Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 historical mash-up novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sums up its own straight-faced embrace of the ridiculous in its title, but for those who don’t think the core concept is over-the-top enough, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch) ups the ante considerably with his film adaptation. Now, Abraham Lincoln (as played by Benjamin Walker) isn’t merely an earnest young Illinois striver who learns vampires are real and spends his life fighting them, both personally and politically. Instead, he’s a superpowered warrior-god with highly advanced axe-fu skills. When his mentor (Dominic Cooper) teaches him how to face the undead, looking cool in slow motion seems to be a significantly higher classroom priority than anything else. The training montage where Lincoln learns to twirl his axe around his body like a baton for no apparent purpose is neither the movie’s first laughable sequence nor its last, but it sums up the movie’s aesthetic: The filmmakers mistakenly think nothing is silly if it’s done with a grim enough facial expression.
Grahame-Smith’s book Pride And Prejudice And Zombies launched the current craze for monster-infused classics (Jane Slayre, Alice In Zombieland, et. al.), and just as that trend was getting into gear, he sidestepped with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which instead fuses monsters with real history. In his vision of the past, American slavery represented an opportunity for vampires to own and devour human beings without compunction or limit, and the Civil War was largely an effort to curb vampires’ control of the country. Lincoln becomes aware of vampires when one kills his mother, and he grows up bitter and determined to avenge her, but unaware of his enemy’s nature or abilities. Eventually a teacher steps in to give him the tools he needs—foremost among them, a silver-edged axe and access to his inner superpowered butt-kicker—but demands Lincoln follow his strict ascetic rules in exchange. Gradually, Lincoln shrugs off that guidance and makes his own choices, from a relationship and child with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to a political career that expands the secret vampire fight to encompass the entire country.
The film version picks up on the most colorful parts of that journey, eliding over large chunks of Lincoln’s life, but lingering lovingly on the fights, usually in slow motion. In particular, the every-other-shot-in-slow-mo dynamic of the final confrontation seems to extend the movie’s run time by five minutes or so. That’s typical for Bekmambetov, a visual stylist of the Zack Snyder school—every shot is lovingly set-dressed and designed to a fault, but the editing is incoherent, the characters are a collection of coat-racks for pretty costumes, and the storyline is a checklist of familiar events and names, often with a pointed pause as they’re introduced. And even for a summer action blockbuster, the imagery is lazy and hacky, particularly when it comes to the Symbolism For Dummies scene-setting: Bats are spooky. Rain is sad. Smoke is mysterious. War is two people with flags representing the North and South running at each other, yelling. Grief is a single painted glycerin tear-track lingering uncomfortably on Walker’s face for a long scene. And pretty much everything is a painted-on, one-pixel-deep digital surface.
Further, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter frequently feels like it was hacked down from a longer movie, perhaps one including scenes that were insufficiently way-awesome. Characters come and go at random, particularly Alan Tudyk, who shows up as Mary Todd’s fiancé Stephen Douglas, only to disappear entirely when the film dismisses Lincoln’s entire political career with a soapbox speech and a time-lapse. There’s no sense that Bekmambetov cares about any of the character-building and breast-beating that comes between the sequence where Lincoln chases a vampire by running across the backs of stampeding horses, and the one where he battles the vampire leader (Rufus Sewell, inevitably the film’s strongest asset) atop a disintegrating train atop a disintegrating trestle. Problem is, even the action sequences don’t particularly feel real—particularly in 3-D, where the special effects on the vampires’ eyeballs look distractingly transparent and unfinished. The story is trying to ground fantasy in history, but neither one is used coherently enough to connect.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter's Spoiler Space.