Review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

[Please note:  I have not read the book on which this movie is based, so there will be no comparisons to the source material.]

There are certain types of movies that you understand will be bad from the first moment you hear about them, or the first glimpse you catch of a trailer.  The only question at that point is what type of bad they’ll be.  Sometimes a “bad” film ends up being so ludicrous that it crosses the boundary into the territory of the perversely entertaining.  More often, though, it is just soul-crushingly painful to watch, leaving you to question the worth of your own life by the time the credits roll.  Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter seemed like it had the potential to be the first type of bad, and was for brief moments…but ultimately it veered off to become the second.

So what was wrong with this movie?  As always, spoilers will follow, so don’t proceed onward unless you’ve already seen this film or are positive that you don’t want to.  But for those of you who don’t proceed past the gap, I’ll say this.  I am angry at the waste of an awful but entertaining concept.  I am baffled by the rushed and incoherent story.  Most of all, though, I am furious with the historical and personal liberties taken with the lives of Abraham Lincoln and those people who surrounded him, many of which didn’t need to be taken and some of which at times strayed into the offensive.

Now then, let’s have a look at that concept, shall we?  Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter is a fantastic title.  Four words contain the whole idea, and the implication that we’re about to have a secret history revealed to us, the unknown shadowy second career of America’s most beloved president.  Of course it’s also nearly too silly, but why should that be a problem?  There’s a place in this world for silly fun, and with a title like that, no one can say they didn’t know what they were getting into.  What’s more, the people executing the concept made the movie seem to me like a promising gamble.  Timur Bekmambetov was directing, and I loved the job he had done on Night Watch and its sequel.  I didn’t know who writer Seth Grahame-Smith was, but he was adapting his own novel, which I think is usually a good sign.  Add in that cast list and…oh, yes.  Dominic Cooper.  Rufus Sewell.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  All three, I think, are underrated.  Plus an occasional pleasant surprise – I actually whooped with delight when I saw Alan Tudyk in an uncredited performance as Stephen Douglas.  I was momentarily embarrassed until I remembered I was the only one in the theater.

That should have told me something, shouldn’t it?

Never mind.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  Anyway, if you’re going to tell a story like this, Lincoln is the perfect choice for a central character.  He already had a fascinating life where he accomplished the difficult and near-impossible with surprising regularity:  rebounded from tragic early deaths in his family, trained himself for the bar, went through a jack-of-all-trades period as he moved along the American frontier, shot upward on the social scale from farmboy to storehand to lawyer to legislator to President of the United States, fought a war, saved a country, and then had his life cut tragically short by an assassin’s bullet.  Squeezing some vampires in there shouldn’t be too hard.  Had Lincoln actually hunted and slain vampires, his secret still would barely have made the top five on his “Most Interesting Things I Ever Did” list.  I looked forward to seeing the bizarre and unexpected ways in which the existence of creatures of the night could be threaded through his very public biography to form an interesting plot.

In fact, let’s start there.  There is no interesting plot.  There’s barely a plot at all.  The movie starts with Lincoln as a young boy watching his mother become the victim of a retaliatory vampire attack.  It then proceeds through a disconnected and abridged version of Lincoln’s life, spending far too much time on his years as a young man before leaping to his tenure in the White House, passing over twenty years of history and virtually his entire political and legal careers in the process.  The script attempts a few thematic connections, like Lincoln’s supposed lifelong inclination toward being a warrior for freedom, but these are problematic at best.  We are shown little of Lincoln’s supposed prowess as a vampire hunter (except in situations where he is either foreordained to win or grasps victory only through severe violations of the laws of probability), and less of his amazing real-world achievements.  Instead, we spend too long watching Lincoln court Mary Todd and pal around with his friends Joshua Speed and Will Johnson.  Perhaps these problems could have been alleviated were this movie the first in a trilogy, focusing solely on Lincoln’s younger years.  Or perhaps the movie could have benefited from setting its story in a limited period during Lincoln’s presidency, augmented by heavy use of flashbacks to crucial events in his earlier days.  But we’ll never know.

Forget the plot for a moment, though.  What we’re really here for is to see Abraham Lincoln hunt vampires, right?  The problem is that Bekmambetov brings a distinctly modern action aesthetic into a place and time where it feels unwarranted.  So we see Lincoln engaging in supernatural slugfests with the undead that would result in a normal human’s death, or leaping across the backs of horses while chasing a single vampire – an idea whose execution must be seen to be disbelieved.  During one amazingly complicated sequence in a richly-appointed antebellum Southern mansion (don’t ask), Lincoln actually seems to be channeling Neo or Blade.  And the climax of the film is a frankly unbelievable set piece on a train traveling across a burning railroad trestle.  It’s well-done, and even though it’s over the top it is perhaps the best action in the picture.  What a pity that by the time, my suspension of disbelief had undergone so much strain that I could not enjoy it properly.

Part of that strain, frankly, came from the scenery.  Anyone who has read a book about Lincoln has probably seen photographs pertaining to his life:  him as a young man, the places he lived, and so forth.  Yet what we see here doesn’t come close to matching those photographs, or even a reasonable exaggeration of them.  Everything – costumes, props, sets, everything – is either too clean, too opulent, too rich, too coiffed…or alternatively, too shoddy, too rustic, or too underdone.  Add in the over-frequent use of CGI not just as a scenery enhancer but as a background painter and camera aid, and we get an aesthetic that can only be described as excess-Hollywood, blasting from an amp cranked up to 11.  It’s hard to believe you’re watching the exploits of Abraham Lincoln, professional vampire hunter in 19th-century Illinois when nothing around him looks like 19th-century Illinois.

Now, let’s talk about those vampires.  They’re interestingly different while still being recognizable examples of their breed.  They can move in, and adapt to, sunlight.  The primary method of dispatching them seems to be silver.  Most intriguingly, they can’t kill each other.  But they still have fangs, they still murder people for nourishment and sport, and most of them are irredeemably evil.  Add in the bizarre but facially plausible angle that vampires primarily make their homes in the American South and use the captive victim population of slaves for labor and food, and you have an attempt to give a supernatural twist to the main themes of the American Civil War while neatly fitting the existence of vampires into the timeline, in a manner that would almost guarantee that sooner or later, they would have to cross swords with Lincoln.

Most of this potential is unfortunately wasted.  Lincoln spends the first part of the film hoping to get revenge on a single vampire, which lends his earliest efforts at hunting the undead the uncomfortable air of a vendetta.  What I wanted was to see a Lincoln that learned quickly to stand against the vampires on principle.  There needed to be some evidence of the remarkably mature mind that he possessed which was able to lift him past his own circumstances to sympathize with others, and which caused him on multiple occasions to take uncomfortable and costly stands for what he believed to be right.  The connection between Lincoln as a vengeance-driven young man and Lincoln as an older, wiser father figure was never convincingly drawn, and the film suffers for it.  Though it’s neat to see the Great American Rail-Splitter swing a silver-bladed ax against the creatures of darkness, that surface attraction holds no depth beneath it.

In fact, I’m not sure anyone involved with this film even knew who Abraham Lincoln was in any but the broadest middle-school-level strokes.  Some condensing of real-life history is unavoidable in films like these, especially when it has to be stretched to accommodate things that never really happened.  But major contemporary figures like Jefferson Davis and Stephen Douglas are dropped in the movie just to name-check them.  The squandering of Douglas in particular is difficult to stomach, as the great debates in which he engaged Lincoln during their Senate campaign in 1858, and the battle they waged against each other for the presidency two years later, are not even included.  In a movie that explicitly wants to connect the vampiric threat to the United States with the great moral evil of slavery, the absence of scenes that could have been powerfully thematic (perhaps even developing Douglas as a subsidiary villain who turns enthusiastically to support Lincoln once he realizes what he has unwittingly sheltered) is a tremendous disappointment.  Also, to depict Lincoln as taking close counsel and assistance in the war effort from Speed and Johnson is just wrong.  Speed was never a part of the Lincoln administration, and the real-life Will Johnson served the Lincoln administration in only the most menial capacity – as Lincoln’s valet.

The battle of Gettysburg is similarly screwed up in every detail except its fictionalized version of Pickett’s Charge; in fact, on the story’s own terms, I find it impossible to believe that the Union could have stretched the battle to three days, and the heroics of Joshua Chamberlain should have fallen victim to a hail of gnashing fangs and flying bullets.  As for how that battle was won, Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter would have you believe that in the span of a single day, Lincoln could order all the silver in Washington confiscated, could have it all melted down and remolded into enough bayonets and munitions to outfit the entire Army of the Potomac, and could arrange both its transportation to Gettysburg via some assistance from Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad – and a diversionary train mission to throw the vampires off the trail.  I have doubts whether you could bring off such a feat today, but 150 years ago?  Out of the question.

As to Lincoln himself, Benjamin Walker’s portrayal is exactly what we might expect of such a heroic figure – and thus quite at odds with the truth.  Walker’s Lincoln is a bit awkward, but basically dashing, and possessed of a clear, powerful baritone with which he eloquently delivers the words that would make him famous.  Lincoln himself, however, was never dashing even under the best of circumstances.  Though he was quite a memorable speechgiver, his tenor-pitched twang and awkward gangly structure took some getting used to for crowds of his day.  He was extremely well-read and possessed of a powerful intellect, but tended to conduct himself during social occasions in the relaxed backwoods manner to which he had become accustomed during his youth and early adulthood, which made his household a subject of some ridicule in the highest and most-well mannered homes of Washington society.  And the rendition of the Gettysburg Address we are given in this film misses the mark in the most important particular:  the reception to Lincoln’s speech was far cooler than in the film, and it was widely considered an oratorical failure.

The deviations from the historical record listed above, and most of the others which I did not have space to list, are either senseless or stupid or dictated by legend.  Unfortunately, there is one companion moment that is nothing short of outrageous.  During his time in the White House, one of Lincoln’s young sons died.  Though Willie actually died of typhoid, in the movie his death is caused by a vampire as a punishment for Lincoln’s prosecution of the war.  This would not in itself be so bad, though it does lead to one unintentionally hilarious sequence in which Mary “dramatically” beats her fists on her husband.  But the movie then allows Mary to get revenge on her son’s murderer in the pro-forma “girl battle,” by dropping a small silver keepsake of Willie’s down a handy rifle and blasting the vampire with it.

For those of you who don’t understand why I might find this offensive, you need to understand what Willie’s death meant to Mary Lincoln.  Quite simply, it was the beginning of a long and painful decline that was to last the rest of her life.  The once-charming woman that had been the most-admired woman on the Springfield social circuit was replaced by a morose, death-obsessed shadow of her former self.  She never again wore colors, spending the rest of her life draped in black.  She would conduct séances in the White House to contact her son’s spirit.  Her mental condition began to deteriorate, at one point reaching such levels that her oldest son Robert felt he had no choice but to institutionalize her.  In short, losing her son destroyed her.  To use that real-life tragedy as the setup for a fictional “girl power” moment, and to ignore the pain and misery it caused her, her family, and her friends over the next two decades, is unconscionable.

As perhaps the final insult to the audience, we don’t even get to see the event that would indelibly seal Lincoln’s place in American history – his assassination, perpetrated by Southern actor John Wilkes Booth in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion to the Civil War.  I had fully been expecting a vampiric version of Booth to do the job, perhaps even turning Lincoln and necessitating his destruction.  What we get instead is a confused muddle in a pair of bookend scenes where Lincoln gives his vampire-hunting diary to his former mentor Henry Sturgess, a vampire, immediately before leaving for Ford’s Theatre and his rendezvous with history.  (Lincoln trained himself in law; why couldn’t Lincoln have trained himself to battle vampires?)  Why would Lincoln surrender his diary into other hands unless he knew he was going to die that night at Ford’s Theatre?  Was Henry the one who alerted him?  Did Henry know about Lincoln’s death the same way he seemingly knew about Lincoln’s destiny to hunt and slay the undead?  How is it that Lincoln had a destiny to hunt and slay the undead?  How should we read the final conversation between Lincoln and Henry?  Who knows?  And at this point, who cares?

There is one additional voiceover by Lincoln that goes along with those bookend scenes, which frankly belongs in a better movie.  You’ve surely heard it in the trailer:

“History prefers legends to men. It prefers nobility to brutality, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood. However history remembers me before I was a president, it shall only remember a fraction of the truth.”

The truth of these words, combined with the ridiculous nature of this movie, is almost too much for a sane person to take.  Because the fact is that Abraham Lincoln has been made a legend.  We who live in the world he made tend to forget his uncomfortable inconsistencies on the issue of slavery, his near-seamless melding of keen intellectual gifts with a steadfast conviction in the rightness of common-sense truth, his insistence (at times disastrous) that he knew how to prosecute a war better than his commanders, and his quiet good humor and folksy nature.  We have made him a man of marble, a statue surrounded by a few famous quotations, a near-deity about whom only a fraction of the truth is known, or even considered relevant.  We have elevated Abraham Lincoln to the point where Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter could be written as a movel and made into a film.  And in so doing, if this ahistorical, ridiculous, and occasionally line-crossing misfire of a movie is to be held up as the standard of judgment, we have ill-served both the legend and the man.

Published in: on July 9, 2012 at 7:00 am  Comments (1)  

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