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‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ delivers what the title promises, and nothing more

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith
USA, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a film whose ambitions stop at its admittedly forthright title—you will indeed see Honest Abe hunting down bloodsucking vampires before and during the Civil War—and thus, inspires little if any response from its audience. Hating or even actively disliking a film that is so intentionally packed with mindless action requires too much effort. The premise is certainly attention-grabbing, both when it was a novel by the film’s screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith and now, but the movie doesn’t expect the audience to do more than enjoy it on the surface. Chock full of video-game-style gore and action, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is as silly and dumb as the title would suggest, and nothing more.

Benjamin Walker, a younger combination of Liam Neeson and Eric Bana, stars as Lincoln from the age of 18 all the way up to his final days as President in 1865. Lincoln’s vampire-hunting days begin when he’s young, after one kills his mother as he watches, frightened. Before he can exact revenge, he’s mentored by a mysterious man named Henry (Dominic Cooper), who has an extensive knowledge of vampire lore and tricks. Soon, Lincoln is taking out other members of the undead in Springfield, Illinois, where he meets his future wife, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and comes face to face with the most fearsome and powerful vampire of all, Adam. Adam, portrayed by Rufus Sewell, wants the vampire race to rule over humans and is willing to incite a Civil War (yes, that one) to assert his dominance.

Of course, the entire plot of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is ridiculous. But what would you expect from a movie that posits one of the greatest leaders in American history as an almost-giddy murderer of men and women with fangs who have a predilection for drinking blood? What the film truly suffers from is a lack of important details and a tendency to speed up when it should slow down a bit. Henry is a fascinating character, or would be if the movie had any interest in explaining his random appearances (“Why, Henry, what are you doing in the White House?” is an almost-verbatim line of dialogue, said with a mostly straight face.) or his knowledge, motivations, or history. Smith’s script commits a cardinal sin of writing regarding Henry: it assumes the audience has a short-term memory or just isn’t paying attention. Many of the so-called surprises would only shock a person who wandered into the theater 40 minutes after the film began.

The action would be more lively if director Timur Bekmambetov didn’t choose to make Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter the latest installment of Short Attention Span Theater, using quick cuts and speedy camera moves in every major setpiece. From a fight inside of and on top of a stampede of horses to a climactic train battle, each action sequence feels as if it features no less than 100 cuts for every passing minute. The special effects are also a glaring problem; for a film that relies on computer-generated imagery, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is almost as focused on obscuring the effects as it is on showcasing them. Both of the aforementioned sequences use bright, orange lighting (first, the sun, then fire) to distract the audience from the not-expensive-enough-and-somewhat-fake-looking CGI. Bekmambetov’s herky-jerky style, jumping from slow-motion to speeding up the film stock, doesn’t help out either.

And though it’s unintentional, the cast feels somewhat stranded. Winstead, so charming and striking in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, radiates in her early scenes but is relegated instantly to love-interest status. She and the rest of the supporting cast, even Sewell and Anthony Mackie as Abe’s best friend, are totally wasted. Only Walker and Cooper get enough screen time, and still, questions abound about their characters. But the most galling problem in this film is its glibness. Though it’s better to not wallow in unearned self-seriousness, many of this movie’s jokes are basically nudges to the audience’s ribs about recognizable moments or people in history, all the way up to Lincoln’s fateful journey to the Ford Theater. Making fun of ourselves is a worthy trait, but the jokes here (perhaps unsurprisingly) feel as if they’re disrespecting Lincoln’s legacy, with no thought behind them.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feels almost immune to criticism. How high should expectations for a movie with such a winking title be? Does a film like this deserve the standards a critic places on other entries in the action or horror genres? At what point are we asking too much? This film will likely garner a few passionate fans, but not too many, as its style is more likely to push people away. The 3D, for example, is heavily emphasized—there are at least 10 different moments where something leaps out of the screen, making the audience remember why they’re wearing those glasses—but it distances us. 3D almost always makes us remember we’re sitting in a movie theater, wearing bulky glasses, not inside the story. With its slick and somewhat soulless nature, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wants to impress us but never lets us in.

Josh Spiegel