Filmmakers take the axe to history in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, movie
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: Benjamin Walker wields the vampire busting axe as Honest Abe

‘If she were President, she’d be Baberaham Lincoln’. That joke from Wayne’s World is shorter, punchier and wittier than the whole of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the latest revisionist history/mash-up movie.

Adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel (also the screenwriter on Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, who produces here), it’s a film which attempts to show another side to Honest Abe, the 16th President of the United States. He’s got the top hat and the beard but beneath the smoking jacket lurks the burning desire to avenge those pesky vampires who murdered his mother.

When she is killed by ruthless plantation owner Jack Barts (Martin Csokas, enjoyably creepy), so begins the familiar journey to manhood, one which is peppered by bloody vengeance before culminating in eventual maturity as Lincoln reaches old age. It’s an oh so familiar journey, one which could do with the sort of bite the undead fiends lend their victims in the movie. Whatever may have worked on the page has been lost in translation when making its way to the screen.

Benjamin Walker is Lincoln, schooled in the art of vamp-hunting by Dominic Cooper and who eventually grows into the famed political colossus steering America through the Civil War. Lurking beneath it all is Rufus Sewell as the lead vampire, one who’s disguised himself as a slaver and eventually hopes to take over the entire country.

The notion of historical biopic and horror sharing a blood transfusion is an intriguing one but there are several problems with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. First and foremost, it never takes more than a superficial interest in the wider historical context: key events such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation flash up on-screen but it’s nothing more than window dressing.

Instead, the story is incoherently structured as a series of axe-wielding set-pieces, and seems in such a rush to get to the next vampiric stand-off that there’s no wider sense of dramatic momentum. Events of crucial importance are determined on a purely scene-by-scene basis; so one minute, we’re faced by wide-scale destruction on the battlefield and the next, it’s back to looking cool while dispatching those pesky bloodsuckers. It’s a fickle movie, beautifully designed and shot (by terrific DP Caleb Deschanel) but without a rooting interest in the era or indeed in a consistent narrative.

Also frustrating is how the film treats the character of Lincoln himself: despite Walker’s best efforts in the title role (and he is surprisingly convincing when playing him as a much older man), Abe is nothing more than a rote, heroic archetype, the sort we’ve seen hundreds of times before in these movies. We start with childhood trauma, then there’s the obligatory Obi-Wan Kenobi-style training sequence and eventually we have Lincoln in his later years, forced to balance political brains with brawn – but there’s nothing distinctive about the treatment of the character. He’s defined by the familiar details like the beard, but not much else.

The fight scenes themselves are incoherently directed by Timur Bekmambetov, whose previous movie, Wanted, was great fun, mostly because it didn’t take itself too seriously. This by contrast is so poker faced, they should be calling up Lady Gaga’s agent. What’s desperately needed is a sly injection of satirical humour, a nod to the audience that this is indeed complete nonsense. Instead, there’s an onslaught of slow-motion heavy, CGI laden scenes which lack a sense of physicality, and consequently any danger, a prime example of which is an early scene through a horse stampede, a classic example of jumping the shark (or jumping the steed in this case).

It’s such a shame as the premise could have delivered a wickedly surreal blend of fact and fangs, exposing a level of festering supernatural horror lurking beneath one of America’s most turbulent periods. Instead, it’s painfully boring, squandering a talented supporting cast (Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd Lincoln; Anthony Mackie as Lincoln’s friend and former slave Will) in favour of head-splitting noise. Full credit to the characters’ psychic abilities though: with all the slow-mo jumping and martial arts, they seem to have predicted both The Matrix and Bruce Lee more than a century before both came to prominence.

[imdblt]Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter[/imdblt]