Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is one of those movie titles like Snakes on a Plane or Hobo with a Shotgun or Cowboys & Aliens that tells you pretty much all you need to know. And I’m sure that title must have made for a great pitch somewhere along the line. Unfortunately, at some point someone decided to make an actual film to go along with the title, and it all went downhill from there.
The film pairs director Timur Bekmambetov with producer Tim Burton, adapting the novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of previous historical/horror mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, soon to also be a major motion picture). The book (and movie) is essentially an alternate history biography of our 16th president, revealing through journal entries that Honest Abe had a secret side gig as a vampire slayer.
Throughout the film, the true facts of Lincoln’s childhood and political career are mixed with cartoonish CGI battles against hideous blood-sucking monsters. Of course, the meshing of genres doesn’t work, primarily because they somehow made a movie titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that’s one of the most dull, dour, and solemn action/horror films ever.
As a child, Abraham Lincoln lives on an Indiana plantation. One day, little Abe steps in to save his friend Will from being beaten by a plantation worker. When Abe gets beaten as well, Abe’s father steps in and throws the worker in the river. This earns him the wrath of the plantation owner, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas).
Later that night, Barts retaliates by attacking Abe’s mom in her sleep. Abe witnesses the assault, but is too frightened to move. The next morning, she falls ill from a strange wound on her wrist, and dies within a few days.
A now teenage Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is overwhelmed with guilt for not saving his mother, and his one goal in life is to have his revenge on Jack Barts. One night, he takes a gun and goes to a bar to work up some liquid courage to shoot the man. There, he meets an enigmatic stranger named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who seems to know exactly what Abe intends to do.
Abe succeeds in confronting Barts and shooting him point-blank in the eye. Alas, as you might have guessed, this doesn’t kill him. Barts returns to life with a ghastly, veiny face and a mouth full of fangs. Henry shows up to rescue Abe, and soon breaks the not-so-shocking news that Barts is a vampire, and in fact, vampires are everywhere. Henry says if he truly wants to have his revenge, young Abe must first learn all the tricks of the vampire-hunting trade.
After a lot of grueling physical training, Abe acquires an axe coated in silver, and heads to Springfield, Illinois, which is apparently infested with vampires. He gets a job at a general store, where he’s reunited with his old friend Will (now played by Anthony Mackie), and he also makes the acquaintance of a young woman named Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), currently being courted by Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk).
But Mary and Abe soon fall in love and get married. Meanwhile, Abe also begins to study law and he becomes known as a gifted orator.
At the same time this is going on, Henry is sending Abe on missions to exterminate various vampires. After several uninteresting battles, he’s finally assigned to take out his old nemesis Jack Barts.
After a fight that happens in the middle of a stupidly huge CGI horse stampede, Abe succeeds in killing Barts. But when he returns from the mission, he discovers that Henry is also a vampire. In flashback, Henry reveals how years ago, a vampire named Adam (Rufus Sewell) killed his wife and turned him into a vampire. But Henry was unable to fight back, because apparently in this interpretation, vampires are physically incapable of killing other vampires. And so, Henry enlisted the help of Abe to do it for him.
And I realize we’ve all had those moments when we fail to see Captain Obvious in the room, but didn’t Abe find it a little suspicious that a random stranger knows all about vampires, always wears sunglasses, and is always putting ointment on his skin (without being threatened by hoses)?
We also learn that Adam is no ordinary vampire; in fact, he’s the progenitor of all vampires currently residing in the United States. Abe goes on a trip to New Orleans to take out Adam as well, but he fails and barely escapes with his life. But along the way, he learns that slaves are basically the food supply of vampires.
This comes into play when we see Abe engaging in his famous debates with Douglas, where he declares his strong opposition to slavery. Henry warns him that abolishing slavery could endanger everyone, because slavery is what keeps the vampires “slated”.
But Abe can’t stand for this, so he quits being a vampire hunter and goes into politics full-time. And then the now older, bearded Abe gets a rotating intro shot straight out of a Michael Bay movie.
He’s soon elected president, and not long after that, the Civil War breaks out. Abe signs the Emancipation Proclamation, which causes the vampires to take up arms with the Confederate Army, and we even see Adam personally advising CSA President Jefferson Davis.
Things then take a tragic turn when a vampire infiltrates the White House and kills Lincoln’s son Willie. After dealing with his grief, Lincoln has an epiphany: Since vampires can be killed by silver, they could potentially end the war by gathering up all the silver in Union territory, melting it down into bullets, and shipping it to the front lines. As this massive undertaking begins, Abe pulls his silver-coated axe out of mothballs, apparently ready to make his big vampire-slaying comeback.
The silver ammunition is loaded onto a train, which is soon attacked by Adam’s people. But Abe and Will, with an assist from Henry, manage to destroy Adam. Unfortunately, the vampires have set fire to a critical bridge, causing the train to go down in a fiery wreck.
Luckily, the train shipment was all a ruse; the silver was actually being hand-carried along the Underground Railroad under the supervision of Harriet Tubman and Mary Todd Lincoln, who gets her own badass moment by killing the vampire who killed her son.
The silver ammo helps the Union win the Battle of Gettysburg. Abe gives the Gettysburg Address, following which all vampires flee to other countries. Not long after, the Confederacy surrenders.
A grateful Henry offers to make Abe immortal, but Abe turns down the offer, then happily leaves with his wife to go enjoy a play at the theater. A final scene shows Henry alive in modern times, sitting in a bar and meeting another vampire hunter in the making.
I suppose Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was better than expected, but what was anyone expecting, really? The title makes it sound like either a laughably awful film, or a campy spoof full of winks at the audience, but it’s definitely not either one of those things.
The writing and acting and direction are competent enough, and the movie presents its absurd story with a completely straight face. And yes, I realize that that’s the joke. But just imagine a standup comic telling you the same joke over and over for 105 minutes just to make sure you got it, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what this movie is like.
Take away the underlying meta-humor, and all we’re left with is a dull slog. The action is just dumb, and not even in a guilty-pleasure way, while the dramatic scenes are self-serious and slow moving. The end result is a murky (literally, in regards to the CGI) limbo where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be ironically amused or genuinely moved. The movie accomplishes neither.
All the fights with vampires are ludicrously unrealistic, even by the standards of contemporary CGI-overloaded action films. We get stupid moments such as when Abe and Barts fight in the middle of a stampeding herd of digitally created horses, jumping from the back of one horse to another, and Barts even picks up a horse and hurls it at Abe, who walks away without a scratch. Yes, I get it. It’s a silly movie with a dumb premise, but is a little believability too much to ask for?
And somehow, this scene coexists with moments that attempt to be gut-wrenching, like when Abe and Mary grieve for the loss of their son. I suppose this genre mashup could have been entertaining if the tedious, downbeat scenes of Lincoln coping with death and calamity and the dissolution of the nation were balanced out, but the horror/action side of things is no fun, either.
The original book by Grahame-Smith had a lot more comedic value, along with those small details that make you think hey, this could have really happened. The movie barely touches on the historical flourishes that made the novel so memorable, and mostly just provides a handful of brief assaults on our senses in between boring us senseless.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]