In early letters to her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln complained that he seemed sleepy all the time. Now we know why: he spent his evenings slaughtering the undead like hogs. That's the gloriously ridiculous premise of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a premise that director Timor Bekmambetov transforms into an equally ridiculous whole. It demands a certain amount of leeway from the audience, adopting a faux serious tone wherein the filmmakers are in on the joke but the characters aren't. Only Bekmambetov gets to poke us in the ribs, while Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker) and his colleagues must stare po-faced at whatever ludicrous insanity the director sees fit to unleash upon them. Many, many people will not be down with this equation. But if you embrace it (embrace it, I say!), it turns into the summer's most fantastic guilty pleasure.
Needless to say, Bekmambetov plays it fast and loose with history, willfully ignoring a number of Lincoln's real-life traits in order to facilitate the high concept here. After witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of a vile bloodsucker, young Mr. Lincoln teams up with expert vampire killer Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) to enact revenge. Sturges helps him transfer his railsplitting axemanship into superb combat skills, then sets him loose to track the mosnters down one by one. The vamps, unfortunately, have bigger things on their minds. The advent of slavery allows them to feast with impunity, and their leader Adam (Rufus Sewell) dreams of a nation where his kind can move in the open. Lincoln, tiring of delivering vengeance retail, embarks upon an ambitious plan to bring it to the vamps wholesale: a plan that ends with him in the Oval Office.
Most of the film takes place in Lincoln's comparative youth, allowing him to engage in all manner of eye-popping stunts as he cuts down the armies of the night. That becomes the primary purpose of the exercise, as Bekmambetov's imaginative choreography finds fertile ground in Walker’s gangly, uncertain Emancipator in Chief. He flies around like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, silver hatchet spinning and snaggletoothed opponents dropping like nine-pins before him. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter pushes the envelope just far enough to let us see the cheese, then pulls back and lets us enjoy it full-throttle. For a film so fight-heavy, it rarely runs out of inspiration, aided by Sewell's understated villain and a pair of vicious underlings (Erin Wasson and Martin Csokas). It also scores points for making its vampires really scary, aided by a subtle 3D effect in their eyes that redeems the otherwise pedestrian use of the medium.
The film does less well when actual history enters the equation. It does a fine job of conveying how little we actually know – the notion that even the most revered figures have secrets lost to the mists of time -- but it gets extremely squeamish any time it needs to use an actual person or event. Alan Tudyk is wasted as Lincoln's famous debate partner Stephen Douglas, while the connection between Lincoln's legal career and nocturnal crusade remains frustratingly vague. Bekmambetov fudges some details around the Battle of Gettysburg in order to provide a rousing finale -- and it certainly rouses in the true spirit of the endeavor -- but it also robs the film of a certain energy. Had it combined those elements more successfully, it might have become a real classic instead of just a silly good time.
This is the season for silly good times, however, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter brings us the silly in the best possible way. It shouldn't work as well as it does, and you'll probably hate yourself in the morning (God knows I do), but the sheer off-the-wall originality of it means that you'll also be cackling like a loon through most of its running time. When if not now does such a movie deserve our attention? The summer is flying by at a rapid rate, with the last few heavy hitters limbering up in the wings. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter provides a delirious pause before the final course... and a reminder that "simple" doesn't mean "the same old thing."