Last night Fox offered me the opportunity, along with a select group of other journalists, to view a trailer and footage from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, due out in theaters on June 22nd, at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. We also had the opportunity to speak with the film's director and star, Timur Bekmambetov and Benjamin Walker. We'll have that video interview up soon, along with some video of the Q&A with the filmmakers; and you can view the trailer right here on FEARnet this Monday afternoon. In the meantime, after the jump, I'll describe some of the footage I saw, and share with you what Seth Grahame-Smith, who penned the novel on which the film is based, had to say about the changes between book and film, whether or not we'll see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter action figures, and the possibility of Lincoln's undead-slaying adventures continuing in a sequel.
Before we saw the footage from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last night, we viewed a special greeting from producer Tim Burton, who's finishing his work on Dark Shadows and so could not attend. It was delivered with Burton's trademark quirk, shot in black and white in a somberly-lit cemetery, with human statues bearing grim expressions and dressed in Victorian wear.
Then the footage rolled. One of the scenes we were shown last night featured Lincoln (played by New York stage actor Benjamin Walker) as a young man, still grieving after his mother has been killed by vampires, honing his skill with an axe under the instruction of his mentor, Henry Sturges (played by Dominic Cooper). Walking through a sunlit forest, Sturges instructs Lincoln to think of the things he hates most in life, and tells him to focus his aggression on a tree. Growing more enraged with each swing of his axe, Lincoln's anger culminates in an explosive blow that takes down the entire tree in a slow-mo, CGI-enhanced money shot, chunks of wood hurtling at the screen. (This shot is featured in the trailer, and will doubtlessly prove even more effective in 3D). Sturges then tells Lincoln to do the same to every other tree in the woods.
Another scene showed Lincoln targeting a local shopkeeper who's secretly a vampire, and a mano-a-mano fight ensuing in his tiny store. It's a fight that quickly ends, with Lincoln falling through a trap door into a basement/dungeon, where he's immediately ensnared by his legs and strung upside down alongside several other men.
A quieter scene was one in which the young Lincoln is courting his wife to be, Mary Todd (as played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), by a lake, as the two enjoy a picnic in the park. Here Honest Abe reveals to Mary his nighttime activities, and exactly how many vampires he's killed. She's amused, but unconvinced, though she plays along with what she believes is a joke.
The final scene we saw showed the Confederate army marching into battle against the Union troops. As the army approaches, vampires can be seen marching in its ranks (protected from sunlight by what the filmmakers described as a kind of 19th century sunscreen). But the Union soldiers scarcely notice this before they're wiped out by the undead warriors.
The film's trailer contained additional footage, including Matrix-style shots of Lincoln fighting vampires; a shot of him riding his horse into combat along with the Union's massive army; a shot of Lincoln delivering what I believe was the Gettysburg Address (the words of which apparently take on a double meaning in the film); and a shot of two of Lincoln's vampire adversaries, Adam (Rufus Sewell) and Vadoma (Erin Wasson).
After the screening, Grahame-Smith took the stage with Walker, Bekmambetov and Jim Lemley (whose producing the film along with Tim Burton) for a Q&A. The author (oddly enough, compared to most novelists I've heard speak publically) was the most outgoing, and the most forthcoming with info about the film. He described Lincoln as "the first and only true American superhero," who becomes one in the literal, "action movie" sense in the novel and film. Of course while every comic-book superhero's story has a beginning, few actually end. The end of Lincoln's life, however, is as famous as it is tragic. But if Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a hit, could there be sequels? I asked the author, who remarked, "The short answer is yes. If you read the book there's a little epilogue that sort of leaves things a little open to that. I think, in the film, without giving anything away… we don't definitely end with the origin story. So yes."
"Because," added Lemley, "this is a struggle that was going on before Lincoln punctuated it. And it's probably going on right now."
"It's gonna be very bloody," said Grahame-Smith of the film's horror element. "Parts of it are gonna be very scary. But more – and this is a point of personal pride with me as a horror fan my whole life – this movie puts vampires back where they belong, and that's as bad guys and not heartthrobs; who should be beheaded with an axe and not kissed by tweens. That's what you can expect. Badass vampires getting treated like the killers that they are."
"It's a summer tentpole movie," explained the writer. "But it kind of has no business being [one] in a weird way. Because it's sort of out there in concept. It's not a sequel, it's not a remake, it's not based on a videogame, it's not based on a toy, and there are no robots in it. In terms of summer movies, that sets it apart, and I'm excited about that."
"There will be action figures obviously," added Grahame-Smith, when asked if one can expect toys based on the film, "but it's the chicken-and-the-egg question."
Grahame-Smith also explained some of the differences between the novel and film, most significantly the addition of a central villain, played by Sewell, and a climactic battle scene. "It was a strange process for me to adapt my own book, because I knew going into it that… Look who you're working with – you're working with Tim Burton, you're working with producer Jim Lemley, you're working with the director of Night Watch and Wanted. You know you've got to rise to that bigness. We had a lot of discussions about stuff. We went through so many iterations. So many different drafts, really experimenting with things. There aren't many differences between the book and the film. As there are with many books, but especially in this case, one of the things we realized very late in the process of the screenplay was that my book had no central villain. There was no villain in the book to give voice – there were villains, the vampires at large. It's very helpful, it turns out, in films to have a villain, to go up against your hero. That's one thing – we created the character of Adam to give voice to that, and all the evils that the vampires do. There's a big climax in the movie, that I won't give too much away about, that's not in the book. But the book didn't really have a big climax – Lincoln goes to the theater, gets shot and gets buried. That's kind of it. There's a little epilogue after that. So certain things have to change, and I'm very pleased with the changes we've made. Because I think that the things that we've clung to are thematically important, and they do justice to the real Lincoln story and the real Lincoln ideals."
After the Q&A, we were treated to a private tour of the Presidential Museum's underground vault, which is usually closed to tourists. In the vault, among such artifacts as Lincoln's stove top hat, and his gloves left stained with blood after his assassination, were a couple of especially curious mementoes (a.k.a. movie props, pictures of which can be seen below)… One of these was a 19th century walking stick, the head of which was a concealed, removable pistol. Another was an axe, whose heavy blade can retract to reveal a trigger, converting the entire tool into a rifle, the barrel of which was embedded in the wooden handle. And of course a stake was present in the vault. I'm sure we'll see Abe, his friends and enemies brandishing these weapons in the film.
But the most intriguing thing we saw in the vault was a volume of "Journal Entries Describing Behavioral Patterns of the Undead" that was supposedly passed on to Lincoln's son. If Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is as big a hit as its creators are hoping for, expect the story to continue…