BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Abraham Lincoln loses his mother to vampires and vows to avenge her death as the newly-formed United States tears itself apart over slavery.
PROS: The title elicited a smile.
CONS: Derivative direction, flat script, bored actors.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a one-note joke played for two hours by a bugler with asthma who lost his hearing during the opening cannon fire of the Battle of Gettysburg. Its central conceit—that Honest Abe loses his mother not to milk sickness but through the bite of a vampire, thus transforming him into the Slayer-in-Chief—sounds like it might have made for one of the more diverting coked-out sketches Saturday Night Live used to toss out between commercials during the days when Lorne Michaels wasn’t afraid of the NBC censors. Stretching it out to a full-length novel, as Seth Grahame-Smith did in 2010, in the wake of the massive success of his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, always seemed like a far more dubious proposition. Now Grahame-Smith has enlisted the directorial eye of Day Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov to adapt his mashup into a feature film, and the result makes Zack Snyder’s 300 look like a Kurosawan masterpiece and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor a measured documentary.
The blame for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s failure must be laid at the feet of both Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith equally. Grahame-Smith’s screenplay lacks the structure of his successful book—a not-always-successful marriage of Ken Burns, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and, in its more lucid passages, Anne Rice—which took the form of Lincoln’s secret diaries detailing his personal journey into a Val Helsing–esque Abolitionist. Instead, his story episodically thrusts young Abraham (Benjamin Walker) from the backwaters of a port town where he meets his vampire-slaying mentor Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) to his episodic slaughter of undead one-percenters in New Salem—all the while studying law and working in the store of his friend Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson). In that time he meets and courts Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and becomes reacquainted with freed slave William Johnson (Anthony Mackie) before learning that ur-vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell) has plans to usurp the power of the recently-formed United States of America, transferring it to his bloodsucking counterparts.
Events jump from predictable set piece (Lincoln battles a one-eyed vampire on the tops of stampeding horses in a scene borrowing heavily from the freeway fight in The Matrix Reloaded) to predictable set piece (the Bearded One and his entourage battle a Confederate vampire army on a speeding train in a painful ripoff of the train sequence in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) without any dramatic build-up, crippling any suspense the movie might possess. That Bekmambetov appears to have spent far too much of his off-hours studying the after effects of Wachowski-influenced cinema hinders enjoyment even further, using bullet-time slow motion for whips, axe swings, and knife throws. How very 1998.
Nor is the blending of the supernatural into the narrative smooth; while something interesting lurks in the idea that vampires make up the bulk of the southern upper class, it meshes poorly with the corollary issue of slavery. The vampires exist because, without them, there would be no movie.
Bekmambetov assembles a good cast that never seems to be enjoying the material. Surely between Walker (who looks like the love child of Liam Neeson and Eric Bana), Cooper (a cartoonist’s rendition of Tim Curry, ripped from the easel, wadded up, and tossed into the wastebasket with the previous day’s coffee grounds) and Sewell (wide-eyed and grizzled, like a Jim Jones–style Lestat who spent the weekend with Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler), at least one tongue might have strayed into a cheek. Certainly the always-watchable Mackie and the striking Winstead could hold the camera’s attention, despite the movie’s underuse of both. But no. By turns bored and listless, nobody connects with the material in any meaningful way.
Even the visuals pass by with a lack of flair or grandeur. Grahame-Smith’s screenplay takes place in New Salem, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, each location splashed with modestly competent but unremarkable CGI that never matches the gray, grimy alleyways of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, the sweltering plantations of Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, or the miasma-infused corridors of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator. They are as ephemeral as the materials used to build them.
Mostly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter just feels glum. As an adventure story, it takes no joy in its hero-free heroics, and as postmodern mashup never wants to reach the kind of play with its material that Kim Newman enjoys so fully in Anno-Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron and that marks Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s an idea that works better on paper than onscreen…and proves, once again, that Lincoln should stay out of theaters.