The Age of Epic Dada continues. In the spirit of his Jane Austen-crazed mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, author/screenwriter/producer Seth Grahame-Smith came up with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — a title to make worried citizens and innocent babies reach for strong drink; an egregious case of beard, stovepipe hat, and fangs exploitation; and a perfect example of postmodernist film marketing.
But there’s more to it than that. In reality the Honest-Abe-and-neck-biters gimmick is a clever ploy to trick the notoriously history-phobic American entertainment-consuming public into learning about the past. This is just the beginning. Coming soon to a screen near you: Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong Meet Frankenstein, followed by the slam-dunk franchise-maker, Jackie Kennedy: She-Wolf of the SS. But first we have to sit through another movie with men in mutton chops.
The early-19th-century United States frontier is in the midst of an epidemic of vampirism. Young Abraham Lincoln (played as an adult by Benjamin Walker) is one of the first to notice. As a child in his family’s Indiana log cabin, he witnesses his mother being bitten one night by an evil man named Barts (Marton Csokas). She dies and Abe swears vengeance, little realizing that Barts is part of a cabal of vampires that happens to be involved in the slave trade.
As Abe enters adult life in Springfield, Illinois, he puts two and two together with the help of his mysterious but knowledgeable friend Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and soon Lincoln’s burgeoning political notoriety is closely shadowed by his secret career as a vampire killer. Abe warms to the task. He favors his trusty “rail-splitting” axe, the blade coated with vamp-destroying silver, as the ideal implement for dispatching the bloodsuckers. He also learns martial arts. Meanwhile, Abe’s new wife, the disconcertingly 21st-century model-glamorous socialite Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), can only giggle incredulously whenever her husband tries to explain this vampire business to her.
Indeed, it is a frightening thing. Grahame-Smith and director Timur Bekmambetov want us to go along with the notion that this wave of vampirism started in the South among decadent slave holders like the wicked plantation master Adam (Rufus Sewell), and that neck-biting is just another facet of the American mean streak, alongside human trafficking, racism, and wanton violence. Thus, slavers are natural vampires, and by extension the entire Confederacy, including President Jefferson Davis (John Rothman), is in cahoots with the legions of darkness — even down to the Johnny Reb foot soldiers at Gettysburg, who can only be killed with silver bullets.
The Civil War is therefore a struggle between the undead and the living for the soul of the United States of America. Whoo-ee. It reminds us of Fox’s 1997 animated historical fantasy Anastasia, in which the Russian Revolution is seen as a plot by the mad monk Rasputin to take revenge on the Romanovs. If we carry the Dixie-vampires-versus-Yankees construct to its dubious extremes, it explains a lot about certain regrettable aspects of US history — states’ rights, lynch mobs, segregation, various assassinations, etc. — up to and including the Tea Party movement. (Ever wonder why John Boehner uses tanning booths so much? Maybe it’s because he’s afraid to go out in the sun. Hmm.) Underneath the head-chopping and slow-mo shootings, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes itself very seriously. Uh-oh. It’s too much to grant Grahame-Smith’s story the use of metaphor — the movie can’t carry the weight.
The production owes a heap to Interview with the Vampire, but its nearest antecedent is probably the Sherlock Holmes flicks. Director Bekmambetov, a native of Kazakhstan and maker of such successful international vampire movies as Night Watch and Day Watch, has a feel for significant visual details: facial hair, crowd scenes, period images, the seduction of poor young Willie Lincoln by the scary housemaid. But like any Hollywood hack with a budget to squander, he tends to substitute non-stop lickety-split action montage for careful character development. He bows to the demands of the marketplace. Too many anachronisms to count. The overall look of the film is muddy ochre. The 3D actually retards the pace rather than builds excitement.
It’s probably comforting in some way to imagine the slavery issue, the central argument at the heart of the Civil War, to be a conflict between supernatural monsters and noble humanitarians. But by all accounts, many slave owners were actually ordinary people who forgot some basic truths about their fellow human beings. That’s what made the War Between the States so painful, and in the end, that’s what makes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter such a box of hot air.
Seth Grahame-Smith|Jane Austen|Abraham Lincoln|Benjamin Walker|Marton Csokas|Dominic Cooper|Mary Elizabeth Winstead|Mary Todd Lincoln|Timur Bekmambetov|Rufus Sewell|John Rothman