There is no possible way to take a story about Abraham Lincoln fighting vampires seriously. I believe this is a fundamental truth we can all agree upon. The premise does not excite the imagination with its dramatic possibilities, but with its audacious sense of abandon. The idea would, I think, be best served as fuel for a wildly unhinged B-level horror movie.
Director Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith disagree with my analysis, for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is played 100% straight from beginning to end. It is as serious a movie about Presidential vampire slaying as shall ever exist, with not a dollop of tongue-in-cheek humor or winking self-awareness anywhere to be found. The tone is utterly somber, the music dark and brooding, the characters solemn, and the story rooted in dramatic historical events. Of all the directions the filmmakers could have gone in for this material, treating Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as an honest drama is by far the strangest choice they could make.
It almost goes without saying that the tonal decision does not work. Not for one second. As noted above, it simply isn’t possible to take this story seriously, and as a result, the entire movie comes across as awkwardly self-important and, at times, tone-deaf. It’s the film simplest and most obvious mistake, but it’s such an overarching, omnipresent one that it brings down every other aspect of the film.
Take Bekmambetov’s action choreography, for instance. The man can flawlessly craft set pieces imbued with real thrills and big surprises, and more importantly, I truly love his vision for how Lincoln fights vampires. Armed with an axe, a knife, a silver bullet, and his own physical prowess, Bekmambetov’s depiction of an ass-kicking Lincoln is a visual wonder to behold. The fight sequences are executed with reckless abandon, each battle growing crazier and crazier until a 50-year-old Lincoln is running for his life atop a series of falling train cars.
Whenever honest Abe reaches for his axe, the fun latent in this goofy premise comes to the surface. Yet instead of feeling truly invigorating, these sequences are hugely out of place. The rest of the movie is so deathly somber and overly dramatic that it just doesn’t make sense, within the film’s own well-established tone, that Abe Lincoln and friends would or could fight like this. And that sucks all the fun out of the one element of the movie that has a chance at being genuinely entertaining.
Outside of the bloody brawls, Smith and Bekmambetov ask us to really invest in these characters and this warped historical recreation; from Lincoln seeking revenge for his mother’s murder to Abe and Mary Todd grieving over their deceased son to several ‘serious’ discussions about slavery, these attempts at drama consistently fall flat on their face.
I am most troubled by the film’s depiction of Lincoln himself. There is a running thematic thread that history will remember Abe as a legend, not a man, but the film conforms to our collective deification of Abraham Lincoln. He supports freeing the slaves from a young age, has an African-American best friend, and is constantly crusading for equal rights.
This is, of course, an image many of us have for the sixteenth President, and understandably so. He is – unquestionably, to my mind – the greatest President in American history, and we therefore try to ignore his own human capacity for personal flaws and self-improvement. This is what the film does as well. Lincoln is not a man, but a superhero.
But to me, Lincoln is a figure worth celebrating not because he magically descended from on high to free the slaves, but because he was an imperfect man born into a terribly unjust world, and over time, he grew to find the courage to stand up against oppression. Lincoln famously said, at the outset of the civil war, that “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.” He did not enter into the war on an odyssey for human justice. His story is inspiring because as the war went on, and as he became more familiar with the issues facing his country, he decided he had to put morality first, even if it placed his presidency and the North’s victory on the line. That’s the power and significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. I would even argue that the Lincoln who took office would not have been capable of delivering the Gettysburg Address. The man had to live through the trials of the war and Presidency to reach the point where those words could resonate within his own heart and throughout the annals of history.
The complex, human Lincoln is the Lincoln I consider a hero. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter presents a stylized version of Lincoln the American God. This would, of course, not be a problem if the film were presented as the fun, silly horror flick it probably should be. But as I said, Smith and Bekmambetov want us to take their story seriously, and they desperately want us to invest in their version of Lincoln. I, personally, have no interest in doing so. Vampire hunter or not, the simplistic, idealized version of Lincoln who started life as the flawless crusader we think him to be is not the one who holds a significant place in our nation’s history.
It doesn’t help that Benjamin Walker is flat out boring in the title role. It’s certainly not a bad performance, but it’s definitely a dull one, devoid of charisma or a strong screen presence. The lack of vitality in the character just adds to the film’s sense of lifelessness, and a more compelling actor could have gone a long way towards redeeming the experience. Just look at what Mary Elizabeth Winstead does with Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s a shallow, underwritten part, but she makes the character interesting and appealing to the best of her ability. The same can be said of Anthony Mackie, who is his usual charming self, but otherwise, the rest of the cast and characters are wet noodles who leave little to no impression. Even the vampires lack bite, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The film’s grip on history is equally troublesome, with the Civil War confusingly shoehorned into the vampire narrative in the last act. Are the vampires leading the Confederacy? Have they infiltrated the American government that deeply? If they are susceptible to sunlight, how do they battle the North in broad daylight? What role do slaves have in the vampire’s plans? They fight quite hard to keep their slaves around, but what good does race discrimination do the undead? The plot has more holes than any of the vampires’ victims.
It’s also worth noting that the visuals are spectacularly ugly, though this could be a byproduct of the 3D process. There’s a decent amount of depth on display, but the digital nature of 3D lends a rough, grimy sheen to the imagery. The large amounts of fine detail we’re used to in theatrical projection are almost entirely absent, with blurry backgrounds, large digital artifacts, and edge-enhanced facial features taking over the frame. Coupled with washed-out colors and garish hues, some stretches even look eerily reminiscent of analog video. If this is the future of digital, 3D filmmaking, then count me out. 35mm is worlds better than this.
I can’t say I had high expectations for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. How could you? But with such a silly title and premise, I did, at the very least, expect something memorably fun. That Smith and Bekmambetov somehow managed to make the film so boring, tin-eared, and forgettable is quite frankly astonishing. The film is a disappointment, but not one I’ll have trouble putting out of my mind.