Hollywood has a long, rich tradition of historical abominations, but never has there been a history done more abominably than “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
If only they’d made this insane conceit more fun. If only they’d taken it all a bit less seriously. But this film, adapted by the same fellow who wrote the inexplicably popular novel of the same title, isn’t even bad enough to be camp.
Seth Grahame-Smith’s silly script re-imagines the Rail Splitter as a vampire vanquisher, a man seeking vengeance on the monsters who killed his mother, who conveniently are mostly Southern and support slavery because they’re in need of a “a fresh crop” to feed on whom no one — no one white, anyway — will miss in pre-Civil War America.
Snippets of real history slip into the story as Harriet Tubman makes an appearance, Abe debates Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), courts Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and wears the burden of the bloodletting of the Civil War.
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Abe carries his late mother’s maxim in his heart, that “until every man is free, we are all slaves.” And since he’s a veritable samurai of the swinging ax, he has the means to have his revenge, and free the slaves, too.
Dominic Cooper is the mentor who teaches Abe about the vampires among us. Anthony Mackie is the freed black man who is loyal to the death.
And Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas and Erin Wasson are the vampire leaders who plot their final victory at a Gettysburg.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Nightwatch”) brings his usual visual verve to Abe’s many vampire battles — musket balls hurtling into the 3-D camera lens, slo-mo ax arcs, digital horses stampeding into our noses. It’s a striking, alien past that he creates with his designers and cinematographer — specks of dust floating in streaks of light in the 3-D foreground, sepia-tinted digitally augmented locations. But everything in between the action is badly written, badly acted and boring.
Which brings us to our leading man. Throughout Hollywood history, the towering screen presences of each era have blanched at playing Lincoln, one of America’s most iconic presidents. Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey and Gregory Peck are among the few who dared tackle the character and get away with it.
Inexperienced Benjamin Walker has the look of a young Liam Neeson about him — Steven Spielberg wanted Neeson for his Lincoln movie for years, and settled for Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis. But Walker lacks the spark, the charisma, the confidence to play this guy as anything but a limp Lord of the Ax Dancers.
This might have worked had they depicted Modest Abe as a closet swaggerer, an ax-swinging fanatic, something different from the chiseled in stone figure who has been handed down to us. Walker, and Grahame-Smith’s lurch-through-history script, don’t give us that.
Where’s the humor, the wit? (Lincoln was a great joke teller, another bit of history Grahame-Smith ignored.) The few potentially noble moments, such as Mary Todd teaching Abe about principles — “Plant your feet, and stand firm. The only question is where to plant your feet.” — fall flat. Sewell, a veteran bad guy, phones this villain in.
“Vampire Hunter” is an all-around failure, this summer’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” with poor Walker a tall, thin deer caught in the kerosene headlamps of a locomotive going off the tracks.
“History prefers legends to men,” Abe narrates from his diary. Grahame-Smith, Bekmambetov and Walker have conspired to give us none of the above — not the history, not a compelling legend, and certainly not Lincoln the man.