Film of the Week: Taking a Hatchet to the History Books: ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ Review

What if I told you 97% of colonized North American Natives were killed not by ruthless imperialism and a smallpox epidemic but by VAMPIRES? That the Holocaust was actually an elaborate plot to provide unlimited food for undead bloodsuckers? Or maybe that Mao’s land reform wasn’t a case of idealism gone horrifyingly wrong but VAMPIRES?

That’s the implication of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It even explicitly states that slavery was a vampire plot. Vampires control America’s slave trade, and they use slaves as a mass drinking fountain. We even see slaves invited to a ball at their plantation, only to have their blood gulped down mid-waltz.

Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is introduced as a child (Lux Haney-Jardine), the son of a plantation worker. One day, he sees his black friend William (Curtis Harris) being beaten, and despite his sympathetic father telling him to look away, Honest Abe intervenes. His father is subsequently fired and his mother killed by the plantation owner. It’s a classic example of a dumb and easy action movie trope, where Our Hero, who is not a member of an oppressed group, is naturally sympathetic to that group because of an advanced sense of morality. Rather than focus on the fact that a human is being beaten with a whip, we are forced to focus on our hero’s sideline experience of injustice.

The film then moves into Batman Begins ripoff territory. Abe unsuccessfully tries to avenge his mother’s death (like Bruce Wayne trying to shoot Joe Chill). He’s saved by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a vampire hunting trainer similar to Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul. Sturgess then trains Abe while feeding him quasi-philosophical platititudes about how he can’t only be motivated by vengeance—just like Ras telling Wayne he has to become an ideal, rather than merely a man. It’s so flagrant that I got bored and had to fight off sleep, despite all the ax-twirling going on.

Lincoln then moves to Springfield, where he kills a bunch of vampires and steals Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk), because of course that would happen in this movie. William shows up again, telling Abe he works on the Underground Railroad all the live-long day. Somewhere, Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) makes an appearance. At some point, they go to New Orleans, because that’s where vampires live.

One annoying device the movie employs is to use the same rhetoric about the issues that politicians of the time used but reframing it as VAMPIRES. The only argument against the abolition of slavery is maintaining the status quo. But instead of the status quo being “free cotton picking,” it’s “unlimited vampire food.” The South isn’t just concerned with states’ rights or autonomy; the South is controlled by vampires. The lead-up to the Civil War is completely glossed over, but we do see Abe signing the Emancipation Proclamation—a gesture that didn’t really end slavery in the US and doesn’t really vanquish the vampires in the movie. I understand the thought process behind this, but it comes across as historically insulting and demeaning to the struggle of the time—a fight with consequences America is still grappling with today.

The script is written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who is probably best known for his novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which combines Jane Austen’s text with a zombie story. It’s an easy way to make a quick buck, and Grahame-Smith launched an entire industry—Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters followed, as well as The Meowmorphosis, to name a couple. He also wrote the script for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, suggesting Grahame-Smith is never going to tire of anachronism humor.

It’s not that I don’t think that stuff is funny; I do. I’ve just never had a conversation with anyone whose reaction to those books was anything other than “That sounds funny. I probably won’t read it.” And just like the rest of the world, I’m sick of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp half-assing their way to millions of dollars, so I didn’t see Dark Shadows.

Nevertheless, I went into AL:VH with moderate expectations, simply because hacking vampires with an axe is awesome, and Abe Lincoln is awesome. Instead, I was bored by flat stock characters, mediocre action sequences, and a movie determined to make a joke about one of the worst periods of American history.

I’m honestly not against alt-history. I loved Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a movie that uses deliberate falsity to make a comment about filmmaking and storytelling itself. I also loved Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” the title story of his first book. In the story, Vikings sail to Northumbria and plunder a town because they’re bored. It’s a story full of honest reflections of violence, a deeply affecting illustration of how cruel the world can be, and Blood Eagles, which are awesome and not for the weak of stomach. AL:VH, unfortunately, does nothing to earn its flexibility with reality.

In the opening lines—a voiceover, of course—Lincoln says, “History prefers legends to men. It prefers nobility to brutality, soaring speeches to wild deeds. History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood . . . ” These lines almost suggest that the film is self-consciously infusing a legendary president with some supernatural mythology. But that’s not what it’s doing. In fact, since the characters are so one-note morally and the script so flagrantly disregards the actual brutality of the slave trade as well as the complexities of the Civil War, the film needs to learn its own lesson.

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