ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, 105 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I guess we all had a chuckle back in 2010, when we heard the title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith’s follow-up to his previous literary re-fashioning, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Sustaining that chuckle through a summer blockbuster is a tall order, even for the statuesque rail-splitter from Illinois. While the great man was able to heal the nation, sadly Lincoln can’t bring together this surprisingly straight-faced mash-up of historical fact and fantasy fiction.
We all know part of the story: born poor in Indiana, the tall and wiry self-taught Lincoln became a lawyer, one-term U.S. Representative and then the President who presided over the Union Army during the Civil War. According to Grahame-Smith’s tale, this was all just a cover for Lincoln’s (played by Benjamin Walker) real mission: to wipe out the vampire cult that killed his mother. It is a worldwide conspiracy, and the vampire race is tied deeply to business of slavery and is aligned with the South to win the “War Between the States.” Well practiced with his silver axe and trained by a mysterious mentor Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper,) Lincoln unites the nation and kicks endless vampire ass.
I heard a lot of groaning about this film from the type of genre film fans who should be the target audience for this historical horror film, but its basic elements do have a certain frisson; vampires are right at home in the 1800s and Lincoln, tall, gaunt, and dressed in black, cuts a dark figure as a vampire stalker. Some of the revisionism is shameless, as a child, Lincoln is shown getting whipped himself while protecting a young black slave. The film’s imagery, drained of color and beautifully captured by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (the father of actress Zooey and a specialist in period pieces) is wonderfully evocative of daguerreotypes of the era. Where many Civil War era films have a very forgiving attitude towards the South’s role in the war, ALVH casts the Southern powers as part of a vampire cabal, not trying to secede the Union, but trying to overtake it for the vampiric needs. Historical events along the way, Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation etc., are made to carry an extra supernatural context as part of Abe’s vampire-slaying mission.
It was a daring decision to play all this madness straight-faced, and the film seems determined to not let a smile slip across the audience’s face for fear of the whole crazy premise unraveling in a fit of giggles. It works better than I expected, like John Ford realized in 1939’s Young Abe Lincoln, the man’s distended physical outline paired with his moral authority has a power in itself. Director Timur Bekmambetov frames Lincoln in the landscape like a natural force of righteous justice and seeing the power of our national myth transformed brings a giddy feeling of subversion (20 years after the end of the Cold War, this jingoistic tale is being directed by a Russian born and raised, curiously enough.) Some of the most energetic passages are those that recreate Lincoln’s own speeches as the 360 degree camera spins immerse us into the 1860s, and how nice a change it is to see this landscape re-imagined, as opposed to another post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Yet, once the slaveholders/vampires metaphor is rolled out, the script (Seth Grahame-Smith adapting his own novel) has no other ideas and instead gets caught up in some very mundane blockbuster/fantasy mechanizations; fighting endless swarms of vampires on top of moving trains, jumping away from fireballs and the like. The computer-generated mayhem is laid on extra thick, and Bekmambetov keeps things at a particularly break-neck pace (when he isn’t doing Matrix-y slo-mo), lest you remember it was the 1800s or something. Music, even that made for action films, is as much about the silence between the notes as the notes themselves. You’d think a reflective figure like Lincoln might be able to carve out a deeper moment for himself but ultimately he’s brought down not by John Wilkes Booth, but by a film that even makes The Great Emancipator just another cog in the blockbuster machine.