“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is a roller coaster of a film. While most thrillers simply evoke the feel of an amusement park ride, this new film, directed by “Wanted” auteur Timur Bekmambetov and appropriately produced by Tim Burton, goes one better: through its 3D effects and rapid pace, it nearly simulates one. That—along with the title—might make “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” sound like a dumb movie, but this impression is somewhat incorrect: the film is not entirely brainless, and that is its fatal flaw. Despite its impeccable use of 3D, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” falters because of its awkward mix of history and escapism.
What little plot exists is encapsulated in the title. The film consists of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) recounting his life, and while the basic details will be familiar to any student of American history—born in a log cabin, trained himself as a lawyer, became the sixteenth president of the United States—the idea that he devoted his life to the hunting of vampires will be something of a revelation to anyone that has not read Seth Grahame-Smith’s eponymous novel. Despite the inherent ridiculousness of this conceit, the major actors, especially Walker and Rufus Sewell, who plays head vampire Adam, are remarkably adept at not descending into self-parody. As the film reaches its climax, however, the plot reaches a level of absurdism that’s difficult to transcend: it is revealed that the vampires are the leaders of the Confederacy, and that the South’s peculiar institution is a way for them to prey on helpless slaves.
This may be a convenient decision--it’s certainly more effective than having Lincoln fight both vampires and slave-owners—but it’s not an entirely satisfying one. The film is at its best before Lincoln’s ascendancy to the presidency, when history is kept at arm’s length. Reality intrudes on occasion, but only to deploy a recognizable name as a punchline. “I’m Mary. Mary Todd,” says Lincoln’s future wife, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
But as the film progresses, the weight of history becomes inevitable. Once Lincoln becomes Commander-in-Chief, the film loses its spark. Walker, who exudes a compelling and likeable awkwardness in the earlier scenes, is nothing but stoic and grim for the final third of the film. The palette grows stiflingly somber. Worst of all, the audience is confronted by the film’s biggest problem: the incongruity between the film’s escapism and its concern with slavery.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is a film that has grafted a B-movie conceit to a genuine historical tragedy. Unlike Tarantino, Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith have no idea what they want to do with the source material. Tarantino, for better or for worse, wanted to use the Nazis as stock villains and not deal with the true atrocities of World War II. Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith don’t lose sight of the human cost of the Civil War, but they don’t seem to realize that it’s nearly impossible to make a compelling statement about slavery when you shift the blame from people to imaginary monsters. When Lincoln’s advisers tell him of the number of soldiers killed, he simply explains how important it is to destroy slavery and the vampires. Ultimately, the conflation of the South and the supernatural leads to a certain heavy-handedness; it consciously demonizes the Confederacy, applying a simplistic us-against-them mentality to the complex conflict of the Civil War.
All this, however, doesn’t detract from the scenes that deal exclusively with vampire hunting. There is very little of the shaky, handheld camera work that hurts most contemporary action films; rather, Bekmambetov moves his camera in a fluid and controlled manner, allowing his audience to fully appreciate the antics taking place onscreen. Perhaps the best example of this comes when Lincoln fights a vampire in the middle of a stampede. The effect isn’t disorienting or confusing; although Bekmambetov might be trying to overwhelm us, he doesn’t do it to the point where we lose a handle on the situation. Near the end of this sequence, both Lincoln and the vampire end up jumping from horse to horse. It is an absurd image, but one that enthralls through its surprising precision and grace. There are plenty of 3D tropes in the film—bullets, characters, and fists all come flying towards the camera at one point or another—but scenes like these use the technology to give the audience a vivid understanding of how the characters move in space.
These action scenes make clear that Bekmambetov is a skilled director, but most of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” displays his flaws. The film, curiously enough, vastly overreaches; it cannot convincingly grapple with the question of slavery and the Civil War. By doing so, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” calls attention to how gimmicky and lightweight it is. No amount of 3D mastery can transcend that.
—Staff writer Petey E. Menz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.