After generations of sanctimony about the Civil War, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” finally provides a useful metaphor for the national blood-letting.
Brother against brother? Occasionally. But good versus evil -- always.
The big-screen retelling of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel opens with a painful, riveting scene. Young Abraham is at his father’s workplace on an Indiana wharf, when the slave-trading owner Jack Barts and thugs drag an African-American family down to the river for shipment south.
Young Abe recognizes them as free and the boy as his friend Will. Although Abe’s father and other whites turn their heads, Abe rushes in, only to share in a whipping.
That riles his father to intervene. But the elder Lincoln is immediately dis-employed and unable to pay a debt to Barts, played with lip-smacking menace by Marton Csokas. He warns there’s more than one way to collect, and later young Abe awakes in the night to see the fanged Barts nibbling on his mother.
The story moves ahead a decade, when Lincoln, now orphaned, grown into Benjamin Walker and very drunk, seeks his revenge against Barts. But the man unexpectedly recovers from a bullet in the brain. Only the intervention of a mysterious stranger saves Abe.
Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) has his own reasons for wanting to kill Barts and others like him. In the vampire lore of this story, though, Sturgess suffers from a specific impediment and needs a handy assistant to gain his altogether larger revenge.
Taken under Sturgess’ dark wing, our Abe soon puts his railsplitting background to deadly use as a sort of Buffy of the Mississippi, wielding a silver-enhanced axe with Yojimbo-like efficiency against 19th Century fangsters. Walker provides a nice combination of striking physicality and ungainly earnestness as Lincoln.
Henry and Abe make for a great mentor-and-exterminator team. But after the rush of Abe learning how to deal with the numerous vampires around his new digs in Springfield, Illinois, the story begins to go off its rails. Since we know there’s a Civil War coming, one would expect Grahame-Smith to set it up.
But instead, his Sturgess has other plans, and that leads to a falling out with Abe. Jefferson Davis eventually turns up briefly, but only to solicit help from vampires, not as their leader. That role falls to Rufus Sewell, who makes a perfectly no-good plantation owner as Adam. His pants-wearing sister, Vadoma (Erin Wasson), is the most efficient killer among the bloodsuckers. But their heritage gets only the sketchiest of outlines.
Soon it’s on to some tangentially “real” history, as Abe sets up shop and possibly housekeeping with Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), encounters long-lost black pal Will in the grown-up form of Anthony Mackie and, against the run of play, falls for winsome Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd.