It’s not normal for me to go out of my way to watch something with a title like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But then it’s not exactly normal to see one’s own name getting star billing in a special effects packed action blockbuster. For it is true: the lead role in this intriguing confection is taken by the excellently named Benjamin Walker, and frankly it felt a bit rude not to see what he made of it. And, I must admit, I was kind of interested to find out how a movie that pitted a major historical figure against supernatural nasties could possibly work out without becoming irredeemably naff and tasteless – I mean, might this be a tester for a new franchise running through the gamut of America’s leaders? Should we prepare ourselves for Franklin D. Roosevelt: Zombie Reducer, in which the inspiring depression-era pres charges through a horde of under-privileged and disenfranchised corpses in his souped-up, shotgun-enhanced wheelchair? Or Richard Nixon: Werewolf Conniver, a conspiracy thriller hinging on Mr Sweat’n’Jowls’ dodgy co-opting of a cabal of Washington lycanthropes into his scheme of neutralising his Democrat opponents by tearing their throats out?
AL: VH (as I’m sure the marketing department don’t refer to it) presents an alternative biography of the man who led the USA through one of its most divisive and bloody periods. It posits a society where vampires are rife, and frequently holding positions of authority (though, confusingly to the likes of me who instinctively want their Victorian-era vamps safely cooped up in coffins in remote castles during the day, these are the 21st Century, post-Twilight and Being Human, strain of bloodsuckers who seem to be able to function perfectly well in broad sunlight) and the early scenes of the film show how Lincoln as a boy was orphaned as a direct result of the caprice of one of these amoral figures. Abe vows vengeance, but before he gets a chance to foul it up through hotheadedness and ignorance he’s taken under the wing of a mysterious mentor who gives him invaluable training and guidance in the art of evil-outrooting. Subsequently, Lincoln’s life proceeds roughly as it does in the history books, but with a hefty side-order of nocturnal axe-spinning and body disposal until we reach a climactic confrontation on the fields of Gettysburg.
As it turns out the film kind of gets away with it. It’s not brilliant or anything, and the many many computer assisted setpieces of people melodramatically getting it in the neck and pale gaunt types being messily despatched via axe, pistol or runaway train are exactly as flashy and tedious and Matrix-reminiscent as you’d expect, but there is a surprisingly sturdy plot underpinning it, with some sympathetic characters who get development and behave fairly consistently, and all the period detail looks very nice and is graded to a pleasing sepia-themed colour scheme, and while the steampunk-ish greatcoats and eye-glasses and cool boots may be a bit anachronistic they work well in bringing something of the night to scenes that largely take place under a blistering Southern sun. Most impressive perhaps is that the film does make an effort to integrate some properly important bits of actual history into its radical re-imagining of Lincoln’s life: the abolition of slavery and the civil war are threaded into the story in a way that, while undeniably simplistic, means that you get some insight into this man’s towering public achievements and often pain-filled personal life.
And what of Benjamin Walker? He’s very good, actually, carrying off both the young and the middle-aged Lincoln with solid conviction. He looks like, and has the same reassuring presence as, Liam Neeson (unsurprisingly he played the younger version of Neeson’s character in Kinsey a few years ago), and thankfully plays it straight throughout – any hint of campery would have rendered this completely unwatchable. I wonder if he’s going to end up putting my name on an Oscar in a few years…