Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Don’t you just love a title that plainly spells it all out for you? Say it to yourself, and you’re instantly reminded of the sci-fi/horror B-movies that sounded as if they were christened before an actual screenplay was written, like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or Creature from the Black Lagoon or Attack of the Crab Monsters. It matters not that the film plays fast and loose with American history. If anything, that will probably make it much more palatable for most audiences, myself included. Why bother with a straight historical drama? History doesn’t interest me. But a supernatural thriller, now there’s something I can really get into. Such movies have the excitement and imagination that can never be found within the pages of an encyclopedia.
The problem lies not with the creative liberties that were taken. It lies in the fact that the filmmakers made the mistake of taking the material seriously. When you have a title like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, there really is no point in trying to formulate clever parallels between vampirism and the atrocities of slavery and the Civil War. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his own mashup novel of the same name, was aiming for satire when the innate silliness of the premise dictated that he should have been aiming for pure camp. There are times when it comes close to that, but for the most part, it plays it straight and operates under the assumption that we should accept it on those terms. Forget about the fact that this is difficult to achieve. It might actually be impossible.
Unfolding for the most part as an extended flashback sequence, this film paints a revisionist portrait of the sixteenth President of the United States, one that happens to be in eye-popping 3D. We’re shown that all of the well-documented aspects of his life, from his boyhood days as a frontier axeman to his older days as a law student to his final days as the leader of the free world, were in fact touched in some way by the evil world of vampires, of which there were thousands during the mid nineteenth century. Lincoln wasn’t initially aware of this. As a boy (Lux Haney-Jardine), he witnessed his mother (Robin McLeavy) get ill and die after being attacked in bed by a ruthless slave owner named Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) and vowed to take his revenge; nine years later, as an adult (Benjamin Walker), he makes an attempt on Bart’s life, only to then discover that he was in fact an undead blood sucker.
It’s through this confrontation that Lincoln becomes acquainted with a British man named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who, for reasons the filmmakers made no attempt to keep hidden, knows all too well the reality of the existence of vampires. He reluctantly agrees to teach Lincoln in the ways of vampire hunting; this means he will turn Lincoln into a cross between an action hero and a video game character, paving the way for many violent, frenetic stunt and special effects sequences that involve a lot of slow motion. Sturgess informs Lincoln that a vampire hunter must refrain from forming close personal relationships, as they will almost certainly lead to heartbreak. He also warns that this can’t simply be about vengeance; Lincoln must systematically hunt his way through a series of vampires hidden all throughout the Midwest and ultimately work up to the head vampire, Adam (Rufus Sewell), a New Orleans-based slave owner.
Once in Springfield, Lincoln immediately breaks Sturgess’ first rule, befriending a shopkeeper named Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and falling in love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the former fiancée of local politician Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk). Into Lincoln’s life reenters his boyhood friend, an escaped slave named William Johnson (Anthony Mackie), who now helps other slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and needs help evading bounty hunters. From this, we begin to see the misguided satirical machinery at work; Lincoln soon enters politics and speaks out against slavery, which is being perpetuated in large part because slaves are a food source for Southern vampires, who in turn want the right to exist. This inevitably leads to the Civil War, during which, not surprisingly, the Confederacy tries to gain the upper hand by recruiting vampires as soldiers.
It’s unlikely that general audiences will care or even know about the historical references Smith so freely manipulates. They will, however, respond to the music video-like action sequences, during which Lincoln flies through the air like an acrobat and wields a special silver-coated axe with the flair of a samurai. There are also a lot of exposed fangs and beheadings. Surprisingly, there’s no mention of wooden stakes or garlic cloves, and it seems Smith has envisioned vampires as immune to sunlight. There’s also an assortment of vampire rules that really have no bearing on the plot but are fun to hear about nonetheless. Indeed, parts of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter work well as escapist entertainment. The rest of it is mired by its own sense of purpose. We needed a movie, not a historical send-up.