When the movie you're going to see is called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you don't exactly head into the theater expecting great art. But you do hope for a rollicking genre mash-up that delivers on the goofy fun promised by the title. I'm sorry to say that, in this case, the finished product is plenty goofy, but not a lot of fun.
So what went wrong? Chalk it up to a mismatch of director and material. Vampire Hunter is the second Hollywood blockbuster directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the bombastic Russian filmmaker behind such action-packed vehicles as Night Watch and Wanted. Both of those movies were fundamentally ludicrous as well, but they allowed Bekmambetov to establish his own mythology that was decidedly divorced from the real world. With this film, he's attempting a trickier thing: turning actual history -- in this case the story of Abraham Lincoln's journey from idealistic young lawyer to the 16th President of the United States -- into myth.
Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro have pulled it off in movies like Inglorious Basterds and Pan's Labyrinth respectively, as did novelist Robert Harris in his great 1992 thriller Fatherland and comics scribe Mike Mignola in his own bit of Lincoln lore, 2002's one-shot book, The Amazing Screw-On Head (which was later adapted into a very funny TV cartoon that unfortunately never became an ongoing series). What those tales had that this one lacks is a strong clarity to the storytelling and the details of the alternate history being presented onscreen or on the page. In contrast, it often feels as though Bekmambetov and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who adapted the film from his own novel) are making up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on the fly. The movie careens along from one scene to another, with little to no interest in how the pieces fit together. That's a shame because some potentially great ideas get lost in the shuffle, leaving audiences stranded atop a mountain of half-finished plot points and unrealized potential. In no particular order, here are the five most ridiculous things about this utterly ridiculous movie.
The Action Sequences
I'll give Bekmambetov credit for one thing: I've never seen an action movie where a bad guy literally throws a full-sized horse at the hero while he's trying to make his escape. So points for originality on that score. And if the rest of the action sequences were that consistently cartoonish, the movie might have been more enjoyable. The main reason Wanted clicked, after all, were those over-the-top setpieces where bullets (and people) regularly defied the laws of gravity and physics. Bekmambetov tries to pull some of the same stylistic tricks here, with lots of slow-motion shots of Lincoln (played by Broadway star Benjamin Walker) chopping up vampires with his trusty axe while blood splatters out of their bodies in thick ropes (it's like The Matrix meets Soul Calibur), but here it feels so ordinary. The generally poor effects work and fight choreography don't help matters. After the epic final battle that caps The Avengers and some of the more visceral moments in Prometheus, the notion that this hodge-podge of choppy, dimly-lit bouts of bloodletting could pass as great summer spectacle is baldly absurd.
In a provocative notion that's briefly floated, but not substantively addressed during the course of the film, Grahame-Smith's script essentially credits vampirism with launching the Southern slave trade -- the idea being that the plantation owners (most of whom are bloodsuckers) feed off the life force of their unpaid labor in the same way they literally feed off the blood of their victims. And that's about all the thought that was put into the movie's depiction of these classic screen monsters, who otherwise rush around gnashing their elongated teeth, making mean faces and walking around in the daytime without burning up. (It's because they wear sunscreen and sunglasses, you see -- an explanation that makes so little sense, the movie doesn't even bother to explain it.) The Big Bad of the vampires is Rufus Sewell's Adam, who has walked the Earth for some 5000 years recruiting minions, some of whom -- most notably Dominic Cooper's Henry Sturgess -- have turned against him and train humans like Abe to fight their own kind. The rules that govern how the undead are able to live and die (again) regularly change from scene to scene, so don't feel bad if you can't make head or tail of this interpretation of vampire mythology. The filmmakers don't seem to understand it either.
As in the actual Civil War, Gettysburg is presented here as the turning point in the conflict, which up to that point had gone badly for the North. In this telling, what clinched the battle for the Union army around wasn't a combination of courage, smart tactics and luck: it was the arrival of lots and lots of silver-based ammunition, which was fired upon the vampire-ridden Confederate army, instantly transforming them to powder. How exactly does Lincoln arrive at this battle plan? By bellowing loudly one night to his wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at the dinner table "Our bayonets are as useless as this fork!" Whereupon he realizes that -- eureka! -- the fork is actually pretty useful when melted down and made into a bullet. It's the funniest bit of cutlery-related dialogue since the oft-quoted "There is no spoon" line from The Matrix. Only that was intentionally funny.
If you thought the old age make-up slathered on poor Guy Pearce's face in Prometheus looked bad, just wait until you get a glimpse of Walker's fake wrinkles and jowls when he ages practically overnight from Lawyer Lincoln to President Lincoln. Poor Winstead is equally ill served by her rapid evolution from Single Mary Todd to First Lady Mary Todd. The duo spend the second half of the movie looking like the stepped out of a high school drama club production of Death of a Salesman where 16-year-olds unconvincingly attempt to play 60-year-olds.
Just About Everything, Really
From giving Lincoln a token black friend (Anthony Mackie, wasted in a thankless role) to tone-deaf, anachronistic dialogue, to a historical timeline that's partly fictionalized and yet still rife with large gaps and blatant errors, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an all-around shoddy piece of work. In fact, it may be the worst summer movie to come along since Jonah Hex stunk up theaters two years ago. And that one was also a botched supernatural take on Civil War-era American history. It just goes to show you that filmmakers who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.