp up a little bit or at least not be so serious about the whole thing.
I had some other minor quibbles with the movie – the editing could use some work, there are some continuity problems and the scene where Mary Todd stand on Lincoln’s trademark stovetop hat to look him the eye drove me nuts (hello – it’s a hat. It’s not actually made out of a stovetop. You can’t stand on it.). I watched the 2D version of the film, as I had read that the 3-D effects were not very good. I won’t be surprised if the film doesn’t do well at the boxoffice. But I just can’t say that the film was a complete disaster; it was definitely better than Dark Shadows and Battleship, which isn’t the highest of praise, but puts it in some context. I may have even slightly enjoyed the movie more if I hadn’t read the book, as I wouldn’t have been so jarred by all the changes. I think that there could have been a really fun film made out of this story; unfortunately, this just wasn’t it. Probably not worth seeing in the theater, but might be worth a look on DVD.
I will give them credit – with a title like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter they aren’t burying the lede. You know what you’re getting. If you can’t sign off on the premise, then the movie isn’t for you. I’m sure someone, somewhere will rail against the historical inaccuracies in the film, which is a little silly for a film that has vampire in the title. I give them credit for at least trying something different, even if it doesn’t necessarily work.
As I was leaving to attend the screening, a friend jokingly said to have fun at “Bill Clinton against the zombies.” Note to Hollywood – THAT is a movie I’d definitely see.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter opens nationwide today.