Movie Review: How Do You Screw Up a Movie With Vampires, Ax-Wielding Presidents, and the Civil War?

I don’t like when critics say that they really “wanted to like” a movie. Of course you want to like what you watch, after all, you’re stuck in a dark theater for ninety minutes or more with nothing to do but stare at what’s on the screen. The hope is it is not torture. Sure, there is some pleasure occasionally in tearing apart a particularly bad movie, a kind of fleeting, passive aggressive attempt at cinematic justice. But that odd breed of enjoyment comes after the movie. During the bad movie, I find myself inevitably trying to like what is on the screen. It’s a way of coping.

So, I cringe at my own words when I say that I really, really wanted to like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. I mean, how do you not like a movie with that title, such a ridiculous non sequitor, such pure logical dissonance. You might as well name a movie Refrigerator Perry: Russian Ballet Star. Author Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the book upon which the new movie is based, also penned another best seller called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I get it, genre sacrilege. Literary blasphemy. Cue Abe’s silver-plated axe. How could we not be in for a good time?

The real question is how could a movie be this bad? If Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is sacrilegious, it is not so towards any legendary figure, political ideals, or historical reality, but rather to the craft of movie making itself. It really is a remarkable thing that a movie built out of the foundational elements of vampires, blood, shamelessly overblown chase scenes, and one-dimensional heroics can be this boring, predictable, and pandering. I get shallow, superficial, and frivolous, but Abraham Lincoln’s real crime is that it underplays its own camp.

The film opens in the White House, with Honest Abe (Benjamin Walker) putting the finishing touches on his secret diary, as if full aware that he is about to head off and get blown away by John Wilkes Booth. The diary contains a hidden history, one that starts when Abe was a boy and his mother was killed by slave trading vampires. From that point on, the young Lincoln is bent on revenge. But first he needs some help, which comes from Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), an experienced vampire hunter. Henry saves Abe from a bind, an attempted vampire kill gone wrong that contains Abraham Lincoln Vampire Killer’s only real stroke of suspense, a cheap little cliché shot that shows a dead body go out of frame, only to have it missing when the camera pans back again.

Henry teaches Abe to brandish his weapon of choice, an ax (because Abe chops down cherry trees? Oh wait, wrong president) with a silver plated blade (because vampires hate silver because of Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver, blah, blah, blah). Trained-up, Abe is off to Springfield,IL, where he studies law, works in a local shop, meets a young Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and trades words with a prissy Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk). If you haven’t noticed, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer likes dropping names. We’re yet to meet Jefferson Davis and Harriet Tubman.

At night, Abe fights vampires. We get to see a few of these showdowns in a chop-chop montage, which contains more blood than your usual mainstream studio release, but not enough gory creativity to get the movie to the body-com absurdity. Where’s the depreciating hedonism of a movie like Machete when you need it? Instead, blood splatters about like paint in a bad bio-doc on Jackson Pollock, with most of the real action taking place somewhere in the blur of a spinning camera and the muddling muck of CGI 3D. One of director Timur Bekmambetov’s failures with Abraham Lincoln is that he mistakes the camera for the characters, pushing the camera to do all sorts of spectacular things while the characters on screen remain lifeless and hardly watchable.

Bekmambetov tries to get you to jump with copious straight-shots of his teethy and goolish vampires’ screaming faces, and he tries to tap his inner Spielberg with two long chase sequences that smack of Indiana Jones. And while the novelty of a super strong vampire tossing around live horses is cute enough, both the blurred horse stampede (during which flat Illinois becomes as canyon-ridden as Ford’s Monument Valley) and the fiery train crash, lose your interest before they start. There’s no place for the viewer in these scenes, no establishing of point of view in the roller coaster cart before the whip of the crash. Forget history, I suggest Bekmambetov go back and review his Spielberg. Start with Duel.

It is hardly worth digging into the many historical infractions churned up by this clumsy movie. We’re not supposed to take them seriously anyway. (This isn’t historical revisionism; it’s more like a kid scribbling on a textbook.) Still, I’m sure southern audiences aren’t going to swallow scenes of Confederate soldiers (who turn out to all be vampires, by the way) being magnificently torn to shreds by the Union’s silver-plated bullets to the triumphant booming of the soundtrack’s semi-glorious finale. That these scenes are at all jarring is yet another indication that Abraham Lincoln has its tone all wrong. This is supposed to be ridiculous stuff, so ridiculous that any sensitivity to the historical puppets incorporated into its comic drama should be washed away by the all blood. The tasteless junk is the joke. So why isn’t it funny?