Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (R16) (105 min)
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Starring Benjamin Walker and Rufus Sewell.
It's tempting to wonder if this is the start of whole new revisionist franchise with future films to include Teddy Roosevelt: Pacifist, Franklin D Roosevelt: Marathon Runner and John F Kennedy: Monogamist.
But the title really does say it all. Young Abe Lincoln witnesses the death of his mother by a vampire (New Zealand's Marton Csokas). Years later Lincoln (young Liam Neeson lookalike Benjamin Walker) encounters a man who trains him to kill vampires. But Lincoln the multi-tasker - he not only kills vampires, but works part time in a grocery store and is studying to be a lawyer - is also driven to end slavery. To the despair of his vampire trainer (Dominic Cooper), Lincoln enters politics while clumsily wooing the feisty Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
On paper it sounds daft and the potential audience should be forgiven for feeling vampired-out. But, so long as your expectations aren't too high, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter largely works. It's serious without really taking itself too seriously.
The conceit is easy to swallow, even if the film could have done with a dash more humour. It also avoids the unintentionally camp Hammer Horror antics that plagued Van Helsing, another period vampire hunter drama. Even the over abundance of slo-mo bloody fights scenes with Lincoln are preferable to five minutes of Underworld: Awakening.
Based on his novel, screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith is best known for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So there's the same cheeky, knowing mash-up. I liked that it works Lincoln's vampire war throughout his life, not just when he's young and sprightly.
I liked that vampires can walk in the daylight if they use a ''sun protection ointment''. I also liked the conundrum: if Lincoln lets the South be, the vampires can feast on slaves and they will leave the rest of the world alone. Most of all, I liked that Lincoln dispatches the undead with a silver-tipped axe. He really does have an axe to grind.
The visual effects - which includes a contribution from Wellington's Weta Digital - are restrained. It includes an over-the-top chase among stampeding horses. Not everything gels and there are some odd gaffs.
Makeup transforms Walker into a convincing and bearded middle-aged Lincoln, but the rest of the non-vampire cast hardly age a day. The story also gets a bit muddled in the second act, as its sets itself up for the battle with the mandatory vampire boss.
But while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will never be as memorable as the Gettysburg Address, on its own terms it's fast, smart and lots of fun.
- © Fairfax NZ News