Suggesting an auspicious beginning for a franchise of demon-slaying politicians (“President Evil,” anyone?), “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a Civil War-era actioner of questionable taste and historical accuracy but surprisingly consistent entertainment value. Striking a deft balance of silly, straight-faced and splattery, helmer Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith spin an agreeably daft, fang-in-cheek tribute to America’s 16th president and his ax-wielding campaign to abolish a nationwide outbreak of vampirism. South-will-rise-again types may take issue with the pic’s vision of Confederate forces in cahoots with vicious bloodsuckers; others should lap it up, spelling potent if possibly short-lived summer B.O.
Pic has its roots in a 2010 novel by Grahame-Smith, the genre mashup artist responsible for the soon-to-be-filmed “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”; he also co-wrote the recent “Dark Shadows” (whose director, Tim Burton, is credited as a producer here). The scribe has efficiently streamlined his text into a down-and-dirty 105-minute item that barrels ahead like a locomotive, perhaps on the assumption that its cheerfully ridiculous premise doesn’t merit prolonged scrutiny. Yes and no, actually.
The opening passages, set in early 19th-century Indiana, establish how young Abe (Lux Haney-Jardine) developed an all-consuming hatred of vampires. Well, you would too if they killed your mother and treated the Southern slave trade as their personal food supply. As a tall, strapping young man (played by Benjamin Walker) hellbent on destroying his mom’s demonic assassin (Marton Csokas), Abe is recruited by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who not only supplements Abe’s law studies with an intense fitness regimen but also teaches him how to vanquish these monsters, never mind that they can turn invisible and move faster than William Howard Taft in a buffet line.
In a key twist conveniently borrowed from werewolf lore, silver (not stakes) is Henry’s recommended weapon of choice, and so with the help of a silver-bladed ax, a gun loaded with silver bullets, and a few moves apparently on loan from “The Matrix,” Abe is soon gutting bloodsuckers left and right. He also catches the eye of the fetching Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but temporarily spurns her affections; after all, the lowly vampire hunter is doomed to a lonely life of self-imposed bachelorhood, not unlike Spider-Man or James Buchanan.
Still, it’s not long before this Lincoln lawyer is happily married with child, installed in the White House and embroiled in a very bloody Civil War. Dovetailing the historical and the supernatural, the script hinges on the metaphoric linking of two unholy scourges, slavery and vampirism. It’s a thin but effective conceit, sealed by the mildly incendiary image of noted Confederate leader Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) bargaining with New Orleans-based vampire honcho Adam (Rufus Sewell).
If anything, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” could have used more of that casually shocking, character-assassinating dark humor, though its unexpected secret weapon is how effectively it often plays as straight drama. Indeed, the picture works in no small part by applying a sheen of irreverently reverent mythology to one of the most lionized figures in American history, a physically imposing proto-superhero who here gets to decapitate and disembowel the most bankable movie monsters of the moment.
There isn’t a trace of irony to the way Walker channels Lincoln, his look of earnest, square-jawed determination shining through even from under a beard, a stovepipe hat and several layers of old-age makeup. He and Winstead strike remarkably poignant chords — no small achievement for a movie whose most memorably gratuitous action setpiece brings to mind a demented cross between a wuxia epic and a wild horse stampede.
Bekmambetov, who proved himself a dab hand at vampire thrillers (“Night Watch,” “Day Watch”) before he directed the 2008 graphic-novel adaptation “Wanted,” handles the violence in an arresting if flashily impersonal style. The early fight sequences, during which Abe impulsively seeks out trouble, have a creepily measured tension that largely vanishes in the later skirmishes, shot as a series of cool-looking but increasingly tiresome slo-mo ballets punctuated by eruptions of black blood (the scenes were conceived by Kazakh fight choreographer Igor Tsay and his Acting School of Fighting Kun-Do).
Always on the move and disinclined to overstay its welcome, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is almost good enough to make one wish it had been conceived and executed with a bit more care, or pushed to goofier and/or more visceral extremes. The period look is serviceable but a bit drab, and the 3D conversion does little to enhance Caleb Deschanel’s sepia-heavy widescreen images. William Hoy’s editing has fun with some violently whooshing scene transitions; naturally, the soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without some Linkin Park.