Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Before Abe was honest, he slayed vampires
There have been outraged academic mutterings that the new movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a pox upon history and an insult to the 16th president of the United States. It’s that, of course — actually, that’s the point — but this joyless, deafening cinematic headache commits a different crime. It’s a sin against entertainment.
The film has been adapted from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who made a tidy sum in 2009 by mashing up classic literature and midnight-movie horror in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” was the follow-up, and in general Grahame-Smith is good enough at what he does to keep the gag going longer than you’d think. His Lincoln is a pillar of moral rectitude and a whiz with a silver-tipped ax, dispatching hordes of the undead who have colonized the Southern slave states for the cheap food source.
To stand a chance of pulling this off on film, you need wit and a deft touch, and, boy, is Timur Bekmambetov the wrong man for the job. (Tim Burton, who produced, would have been the better choice.) The director came out of Russia some years back with a pair of showy fantasy thrillers, “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” and has since made the Angelina Jolie shoot-em-up “Wanted.” Bekmambetov’s filmmaking style manages to be both frantic and ponderous, and he has the humor of a nightclub bouncer. The movie plays like a joke badly translated from another language.
The story line follows the hero from childhood, when he witnesses his mother’s (Robin McLeavy) death at the hands of the vampire slave-trader Barts (Marton Csokas), all the way to the end of the Civil War. Early on, Abe (Benjamin Walker) receives training in vampire-killing from the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), and the many, many fight scenes are choreographed with hectic editing, slow-motion backflips, and generous spewings of black vampire blood. Bekmambetov may be the last director still working who thinks 3-D means you have to throw everything at the camera: bullets, slavering fangs, decapitated heads.
Walker (who came to fame starring in Broadway’s “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”) is actually very good as Lincoln, giving the part a youthful gravitas and keeping a straight face during the mayhem. The rest of the cast looks embarrassed to be here, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a dewy Mary Todd Lincoln, Anthony Mackie as Lincoln’s boyhood friend and presidential adviser Will, Jimmi Simpson as colleague Joshua Speed, and Rufus Sewell as the leader of the undead. Only the impish actor Alan Tudyk finds the right playful spirit as a briefly seen Stephen A. Douglas. In general, the movie’s attitude toward recorded history is that of a pimp toward a hooker.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” works itself up to a number of bombastic action set-pieces, all so heavily digitized that believability is never an option. One of them is the Battle of Gettysburg, and please don’t think about the thousands of men who actually died there if you don’t want to be vaguely ill.
On top of it all, the movie’s intensely ugly to look at. The renowned cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has apparently been handed a consumer-grade camcorder and told to do his best; the images have the hot, overlit feel of a community cable production. (The sets and costumes are convincing, at least.) I’d say this thundering bore represents a missed opportunity, but that’s giving the idea of pillaging the past for thrills and profit more credit than it deserves. No one puts a stake through this movie more effectively than its own director.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.