Even Timur Bekmambetov’s wonderfully flamboyant visual virtuosity isn’t enough to overcome the essential, and often crass, absurdity of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his own novel, the movie—like “Wanted,” the director’s earlier triumph of style over substance—boasts some breathtaking (if hardly realistic) action sequences, and even its less extravagant moments look great. But they’re all embedded in a story that’s presumably intended to be a campy spoof of American history but comes off as not just silly but rather tasteless.
The premise of Grahame-Smith’s tale is that nineteenth-century America is awash in the undead, led by the malevolent Adam (Rufus Sewell), a Southern plantation owner who feeds his followers on slaves and plans to take over the entire country for his kind. Abraham Lincoln is introduced as a child (Lux Haney-Jardine), a precocious abolitionist who tries to intervene when his black pal Willie (Curtis Harris) is brutalized by malevolent dock owner Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) and then watches in horror as Barts kills his mother.
Grown up, and now played by Benjamin Walker, Abe tries to kill Barts, but finds that his bullets have no effect, because of course the fellow is one of Adam’s lot, shipping slaves to the South to serve as a moveable feast. Luckily, mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) saves our hero and instructs him in the ways of killing vampires. Abe becomes one of Henry’s followers, moving to Springfield to dispatch vampires operating there with his silver-bladed axe. There he takes up with shopowner Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and steals sprightly Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from priggish Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk, wisely going uncredited). And who should show up but his old pal Will (Anthony Mackie), who becomes one of his closest advisors?
The Springfield section of the movie closes with Abe’s showdown with Barts, in a ridiculous but viscerally exciting sequence involving a herd of stampeding horses. Bekmambetov used the 3D format with panache earlier—in one sequence involving a whip, and another in which Abe aimed a bullet into Banks’s eye—but here he goes whole hog, to exuberant effect. After that Lincoln lays aside his axe, but only after he enters Adam’s Southern lair to rescue the kidnapped Will from the villain and his dominatrix-styled helpmate Vadoma (Erin Wasson). He enters politics and speedily is elected president.
Just as quickly the Civil War has broken out, and Lincoln is confronted not only by battlefield reverses but the death of his son Willie (Cameron M. Brown) at the hand—or rather teeth—of Vadoma. To save the day he retrieves his axe and decides to arm the Union forces at Gettysburg with silver ammunition, the only type that can take down the vampires Adam has inducted into the Confederate ranks. But to succeed he needs to get a trainload of the new bullets and cannon balls to the front lines—and Adam is determined to stop him. Their final face-off involves an amazing last reel featuring a railway fight and a huge exploding bridge, with the 3D again being used for maximum impact and all of the major figures involved, in one way or another. (Even Mary gets to avenge her boy’s death by taking out Vadoma.)
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a farrago of perverted history and horror-movie nonsense, blended in a mixture that riffs crassly on such events as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and even (at the very close) Lincoln’s assassination in order to provide “context” for some of the goofiest set-pieces imaginable. (Harriet Tubman even shows up in a brief sequence featuring the underground railroad.) It happily sacrifices logic for visual effect whenever that’s required—not only in the horse-stampede sequence but the final set-to on the rails (after all, if you’re going to wreck the train by blowing up the bridge, why go to the trouble of attacking it first?). The acting is pedestrian at best, with Walker, especially in the picture’s political phase, playing Lincoln more stiffly than a Disney animatronic version, Sewell and Csokas both trying to compensate by snarling and scenery-chewing, Cooper suffering mightily in a role that turns out to be a version of “Angel,” Wasson vamping it up even when her fangs aren’t showing and Winstead doing Mary Todd as a flighty modern woman (a far cry from how that unhappy woman is usually depicted). Mackie tries to bring some dignity to the historically ludicrous role of Will, but it’s a hopeless task.
Still, in spite of everything the movie is almost insanely watchable, an ultimate sort of guilty pleasure. The work of the crew—from production designer Francois Audouy, art director Beat Frutiger, set decorator Cheryl Carasik, costumers Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli to the massive effects team—may not aim for the height of historical accuracy, but it results in pretty impressive-looking tableaux that master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel captures in delectably colorful widescreen images. And of course Bekmambetov’s marshalling of all their talents has a pizzazz that, as in “Wanted,” gives its most over-the-top moments a real “wow” factor.
The result is a movie that makes no sense but is undeniably cool, in the adolescent sense. It’s not really recommendable to anybody not willing to put their brain completely on hold for the duration, but while one couldn’t say that it’s so bad that it’s good, you can make a case for its being so extravagant that it’s nutty fun. Perhaps the best comparison is to the original “Highlander,” another supremely dumb tale made somewhat bearable by gonzo direction (there by Russell Mulcahy). Expect no intelligence or subtlety here, but if you’re willing to put up with the sheer ridiculousness of it all, you might enjoy wallowing in Bekmambetov’s shameless exhibition of narrative lunacy and technical fireworks.