I’m not knocking Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for its inherently goofy hook—that our 16th president spent his early years dispatching (with his rail-splitting axe) the undead fiends who’ve infiltrated the new republic, only to later find himself back at odds with Confederate undead during his famed Civil War administration. In fact, I giddily embraced it.
But why in Abe’s name did screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of the cheeky historical-fantasy novel on which the film is based), producer Tim Burton, and most of all Mad Russian director Timur Bekmambetov take it all so seriously, treating the vamp-dusting proceedings not like a SyFy drive-in flick, but an essay prompt on a social studies exam?
“Where’s the fun?” you want to holler at the sepia-toned screen as the Great Emancipator mows down bloodsuckers with grim determination. “We were promised a good time!” Instead we’ve got something on our hands that feels like Ken Burns’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer in all the wrong ways. (The film opens with a solemn quote from the Book of Genesis when it would have been better off taking a page from Roger Corman.)
I understand the film makers felt they had to play things somewhat straight rather than completely camp it up. Unfortunately, no one on the far side of the camera seems to have a… whattyacallit… sensahuma. (Grahame-Smith also penned Burton’s Dark Shadows earlier this summer. The prosecution rests.)
After all, Bekmambetov’s never been a model of restraint. First with his short-attention-span fantasy-action epics Night Watch and Day Watch back in Mother Russia* and then with Hollywood’s Wanted, the director continues to explore making his ADD-edited action films feel ponderous despite his trademark visual seizures.
(*Technically Bekmambetov’s Russian-Kazakh, but he’s in no position these days to demand factual accuracy.)
Bekmambetov shares with his fellow historical reenactor Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) a penchant for the slow-mo/sped-up/slow-again action shot. The visual effect is like watching a cough-syrup junkie chug a Red Bull. (To think I was once intrigued by the idea Timur might direct a version of Moby Dick. I realize now it would be three hours of slow-fast-slow harpoon tossing.)
Stylistically Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is full of restless kinetic energy, but no juice— Bekmambetov’s much-ballyhooed fight visuals are impressive in small doses, but while he can execute a dazzling batch of shots (say of a battle in a horse stampede alongside a canyon, or a midnight train crossing a bridge collapsing in flames) he has no grasp of scene. All is constant titillation with no giggling exploitation flavor—it’s spectacle and sensation, epic chintz and chutzpah, none of it making damn much sense.
There is an intentional artifice to Bekmambetov’s cinema that gives it a faded one-dimensionality, as if his films are grim holiday lithographs from Currier and Addams. They’re full of spraying blood, but no beating heart, with no room for humanity amid the arch, monochromatic tableaus. His characters feel as though they’re carved in the sides of granite monuments, frozen forever astride destiny but not really going anywhere.
You can see how all this quickly leeches all potential glee from Abraham Lincoln. Not that its cast doesn’t give it a go. As Abe, Benjamin Walker—a sapling cut from the Great Oaken Tree of Liam Neeson and planted in the soft, moist soil of Paul Dano—keeps striving for charisma beneath the stovepipe hat, but is continually interrupted by training montages in which he learns to twirl his silver-edged axe like he’s trying out for the National Lumberjack Baton Squad.
The always beguiling Mary Elizabeth Winstead also does her best as a coquettish Mary Todd, but again the moment she and Walker start to fan flames of courtship chemistry, Bekmambetov yanks Abe back to work at the spastic, nonsensical vampire slaying.
These days Rufus Sewell can toss off snooty, aristocratic villainy without spilling his brandy. But as Abe’s mysterious mentor in the vamp-combat arts, poor immensely talented Dominic Cooper, so good in The History Boys, An Education, and The Devil’s Double, seems doomed for now to play supporting caricatures in Hollywood fantasies—the go-to Brit for when you want the gravitas of Mark Strong without all the forehead.
As with so much Hollywood escapism these days, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter mistakes premise for plot. About two-thirds the way through, having run out of things to do, it gives up on the Young Man with an Axe routine and rushes through Lincoln’s political rise—the spastic narrative economy no doubt encouraged by the lack of beheadings during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. With all the aplomb of someone dragging a needle across a phonograph, suddenly we’re into the Civil War where Bekmambetov and Burton’s take on history feels like Siegfried & Roy running an animal shelter—faux solemn, but with plenty of inappropriate fabulousness.
(Still, patriotic Tea Partiers will be pleased to learn America’s more shameful national blunders—wiping out the Indians, embracing the African slave trade—were in fact the work of the society of nasty vampires, not our sainted Founding Fathers.)
Things roll to a head at the Battle of Gettysburg. Harriet Tubman shows up to help the cause, but by that point you’re too stupefied to care about all the offensive noble pandering—and not in a delirious, drunken sense. It all should be supremely silly, but Bekmambetov can’t figure out how to wink at his audience through the deadpan—it’s like watching Vladimir Putin tell a Knock-knock Joke. By the end, you’re not having fun with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—you just want to get away before someone buries an ax in your noggin.