This is a preview of my Sight & Sound review.
Having scored a publishing success with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, author-screenwriter-producer Seth Grahame-Smith continued his brand of search-and-replace historical horror with the novel Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. An exercise in the fantasy sub-genre of ‘secret history’, this posits the involvement of vampires in the whole history of the United States but hamstrings itself by defaulting to Lincoln biography with tipped-in vampire fights. It’s a concept that doesn’t really need to go further than the title or cover/poster image, but gets drawn out to foolish ends in the telling and, now it’s turned up as a film, retelling.
Timur Bekmambetov was much more fortunate in his source material with the Russian Night Watch films (which also find vampires and other creatures of the night covertly involved in the course of human history) and the comic book adaptation Wanted (whose fight on a train on a collapsing bridge finale is reprised here). Though 3D and CGI imposes a blurry, unappealing look on the film, the action sequences are at least daringly conceived. A fight/chase in among and on the backs of stampeding horses is a stand-out, but the film also runs to plenty of stop-and-go-mo axe-hacking confrontations after the manner of Blade or Buffy in which the future President strides through hordes of undercharacterised enemies with his signature axe. Hero Benjamin Walker undergoes the progression from rangy, credible Young Mr Lincoln – letting Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mary Todd stand on his hat to attempt to kiss him – into waxwork beard-and-hat figure, and the film stumbles not on its wilder monster movie aspects but in its inability to approximate the biopic sections of the narrative without bathos.
Of course, there’s a laugh line in the coda, as Mary calls out to Abe to hurry up or he’ll miss the theatre, but this falls into old-style Hollywood ham-fistedness long before that, with clunker lines like ‘this first day of Gettysburg has been a disaster’. Frankly, given even the remotest notion of 19th Century history, it’s easier to take seriously Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter than Abraham Lincoln – President with a Black Best Friend. Given that the one fresh idea in Grahame-Smith’s novel is the alignment of the pro-slavery South with a cadre of vampires who want openly to assume their position of dominance over regular humans in a country where there is a legal precedent for the subjugation of a whole race to supposed superior beings, the film is very timid about this premise. ‘There’s something not right here,’ one of Abe’s sidekicks says, peeping through the windows into a Southern mansion where white owners are dancing with slaves: a moment that should linger longer before an arch Rufus Sewell announces that dinner is served and sets his CGI-mawed guests on the human livestock.
The film adds a few new wrinkles not found in the book – the notion that vampires can’t kill each other, the silver drive to supply vampire-killing munitions to the troops at Gettysburg, vampires’ ability to become briefly invisible while in attack mode, the vampires’ splatters of black blood – and Bekmambetov cuts to a fight scene or training montage whenever things threaten to get too stuffy or educational, though he is obliged to include a few speeches. As writers from John Polidori to Stephenie Meyer have noted, vampires are a useful metaphor for all manner of human ills, but there’s a missed connection here. Slavery was quite bad enough as it was – indeed, worse than it’s depicted here – when it was an economic rather than supernatural phenomenon, and giving slavers fangs and dark glasses tends to excuse rather than underline a real historical human evil.