Because the Twilight movies are about vampires and because the Twilight movies have made billions of dollars, movie studios seem to be under the impression that if they also make movies about vampires, they too can make billions of dollars. So far, that thinking hasn’t quite panned out: Daybreakers, Let Me In, Priest, Fright Night, and Dark Shadows were all disappointments at the box office. Now comes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a movie which wears its desperation on its sleeve. Based on the graphic novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, Vampire Hunter belongs to a burgeoning genre (which also includes Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) predicated on the idea that if you insert horror movie monsters into stories in which horror movie monsters would appear to be brazenly inappropriate, vampires and zombies will somehow become interesting again. As far as gimmicks go, it’s a fairly cheap one, but it’s also strangely effective. For the first half at least, Vampire Hunter is a weird, fun B movie. But as is so often the case with movies nowadays, the energy generated in the first half quickly dissipates, and Vampire Hunter ends as a weird, tedious B movie.
It’s often been said that superhero origin stories are more interesting than superhero stories in which the superhero has already adjusted to having superpowers because the transition from ordinary person to extraordinary one is inherently dramatic, whereas the transition from irresponsible egotist to dutiful law enforcer (i.e. the plots of Iron Man 2 and Spider-Man 3) isn’t. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is further proof of this. After witnessing his mother being murdered by a vampire, Lincoln vows to avenge her death. He soon makes the acquaintance of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a member of the vampire resistance movement who trains him in the art of vampire-killing. (For those who enjoy high energy training montages, Vampire Hunter doesn’t disappoint). Once his apprenticeship is complete, Sturgess gives Lincoln a list of local vampires which he must assassinate one by one.
So far, so good. Buoyed by Cooper’s scenery-chewing performance and a crazy set piece that takes place in the middle of a horse stampede, the first half of Vampire Hunter delivers the B movie goods. But where the movie goes wrong, weirdly enough, is where most biopics go wrong—it tries to squeeze to much of its subject’s life into too short a period. Every 15 minutes or so, the movie jumps forward about a decade, and each time, we’re constantly re-introduced one by one to all the main characters sporting different degrees of old age make-up. From the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the Gettysburg address, Vampire Hunter desperately tries to pack all of Lincoln’s life into one 105-minute-long package, and in so doing, it feels more like a greatest hits collection (by a really weird and inappropriate cover band) than a unified, dramatically satisfying narrative. (Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln biopic reportedly only focuses on the last few months of his life; Grahame-Smith would’ve been well-advised to take a similar approach).
Worse still, the second half of the movie completely trivializes slavery and the Civil War. In the movie’s version of events, the Confederacy was secretly led by a vampire elite who saw slavery as a convenient way of obtaining a limitless supply of fresh blood. Also, the battle of Gettysburg was fought by invisible vampires who could only be defeated by silver bullets, which were delivered to the battlefield by emancipated slaves via the underground railroad. Some will argue that the Civil War was 150 ago and that this sort of objection amounts to nothing more than political correctness run amok. Perhaps. But seeing a serious historical event trivialized for the sake of appealing to the ironic sensibilities of twentysomething hipsters is vaguely depressing, and it definitely detracts from the sense of B movie fun that director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) seems to have been going for. Can you imagine, 100 years from now, a movie called Simon Wiesenthal: Vampire Hunter in which the Holocaust is depicted as a vampire conspiracy? Even with a high energy training montage and scenery-chewing Dominic Cooper performance, it’s hard to envision such a movie making it past the development stage, which is where Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in its current form, probably should have stayed.