1818, Indiana. A young Lincoln sees his mother killed in the dead of night and grows up swearing revenge. As a young man, he meets an enigmatic stranger (Dominic Cooper) who tells him that his mother’s killer is a vampire and if he will allow himself to be trained, he can become a vampire slayer. Lincoln duly does so, trying to balance his killing duties with his burgeoning political career, a career that will eventually lead to the White House and Civil War. As Lincoln (literally) cuts a swathe through the US vampire populace, he comes to the attention of millenia-old vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell) who is using the Southern slave-trade to disguise the fact that vampires are effectively farming slaves for blood. Adam and Abe find themselves on a collision course, but who will prevail?
Author Seth Grahame-Smith followed up his first period horror mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) with this, and even before it was published, film-makers had their eye on its cinematic potential. Vampires are hot, period dramas are hot, what could be hotter than a period drama/horror mash-up? As a high-concept title, it is brilliant. We know exactly what we are getting, despite inevitable differing expectations over the tone. And tone is everything. You can play your horror films dead straight and nasty (Stake Land, 30 Days of Night), or gruesome but injected with humour (Shaun of the Dead, Slither), but you can’t have it all and so you will wind up disappointing someone.
Should this have been played so straight? It certainly wasn’t accidental. Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Day/Night Watch) and scripter Grahame-Smith decided to play it straight, despite its inherent ridiculousness, and so if nothing else one must applaud their decisiveness, but it needs to acknowledge its absurdity, something it singularly fails to do. So whereas (for example) Thor punctures what might have been its pomposity with much-needed moments of lightness, where Green Lantern remained straight-faced, so AL: VH eventually becomes problematically po-faced, re-inventing the appalling and tragic loss of life at Gettysburg as a vampire-led slaughter of Union soldiers. If you are going to mash-up such disparate elements as slavery, civil war, and vampire slaying, you need to blend more smoothly than this.
Aside from such over-arching problems, the individual elements here work pretty well. Ben Walker as Lincoln is a convincing and assured screen presence, wielding his silver-edged axe with real ability and poise as well as bringing dramatic heft to his speeches as an older president. Dominic Cooper is effective as his mentor, with solid supporting work from Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson as Lincoln’s friends (and eventual allies in the battle against the toothy ones). Rufus Sewell does well with limited material, his thinly-sketched character being elevated to something more memorable by Sewell’s elegantly drawled line delivery, although Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fairly unaffecting as Mary Todd Lincoln.
The fight scenes are well choreographed, though an excess of slo-mo and CGI makes it all feel too artificial to be genuinely engaging and affecting. One particular sequence involving a chase over and through stampeding horses is enthusiastically lauded during the making-of doc, but is actually hamstrung and undone by obvious and jarring effects work. Much better are the closer-quarters hand to hand sequences, where Walker’s hard work training with the axe is able to come to the fore, his classical training as an actor well alloyed to real graft during his time with the fight choreographers. The make-up work (as is dwelt on during the afore-mentioned making of doc) is excellent, both for ageing Walker for Lincoln’s later life and for giving the right sort of veiny look for the vampires, but another problem arises when it comes to the creation of this world’s mythology. Silver is fatal to the vampires, but they cannot kill each other. Sunlight remains an issue for them, but they can also disappear at will. There is nothing inherently wrong with tweaking established vampire-lore, but there seems to be no other reason for some of these shifts than to serve as plot-devices and so it all feels a little more like making it up as you go along than building a mythology in a reasoned, consistent manner.
In the end, the question here is whether the more general and over-arching problems defeat the overall enjoyment of the positive elements. There is lots to enjoy here, principally the acting performances, an engaging premise, and some great fight-sequences, but the problems remain problems and stick in the mind, preventing the audience engagement and investment that would keep us hooked. In the end, this is a mash-up that doesn’t blend and perhaps if it had not taken itself so seriously and remained so resolutely straight-faced, it might have been more successful. Top marks however for keeping it a 15/R certificate. Vampires really are properly nasty and have no business in the 12A/PG-13 category. Bekmambetov keeps it bloody and grisly and doesn’t shy away from killing characters off, so some points are won back for that. You can buy AL: VH from 22nd October, but you won’t be able to rent it until a little before Christmas.
Extras: On the BD version made available for review, there is an excellent, in-depth making of that runs to 75 minutes, covering everything and with input from everyone. Actors, production crew, costumers, effects technicians, civil war re-enactors – everyone chips in. The inevitable trailer and Linkin Park music video add little, but there is an unusual and welcome animated short (The Great Calamity), which although painfully cheap is at least something different. Seth Grahame-Smith gives us the disc’s solitary commentary track, but it is an excellent addition to the disc. He speaks at length and in depth regarding the production of the film, the differences between writing a book and drafting a screenplay, and given his involvement as a producer, he is also able to contribute more broadly on the making of the film. A good, strong package.