Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter uses recurring establishing shots of the mid-nineteenth century White House, enshrouded in a gothic-looking mist. Whenever the movie cuts from there to a White House interior, though, the gothic trappings disappear, and we're left with flat period details, rendered flatter in unimpressive, sometimes downright chintzy 3D. The sheer incongruity of Seth Grahame-Smith's novel suggests the author must have an inventive way to yoke American history and American gothic, and the casting of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's Benjamin Walker (whose own name feels positively presidential itself) as another fictionalized president makes those hints, too. But onscreen, at least, all of the ideas are right there in the title: it's Abraham Lincoln, and he's hunting vampires.
Grahame-Smith's novel may well be that literal, but it's hard not to assign blame for the inert film to director Timur Bekmambetov, reigning king of speed-ramps and digital squibs signifying nothing. He first gained Hollywood's attention with Night Watch and Day Watch, two thirds of an as-yet incomplete trilogy that has nonetheless achieved the apparently astonishing feat of imitating American special effects blockbusters, only cheaper and Russian. This led him to the American action spectacular Wanted, which proved perfect training for treating ridiculous with absolute seriousness; imagine Robert Rodriguez trying to bully you into feeling awe at his self-aware spaghetti westerns, rather than enjoying the pulp silliness. Though Wanted had some aggro would-be laughs, I'm not sure if Bekmambetov has a sense of humor. He straight up wants you to look at Lincoln swinging a silver-coated axe, inexplicably chopping trees in half, and firing a secret axe-loaded gun, and exclaim AWESOME!
At least Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn't apply Wanted's Fight Club-for-idiots nihilism to our sixteenth president. In fact, in its own stupid, history-flouting way, the movie is deeply reverent of the man—as well as shockingly unimaginative in turning him into an axe-swinging slayer. At first, Lincoln, whose mother is offed by a spiteful vampire, gets stuffed into a worn vengeful-young-man mold, trained by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) in the art of killing the secret vampire population. Then, instead of heeding Henry's warnings about the myopia of revenge, he, uh, gets revenge, and we jump to his appearance as the iconic, presidential Lincoln we know —beardy, worn face, hat. From this point, the movie layers boilerplate vampire skirmishes on top of U.S. history for dummies; despite its supposed mash-up irreverence, it has the stilted, episodic rhythms of a traditional biopic. As a bonus, much of the movie also feels like a rushed prequel to an already-debased franchise that doesn't actually exist. This is a mash-up, all right: it's a whole bunch of crap movies crushed into a paste.
An eclectic supporting cast gets crushed along with the genre spare parts: the wild-eyed Cooper; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd; Jimmi Simpson and Anthony Mackie as Lincoln's support team, both based on actual Lincoln associates. Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, self-adapting, shows the same ensemble-juggling prowess he did for Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, which is to say very little: characters pop in and out based on narrative convenience, relationships are developed in sentences of exposition rather than behavior, and everyone revolves around a star. For these purposes, Walker, an energetic stage presence, is not exactly Johnny Depp.
Grahame-Smith's Dark Shadows boss Tim Burton even produced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter without, apparently, pushing for any gothic flair. Burton's imagery has a lush, tactile richness even when he uses CG; it has script problems aplenty, but nearly every frame of Dark Shadows looks ravishing. Everything in Vampire Hunter, by contrast, looks thin and weightless. Some of its outdoor wide shots even appear, to my eyes, shockingly low-res, like low-grade video patchwork.
Occasionally Bekmambetov does put together an action sequence with conceptual wildness, like a Lincoln-vampire chase and fight through a mass of stampeding horses that has both a painterly glow and a surrealist kick via its litany of physical impossibilities (I'm not sure why Lincoln's vampire-hunting training makes him more or less superhuman, but nevermind). More often, though, the spectacle is as insubstantial as the history, with little sense of play emerging from either. Instead, history becomes a weird engine of righteousness, as the movie simplifies slavery-caused-the-Civil-War down even further to Lincoln-abhorred-slavery-and-fought-it-his-entire-life-plus-vampires. Without a style that justifies itself, Vampire Hunter is left unnecessarily justifying our collective love for Lincoln: imagine he was even more heroic and even less complex! This is how Bekmambetov achieves a sense of wonder: through sheer magnitude of stupidity.
Opens June 22