Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a mess. It’s something of a gloriously flamboyant mess–never before have I seen a movie shoot the iconic president, with beard and coat and top hat and all, backlit and striding towards the camera in slo-mo like a Michael Bay action hero–but it’s still a mess.
The movie begins with Lincoln as a child, and his defence of a free African-American of the same age from the brutal overseer of a local shipping port. Lincoln’s father gets involved, and the overseer–who turns out to be a vampire–takes revenge by killing Lincoln’s mother in the night. This launches the young adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) on a quest for vengeance. That brings him into contact with Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), a vampire hunter who takes Lincoln under his wing. From there, Lincoln heads off into his legal and political career by day, all the while killing vampires by night. Meanwhile, Adam (Rufus Sewell) a Southern aristocrat and leader of the vampires in America, plots the downfall of the United States. The whole thing comes to a head at Gettysburg, with Lincoln and his cohorts defending a shipment of silver ammunitions for the Union troops, so they can defend themselves in a final stand against the Confederate vampire army.
If this sounds utterly loopy, it’s because it is. But there’s no reason a loopy concept can’t be well and substantively told. Unfortunately, the narrative of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is fractured to the point of incomprehensibility. Events, twists and plot points fly past without allowing the audience any purchase. There are huge gaps in narrative logic and consistency (I’m pretty sure that at one point Lincoln’s bruises from a fight mysteriously disappear and reappear within the same sequence) and many of the characters’ emotional and behavioral choices are impossible to follow.
The film picks up and drops concepts like a child in a toy store. Lincoln learns superhuman strength from Sturges, though how he does so is never sufficiently explained, especially in light of later plot developments. At first Lincoln’s great moral challenge is overcoming his need for vengeance, but then he’s fine. He wants to kill vampires, but then he wants to destroy slavery, then he wants to be president. Over the course of his career, he abandons the vampire killing cause, then takes it back up again, all for reasons that are presented with great aesthetic gloom and import but are never fully developed. There may have been a more coherent story in the original screenplay, but if so the film was hacked into atomized shreds by the editing process. Eventually, I was forced to just sit back and let the whole thing wash over me as an impressionistic experience, rather than an actual, you know, story.
All this catastrophically undermines the audience’s ability to care about the characters. Which is a real shame, because Walker is dignified and sympathetic as the younger Lincoln and–even more impressively–remains plausible under heaps of make-up as an older Lincoln in the White House years. And the movie has fun introducing us to other historical figures and wrapping them into the revisionist vampire narrative. Alan Tudyk shows up as Steven Douglas; Jaqueline Flemming makes an appearance as Harriet Tubman; Anthony Mackie plays Will Johnson, Lincoln’s lifelong friend and the freeman he defended as a boy, Mary ELizabeth Winstead plays Lincoln’s wife Mary and we even get to see Adam colluding with Jefferson Davis (John Rothman). With more care from the director and editor, I suspect we could have had something genuinely entertaining here, and with a real emotional core provided by Walker.
In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s defense, its manic schizophrenia actually works pretty well for the visuals. The camera swoops over the rooftops of 19th century American townships and rockets to the doors of New Orleans plantation mansions at breakneck speed. During the action, director Timur Bekmambetov seems to be in competition with Guy Ritchie to see who can throw in the most frame rate changes as combatants punch, kick, flip through the air, and Lincoln hacks and perries with a trusted axe laced with vampire-killing silver. The movie never fails to invent ever more clever ways for vampires to get diced, and it makes good use of the 3D–the frame lingers lovingly over great gobs and arcs of vampire blood hanging suspended over the audience. (But, surprisingly enough, the most beautiful 3D effect in the movie is the dust mites floating in sunlight during its few and fleeting quiet moments). What’s impressive is that Bekmambetov shows some real craft here, not letting his visual pyrotechnics overwhelm the spatial or tactical logic of what’s going on. The whole business is completely over the top, but the action remains decipherable, and thus comes off as endearing rather than frustrating.
There is the shadow of a moral idea lurking in the story. As a metaphor for the motivations and moral nature of the Confederate South and American slavery, vampirism works pretty well. The movie even works in a shot at modern right-wing views of Lincoln as a big-government authoritarian–Adam suggests that one of his secondary motives is not just to stop Lincoln but to tarnish the president “as a monster.” But the film’s scattershot storytelling can’t get the metaphor to connect with the concrete mechanics of the plot. (It sounds like the book upon which the film is based does a better job of this.) It also commits one of popular American history’s standard stumbles with a naive take on the moral purity of its hero: the real Lincoln’s ambivalence about ending slavery versus preserving the Union is whitewashed in favor of presenting the man as the embodiment of crusading will, with concerns about the cost of the Civil War–in both financial and human terms–left to conniving vampires and Lincoln’s less strong-hearted subordinates.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had potential, but the filmmakers just couldn’t make it gel.