If you’re a subscriber to this blog, there’s a chance you wince whenever you get an email saying there’s a new post, or when you click the link to the main page and then scroll down to see how long it is, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll again, and head past a few images that haven’t even started to load yet, and then keep scrolling, and by now you feel like Ed Harris at the end of The Abyss, because you keep scrolling and Jesus Christ, the space-age lung goop is drying up or something, where are the glowing aliens with their magical water technology? Well worry not. You won’t have to dive too far. There’s not going to be much in this review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, because there’s not much in the movie.
Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter creates an alternate history in which Abraham Lincoln becomes a vampire hunter. Now, I want you to ponder that idea. I want you to think beyond your initial reaction, which is probably, “I wonder what the hashtag game is”. Imagine now that you have to expand that, and come up with a story with three acts, antagonist/protagonist relationships, an inciting incident, and all the other important storytelling elements, extrapolating from that initial absurd collision of history and fantasy fiction.
I bet you come up with a story involving a tragic past, a quest for vengeance, a mentor with a dark secret, and some smattering of historical elements, adding plenty of winking references to the absurdity of the premise because it’s just so silly. You’ll start to write a synopsis down, and it’ll go okay for a bit, but after a while you’ll feel like you’re wasting an opportunity to do something with some oomph, and you’ll think that there’s possibly more to this idea than just some daft jokes. Perhaps there’s something deeper to be said, drawing a parallel between the mythical relationship between vampires and their prey, and the real-world relationship between Southern plantation owners and their slaves. Maybe there’s more to this story. Out go the jokes, in come the metaphors.
Which is what has happened here, though this can only be said with a million caveats. AL:VH has been reshot and recut so extensively that it’s impossible to judge it accurately with any confidence, because any clues to the filmmakers’ original intentions have been lost somewhere in the editing room. Alarm bells ring early on with some clumsy time-skipping and conveniently expositional voiceovers; they become klaxons midway through when Lincoln’s narration fills in large character arcs with a single line, and we go from Senate-debating Lincoln to president to civil war in the space of approximately 30 seconds.
So perhaps a longer cut, or an earlier cut, exists in which the connection between slavery and vampirism is made clearly, instead of here alluded to at times as some kind of equivalence, with slave traders sharing space with monsters who feast on the blood of the slaves — the merest hint of an idea, and not a particularly interesting one — but usually ignored in favour of generic monstery evil. Nevertheless, even if this metaphor worked more clearly — the repeated line, “as long as one man is a slave, no man is free”, is obviously meant to bear the weight of the imagined comparison — it’s still a miscalculation that cannot be fixed, at least as far as I can see.
This is not to say genre fiction cannot represent complicated and controversial themes. I’ve previously argued that genre fiction is often the best way to tackle such things. Artists freed of the obligation to depict real situations accurately — which never works out well and only creates discord between opposing sides of an issue — can tackle complex themes through metaphors that speak more forcefully than mere hectoring. Blade Runner‘s commentary on slavery, X-Men‘s metaphorical portrayal of the effects of racism and/or homophobia, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s horrific and timely parable about the subjugation of women, Attack The Block‘s depiction of protagonists ignored by society until they can only find self-respect through criminality, before finding a real cause by defending their neighbours against a force that, as one character says, “is so black you almost can’t see it” (I’m paraphrasing a bit from memory).
The genre fiction-as-gateway-to-truth argument doesn’t apply with AL:VH, and in fact detracts from it. The real Lincoln fought against slavery already (I think that’s a well-known fact), but instead of this being Abe’s own ideological conviction, albeit a more complicated position than is often depicted, now we’re presented with some needless alternate history in which he hates vampires more. Lincoln’s position, one which was controversial enough that it tore a country apart, was a brave one, and to depict it here as being as much an act of revenge against the vampires who killed Lincoln’s mother as an effort to right a disgusting injustice is incredibly problematic.
Even worse, it recasts real world tragedies as the consequences of inconsequential fictional events. The battle of Gettysburg is almost lost because of the presence of Confederate vampires who burst through the lines and massacre Union soldiers. The trade and abduction of slaves into the South is merely an appeasement gesture to keep vampires from invading the North. Lincoln’s mother Nancy died of “milk sickness”, and his son Willie died of typhoid, but here it’s because of vampires; in the latter case the boy’s death is an act of vengeance from the vampires who want to strike at Lincoln for opposing their plans to subjugate all of America.
Yes, not only is the actual death of the actual son of an actual president of the actual United States used as a manipulative plot point, his murder is avenged by Mary Lincoln, who shoots the murderous vampire with a silver bullet. A woman who in real life suffered from clinical depression caused by her grief is here cast as a vengeance-stricken action-hero-in-waiting, who gets to re-balance the scales of right and wrong with yet another tedious slow-motion mini-action scene. These people may be dead and may have no descendants, but even so, this was real tragedy, turned into a predictable dramatic beat in an undistinguished action movie. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding,” doesn’t even cover it. 
AL:VH is wrong on so many levels that by the middle of the movie I was openly saying, “What the fuck?” out loud at the screen in the hope that the manager would notice my anguish and set fire to the projector.  It’s possible that the movie would be easier to swallow if it played the premise for laughs, even though the central conceit would struggle to fill out a College Humor skit. That might mitigate the gratuitous co-opting of real-world tragedy, replacing the tasteless dabbling in humourless social commentary with plays on the action-horror genre, or by appropriating Grindhouse exploitation tropes in much the same way Tarantino managed with Inglourious Basterds — a cheeky riff on real-world events that so obviously existed within an alternate universe beholden to cinematic rules that Tarantino could shockingly assassinate Hitler at the end and miraculously pull the moment off.
But Timur Bekmambetov and Seth Grahame-Smith (and the one known re-writer, Simon Kinberg, credited on the poster but not in the film) don’t seem interested in trying to derive any fun out of that thin jokey idea, and instead doubles-down on the seriousness. Again, theoretically this approach could work, but only if dealing with a fictional premise. Grahame-Smith kickstarted this sub-genre of fiction with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and that may be easier to swallow. But it doesn’t matter that this doesn’t present itself as historically accurate (only an idiot would think it was, of course); using tragic historical events as raw material for a frivolous action movie made by people deluded enough to think they’re making a statement is a colossal misjudgement.
The end result is ponderous, derivative, dull, and nauseating. It’s not even interesting as a Timur Bekmambetov movie. He’s never made anything good, but he has a visual imagination that has its own pleasures. He specialises in hollow treats, but what treats they can be. Anyone hoping for something as delightfully silly as the Loom of Fate or bullet-bending a la miserable nerd wank-fantasy Wanted will be very disappointed. Those signature moments are few and far-between here, likely a consequence of the (relatively) low budget. Instead of his usual bravura set-pieces, there’s so much ramping that it should immediately be retitled Abraham Lincoln: Rampire Hunter.
And yet this could become the most beautiful unnecessary movie of the year. Whoever decided to hire Caleb Deschanel as the cinematographer deserves a medal, or censure; I’m not sure which yet. The last thing he worked on was Jim Sheridan’s appalling Dream House; two movies before that the ethically muddled My Sister’s Keeper. Both terrible, both luminously shot. It’s heartbreaking seeing him squander his talent on this chaff, and I hope that William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a break from this trend. Deschanel’s work on AL:VH is flashier than his stunning, ASC Award-winning work on Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot , but there is pleasure to be derived from these autumnal colours, the American past repainted with a palette of auburn and rust, piercing blue moonlight serving as contrast.
It doesn’t matter, though, and neither does the commendably focused work from star Benjamin Walker , co-stars Mackie and Simpson, and underused acting titan Alan Tudyk. Even if you’re not troubled by the misappropriation of real events, there’s nothing else going on here. It’s not educational , it’s repetitive, and the use of vampire mythology is confounding. The vampires have magical rules about not killing each other that exist only to power a silly mid-movie twist (involving that hoary old trope, the vampire hunter’s trainer), they can be hurt by silver, and can walk around in daylight, meaning there’s no reason they can’t just take over the world. They’re barely even vampires, merely inhuman cannon fodder to be dispatched by our axe-spinning hero.
This is the kind of soul-deadening guff that defies mockery, though one outburst by Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a bad-movie-hall-of-famer. Otherwise it’s just an Underworld prequel with a silly punchline gimmick, less interesting than even the second Blade sequel, as competent as Scott Charles Stewart’s Priest but with a dodgy historical aspect, as poorly edited as an Uwe Boll Bloodrayne movie; just another crappy vampire movie that has no reason to exist, and probably no audience to desire it. The reason this one stings the eyes more than the others is that it thinks it has the right to play with tragic events that haven’t quite scarred America, because in order for the wounds of slavery and civil war to be scars they’d have to heal first.
Return 1. One example among many: the character of Joshua Speed, one of Lincoln’s circle of friends, is obviously meant to have mixed feelings about Lincoln’s urge to stop slavery; there are hints that this version of Speed (played by future Old Dependable Jimmi Simpson) has similar doubts to the real Speed, but this sub-plot has been utterly removed so that at one moment he’s seemingly hostile to Lincoln’s African-American friend William Johnson (played by current Old Dependable Anthony Mackie), and the next they’re besties. Ten seconds later, he’s gone from being oblivious to vampires to being a member of Lincoln’s mysteriously efficient vamp-killing gang, with one hasty line of exposition to paper over the poorly edited excision.
Return 2. For those clutching their pearls, don’t worry; the rushed release of this movie, which betrays the studio’s shame at making it in the first place, meant there was nobody sitting anywhere nearby. Or maybe the room filled up after I got in and they were struck dumb by the hypnotic monotony of this film’s familiar rhythms.
Return 4. I look forward to seeing Benjamin Walker play Young Bryan Mills in Taken Begins, because dang, he’s the spitting image of Liam Neeson in this, making me even sadder that the aging pretend-pugilist isn’t playing the actual non-vampire-hunting Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s forthcoming biopic.
Return 5. Actually, there is evidence that some effort has been put into depicting some elements of Lincoln’s life in a new context. In real life Lincoln put off marrying Mary, which some have thought to be proof that the president was gay, but here Lincoln’s reticence is borne of his fear of involving the woman he loves in his vampire hunting. As for William Johnson, the free African-American who acted as Lincoln’s personal valet, he just fills the role of Falcon to Abe’s Captain America, on duty for exposition-delivering needs, providing proof of Abe’s liberal credentials, and getting in a little bit of vampire hammering at the end. His actual history isn’t mentioned, and even his past is fictionalised; here he features in Abe’s past in order to dramatise the future president’s first encounter with slavery and vampires. The stories of slaves and even free men once more sidelined.