“History prefers legends to men. It prefers nobility to brutality, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, and forgets the blood. However history remembers me if it remembers anything at all, it shall only remember a fraction of the truth for whatever else I am: a husband, a lawyer, a president; I shall always think of myself first and foremost as a hunter.”
It’s been almost four score and seven years ago, it seems, since there’s been a really good vampire movie. I’m not talking about the brooding angst-filled pretty boys that populate the television screens and the cinemas these days. I’m talking about a good vampire movie filled with equal parts terror and compelling drama. Certainly, there have been more than a few entertaining vampire films to come along. But who’d have thought that it would take old Honest Abe Lincoln to scare up the best vampire movie of the new century? Apparently Russian director Timur Bekmambetov did.
Apparently our history teachers haven’t been telling the whole story. When they told us that the Civil War was about more than just slavery, I thought they were talking about such themes as the Union or states’ rights. Turns out there was this pesky vampire problem that needed taking care of, and fortunately, Abe Lincoln was in the house, the White House, that is.
As a boy, young Abe saw his mother killed by a vampire in the middle of the night. He quietly kept that information to himself where it festered until he was old enough to hunt down the bloodsucker that killed his mother. But he wasn’t prepared for the battle, and it nearly cost him his own life. Enter Henry Sturgess (Cooper). He’s been hunting vampires for a long time and takes young Lincoln under his wing and teaches him how to control his rage and become a vampire-killing machine. Cue the obligatory training montage.
Once trained he sets out on his own, promising to allow Henry to call the targets he takes out. He settles in Springfield where he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson) who would become a life-long friend. He takes a job at the shop to pay for room and board on the premises. It’s a busy life indeed. He must work the store. He’s studying law on his own. He courts young Mary Todd (Winstead), and at night he wields his silver-coated axe on the local vampire collection. Of course, he comes to the attention of head vampire Adam (Sewell). The rest is a retelling of history that involves the vampire tale in the Civil War and Lincoln’s journey of vengeance.
It’s all rather silly, really, and the truth is that this thing shouldn’t work at all. In fact, it’s simply impossible for this ridiculous idea to be anything but frivolous nonsense. In short, it just couldn’t be very good at all. Except it is.
The material is based on the popular novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my to-do list now. The script decides to totally ignore the ridiculous factor and takes the material very seriously. There are no winks at the audience here. No one is conspiring in farcical entertainment. Don’t look for the camp that the title might otherwise imply. You’ll find none of it here. It doesn’t take long before you’re sucked completely in and are willing to buy it all, wholesale. This is as sincere as anything Carl Sandburg had to tell us.
It all starts with the casting of Benjamin Walker as Abe himself. At first glance he doesn’t really look very much the part. He neither looks much like an action hero nor at all similar to Lincoln. I can’t tell you exactly where that changed. I can only tell you that it does. By the time Lincoln reaches his President age, Walker has totally inhabited the part to the point that he absolutely is Abraham Lincoln. He juggles the fantasy Lincoln with the one in our history books quite well. It’s been noted more than once that he looks rather like a young Liam Neeson. It’s likely why his first acting gig was to play Neeson’s younger self in Kinsey. Dominic Cooper is the mysterious wildcard here, and he’s quite a central character who isn’t on the screen very much, but who still plays a crucial role. Of course, a ton of credit has to go to Timur Bekmambetov. I loved Night Watch but wasn’t really a fan of Wanted. This is absolutely his best work. He builds a world here that is at once fantasy but as believable as they come.
That isn’t to say the film isn’t quite stylish. There are some incredibly artistic scenes to be found here. There’s a horse stampede and vampire battle that looks entirely like a moving painting. It isn’t realistic at all, but it strangely fits this world even as it appears dream-like at every turn. A crucial train sequence near the end is another scene where everything goes over the top but refuses to remove you from the realism of the whole thing. The environmental effects are startlingly realistic. The half-completed Capitol dome is spot-on. The vampire kills contain the usual slow-motion graphic novel aspect that’s become common, even a bit overused today. But it works just the same. Timur Bekmambetov incorporates many of these tired cinematic elements, but they’re fresh here when taken as a whole.
What about the vampires? Rufus Sewell is fantastic as the main vampire Adam. There are some new vampire rules going on here. These vampires do quite well in the daylight, just as the original Dracula did in the novel. An interesting lore addition is the inability of one vampire to harm another. The kills are violent and nasty. Lincoln prefers his trusty ax, which means the tried and true slice and dice method of dealing with the undead. A colleague asked me about the lack of stakes being used here, so I had to go over the various ways vampires can be killed, beheading being a common theme in this film. The intolerance of silver also plays a huge part.
This is also one of those films that utilizes 3D the way it really should be used. There are few of the “poke your eye out” gimmicks, and the effect is used more for atmosphere. The screen is always populated with these dust motes that somehow transport you into the experience. This might be the best use of the device I’ve seen yet. Usually, I advise that the 3D isn’t exactly essential to the experience. Not true here. You have to catch this one in 3D.
The film incorporates some real history here. I’m a student of the man and found some nice nods to the genuine history. One of the most impressive is the use of Lincoln’s mother and her death. She died of a disease connected with bad milk called Milk Sick. It occurred when cows ate snakeroot and it poisoned the milk. Victims turn quite pale. There tongues turn white and they begin to look almost like living corpses before they die. It’s easy to think that this disease could just as well have been caused by a vampire. It’s a clever turn of the traditional history. Much of it plays with the traditional timeline, but that’s to be expected. Lincoln meets Mary much earlier, and she’s Stephen Douglas’s fiancee when they meet. It’s all quite minor. The only point I’m surprised they did not work in was the fact that Mary Todd was considered quite insane. It would have fit in perfectly, and perhaps the book does this.
This gets my vote as the sleeper hit of the summer 2012 movie season. It has everything you need for a good time and a few nightmares as a kicker.
“Don’t forget. Always have a contingency plan.”
I know how you feel. You’ve heard the title for some time, and it always causes you to roll your eyes. You’re not sure that you want anyone you know to see you buying a ticket for this film. What you don’t know is that you might just be the odd man out if you don’t. You think you know anything about this movie? “You have no idea.”