The whole idea sounds silly, doesn't it? Abraham Lincoln? The Abraham Lincoln? President of the United States? Four score and seven year ago, etc.? Hunting down vampires? Seriously?
Well, yeah. Seriously. And kudos to the filmmakers for taking the idea seriously. In fact, that seems the secret of this movie's success as a movie. At no time does anyone ever seem to wink at the camera. Not by word or deed. As ridiculous as the idea may seem, no one involved treats it as a joke.
Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln. Not the squeaky-voiced, devious and very complex figure from history. Here is a tormented, passionate and complex figure from some other timeline. As a boy, his action in helping a slave boy cost Lincoln much. His father lost a job. His mother, her life. Not for another nine years would young Abraham have the chance to seek vengeance. When he does, the man he thought poisoned his mother easily survives a bullet in the eye. Only Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) manages to save the future President, rescuing him and telling him the truth. A vampire killed his mother, just as vampires have created an empire in the American South, literally fattening themselves with the blood of slaves. Now, they're spreading. Sturgess is on the hunt, not only for vampires but for those who will help hunt them.
Parenthetically, another reason this film works is its vampires. These undead do not hide in the shadows, luring the unwary into their clutches a la most film versions of Dracula. Nor are they romantic seducers, blood-drinking incubi or succubi like Carmilla. No, these if anything resemble the creatures of Blade. Much like mobsters or medieval warlords, these walk among us full of arrogance. They seem the haughty rich or their bully minions. In fact, when the mask slips we see their demonic nature. We are but serfs to them. Human-shaped work animals. Existing for their convenience. Small wonder they prove the Powers That Be behind the Confederacy!
What follows looks like a tiny homage to many a kung-fu movie, in which the strong and dedicated acolyte receives training from the master. One can overdo the analogy, especially since it doesn't last that long, but does establish Sturgess and Lincoln as a kind of Yoda and Luke. Kinda/sorta. At nearly the same time, we get to see Lincoln meet Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with whom he falls deeply in love. For the record, the real Mary Todd lacked Ms. Winstead's good looks, just as Lincoln didn't really resemble Mr. Walker so very much. But then, vampires weren't really behind the Civil War either.
So how is the film overall? As noted earlier, it works--no small thing. Rewriting history on film in this way often falls flat on its face. Witness The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (film, not graphic novel) or The Wild Wild West (again, the film not the t.v. show). If anything this motion picture feels something like Hell Boy but crossed with Deadwood (plus a few dashes here and there of 300 and/or Watchmen). And despite Tim Burton producing, it bear next-to-no resemblance to Dark Shadows.
The trailers give a good idea of how the film looks and feels, but doesn't truly convey the plot. Nor will this review. However, from the very start let me say not only is the acting good, it matches the content of the story very well. No tongue goes anywhere near a cheek. Each actor commits themselves to the part and to the situation so that almost from frame one any hint of a snicker or a wry smile about the material dies. Just as Peter Jackson could have made Lord of the Rings "cute" or "cartoony" so Timur Bekmambetov might easily have made Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter into a joke. Perhaps an affectionate, even gentle one. But a joke.
Instead we get a sprawling adventure with plenty of drama, and never losing focus on the characters, on their stories. Refreshingly, even the villain of the piece, an ancient known as Adam (Rufus Sewell) remains an individual, not a stereotype. Nothing more common than a scheming bad guy out to take over the world. So impressive to see one who seems real. Seems believable. And more than that, this film tries and succeeds at doing something distinctly tricky--to combine two mythologies. We in the United States look upon the Civil War much as ancient Greeks viewed Troy, as the Hebrews saw the fall of Jericho. It is the conflict, the pivotal event from which we derive our sense of ourselves. To this day we re-enact crucial parts of that epic and terrible conflict, not out of bloodlust but to understand ourselves, to connect with the past. Likewise we have come to use vampires as a metaphor for all things dark and problematical about our humanity. Not just the (presumed) predatory nature of man, but also our choice of how to confront it. Thus this movie actually does contain echoes of many another vampire film and story. More, it carries with us beyond the credits. Like all myths, it remains a story that doesn't really end.