So let’s get this straight: slavery in the U.S. lasted so long because vampires supported it. In fact, Jefferson Davis made a deal between the Confederacy and the undead. That explains a lot, including why Abraham Lincoln was so determined to obliterate vampires, even to the point of sneaking out of the White House in the dead of night wielding a silver-edged ax, which he used to decapitate vampires while on top of a moving train. Obviously, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not the kind of movie to launch a million is-this-historically-accurate articles. The real question is whether the film can sustain its self-consciously playful mashup for more than five minutes. Seth Grahame-Smith’s novels certainly don’t.
Not the novel he based this Vampire Hunter screenplay on, and not Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, his first high-art-meets-camp bestseller. They start out with fun, high concepts, but once you get the joke, about 5 pages in, you might as well quit.
And this movie, a Lincoln bio-pic with vampires, fades almost as fast. Director Timur Bekmambetov was much more effective doing Russian undead in Night Watch and Day Watch, and American action in Wanted.
Here he tries to turn Abe into the ultimate action president, but the attempt comes with clunky 3-D and a lame screenplay. Occasionally, Grahame-Smith’s dialogue includes an intentional howler of a line, most conspicuously when Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) stands near a carriage outside the White House and yells to Abe, “We’re going to be late for the theater.”
The film actually could have used more of that humor. Playing it straight is the major problem. If you’re going to use Lincoln at all, you might as well go full-camp into the vampire story, or really plumb history. But the Confederacy-vampire link is, like the humor, almost a throwaway. It leads nowhere. What’s left except some high-energy but familiar action?
Early on the film flashes back to Abe’s boyhood and sets up an unknown backstory: a vampire caused his mother’s death, so civil rights was not the only reason to go after them. Soon he’s Abe as a vengeful young man, played by Benjamin Walker, and we see that Bekmambetov is more comfortable with action than with live actors.
Walker, who looks like Liam Neeson playing Lincoln, doesn’t make the character any livelier than the statue at the Lincoln Memorial. Rufus Sewell is just as stiff as an alpha-vampire. Anthony Mackie has the central but underwritten role of Lincoln’s life-long friend and counselor in the White House, standing at his elbow as Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation. What, didn’t you learn in school that Lincoln had a black best friend? Dominic Cooper is better as Henry, the mysterious man who recruits Lincoln as a vampire killer. At least Cooper has a twinkle in his eye, which has a lot to do with Henry’s own secrets.
The film is tiresome – not at all what you want from a vampire-hunting action-president.