Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: Four-score and Seven Corpses

A moribund version of Seth Grahame-Smith's mashup novel springs to life only when Abe is railsplitting the undead

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Stephen Vaughan / 20th Century Fox

TIME’s Lev Grossman has called Seth Grahame-Smith “the luckiest freelancer in the world.” Grahame-Smith was the guy an editor named Jason Rekulak tapped to write a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. When that sold a million copies, Grahame-Smith extended the suddenly burgeoning literary-mashup franchise with his own Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, positing that our 16th President fought the Civil War against an army of slave-sucking vampires.

(READ: Lev Grossman’s book review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

Actually, that cocktail of historical biography and low-genre setting was even less original than it sounds. In 2001 some kids in Canada made Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter, a no-budget action-horror-Mexican-wrestling musical about the Messiah’s battle to save Ottawa’s lesbians from their undead overlords. No matter: Hollywood is hot to make films from any book, comic book or matchbook about vampires (or zombies). Hence this week’s 3-D movie hybrid, ALVH.

(FIND: Corliss’s critique of Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter in the Top 12 Jesus Movies)

The movie seems designed for an odd demographic: people who are students of both Dawn of the Dead and Doris Kearns Goodwin. It could pass for one of the hundreds of respectful Lincoln bio-pics, if only Abe (Benjamin Walker) didn’t take time out from courting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and saving the Union to wield a silver axe against ravenous monsters. The estimable Kazakh director Timur Bekmambatov — who made two spiffy modern-day vampire movies, Night Watch and Day Watch, in Russia, then came West to helm the fabulous thriller Wanted, from Mark Millar’s graphic novel — has devoted a tone of ferocious solemnity and a ton of unneeded craft to making this strange concoction plausible. To not all that much avail.

(READ: a Corliss paean to Timur Bekmanbetov’s Wanted)

Things that ALVH says we didn’t know about Lincoln: Abe saw his mother killed by the vampire Jack Barts (Martin Csokas) and swore to avenge her death by slaughtering all of Barts’ kind; as a young man he met a career vampire hunter, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who trained him in the lore of the craft; he learned that Barts was a servant of the bloodsucker-in-chief Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his aide-de-vamp Vadoma (Erin Wasson), who dwelled in Louisiana and used African slaves not as field workers but as food; he befriended a black freeman, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), who became Lincoln’s closest Presidential adviser; and he waged the Civil War, in part, to rid the nation of its secret vampire plague. Oh, and Jefferson Davis was in cahoots with Adam; the rebel army was manned, or thinged, mostly by vampires.

In writing the screenplay, Grahame-Smith junked much of his own book. He excised many of the novel’s characters (Ann Rutledge, Edgar Allan Poe, John Wilkes Booth) and streamlined the novel’s picaresque plot. The movie focuses on four periods in Lincoln’s life: his youth, when he sees his mother killed; his late teenage years, when he takes up vampire-hunting as a vocation; his early manhood in Springfield, where he meets Mary Todd; and his Presidency, where (in a climax not in the book) the fate of the Union rests on getting a train through to Gettysburg despite an infestation of the Southern undead.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Dark Shadows, scripted by Grahame-Smith)

Some very gifted artisans have fooled themselves into thinking they were making art. ALVH looks, and often plays, like a Sundance movie about creatures of the night. Caleb Deschanel, the great veteran cinematographer (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff) and, in his spare time, Zooey’s dad, swathes the movie in a desaturated, often sepia tinge, as if, in the 19th century, America couldn’t yet afford full color — and the tripod hadn’t been invented to keep the camera from shaking.

The attractive, little-known cast devotes full vigor to their roles. Csokas, liberated from his pruny-swain roles in Alice in Wonderland and The Debt, gives Barts a seedy grandeur and an aristocratic smirk. Sewell, once the young dreamboat of Tom Stoppard’s superb Arcadia in its London premiere, makes a suitably menacing and weary chief villain. Wasson is a seductive predator, and Cooper excellent as a courtly version of the grizzled gunslinger from old Westerns.

(READ: Lily Rothman’s interview with Benjamin Walker)

Walker, who turns 30 today, is known to Broadway audiences for playing another President in the recent emo-rock bio-musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, where he prepped for his big movie role by shouting the signature line, “I will make them all bleed!” Looking like a young Liam Neeson (in Kinsey, he played the 19-year-old version of Neeson’s character) who, over the course of the film, ages into Sam Waterston, Walker has an impossible task: to play our gravest President as an action hero. Toward the end he has trouble acting through the old-Abe makeup, but he’s a wizard at wielding that magical silver axe with a pistol concealed in the handle.

(READ: Richard Zoglin’s review of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson)

It is only in the action sequences that ALVH wakes from its torpor and springs to mad life, pitting Abe’s martial-arts expertise against the vampires’ crimson bites — kung-fu vs. fang goo. If you skip seeing the movie in a theater and wait to rent the DVD, you’ll be able to fast forward to some fine battles: Abe with an undead pharmacist, Abe chasing Barts across the backs of horses during a stampede, Abe and Henry felling a couple dozen of Adam’s underlings, all the adversaries massed in a train speeding toward a collapsing bridge. (Applause to fight choreographer Igor Tsay, who also worked on Bekmambetov’s Day Watch, and to stunt coordinator Mic Rodgers.) The director may rely overmuch on the old Hong Kong movie trick of slowing down the action in mid-punch, -kick or -slice, but he proves that the kick-ass scenes in Wanted were no fluke. He’s an action master with a nasty bite.

What he can’t do is bridge the chasm of ALVH’s central, schizophrenic conceit. The historical epic and the monster movie run on parallel tracks, occasionally colliding but never forming a coherent whole. Watching this is like flipping channels randomly between a Masterpiece Theatre drama and a splatter film on Cinemax. If you’re like me, you’ll stick with the splatter.