Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter attempts to walk the line between solemn grit and bombastic action. The film stumbles around the line, falls off of it, gropes in the dark to find the line again, give a big goofy smile at no one in particular, regains a wobbly balance before taking a proud stride forward only to constantly repeat this bizarre range of motions. The film is an exercise in pushing the limits of going big while keeping a straight face. In its action scenes, there’s not a shred of doubt that director Timur Bekmambetov is trying to find laughs in lunacy to make up for the dearth of humor in the “serious” scenes. But what appears to be an attempt at balance simply comes off as measured schizophrenia, and what should be a fun twist on half-remembered American history instead becomes a dark twist on historiography.
The film opens with the heaviest-handed narration: “History prefers legends to men. It prefers nobility to brutality. Soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood.” These are the words in the secret diary of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), who is remembered as one of our greatest Presidents, but lived a private life of vampire hunting (the film’s title is not misleading). Spurred by the murder of his mother when he was a child, Abe looks to get revenge on her killer, Jack Barts (Martin Csokas), only to discover that Mr. Barts is a vampire and not the only one in the world. Abraham is trained in the vampire hunting ways by the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), but the future President is torn between his desire for vengeance, his loyalty to Henry, his love for Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and his destiny to lead the nation. Even as President, Lincoln’s greatest foe isn’t Confederate soldiers, but Confederate vampires led by Adam (Rufus Sewell), who wants a nation of their own; a nation where they’ll have an endless supply of slave blood and be free from the oppression of vampire hunters.
Except Lincoln is the only vampire hunter we ever see. Also, vampires have the ability to turn invisible, move at high speed, can move in the daylight, have super strength, and their only weakness is silver. Why they need their own nation rather than just taking over the entire union is never explained. Of course, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter could care less about making sense. It uses its silly twist to blow apart history as if that’s also a license to blow apart a sensible script. For example, the movie establishes the rule that vampires can’t hurt other vampires, but then tosses the rule out when it become inconvenient in the third act.
The film’s motto seems to be “Take us seriously, so we can be stupid.” Lincoln walks around with a constant grimace, mournfully seeking justice for a lost parent, and then there’s an action scene where Abe fights with a vampire on top of a stampede. And here’s the thing: the set piece is terrific. Yes, it’s dumb beyond all reason, but it’s creatively dumb beyond all reason. You’ve never seen a fight like this, and the film’s greatest strength comes from originality and imaginative absurdity. But then the movie settles back into a dim, dull palette (made worse by the 3D, which only serves to throw screaming vampires in our faces).
What’s more fascinating about the film is the subtext (intentional or not) about how we view our heroes. I would like to think that author and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith considered why Americans find Abraham Lincoln a hero of history. The opening lines have the air of truth—remembering the good while ignoring the bad—but the story itself recasts Lincoln as a man of violence instead of a man of peace. In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, our 16th President is not “The Great Emancipator”. He’s The Great Eradicator. It seems to forget that Lincoln wanted to repair the nation, not simply punish the South (that’s what Presidents did after Lincoln was assassinated), and make no mistake: the South (with the exception of slaves) is entirely comprised of vampires. The only non-Southern vampire is Jefferson Davis, who we see making a deal with Adam. So the South isn’t made of people; it’s made of blood-sucking monsters who must be destroyed.
For Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, heroism comes from violence, not from words. In trying to make Lincoln a more interesting figure, they’ve made him astoundingly generic (Benjamin Walker’s bland performance doesn’t help). But this all comes from the movie trying to have it both ways. “Don’t think too hard about it, because we’re being goofy,” but then saying, “Recognize this great man was even greater than you think.” The film makes no claims of historical accuracy, but it carries itself as secret history. The character we already know of Lincoln cannot be removed from the Lincoln presented. It’s a frustrating paradox in a film that admirably wants to blend two tones, but instead feels more like a house divided.