“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” Tells the Same Old Story

“History prefers legends to men.” – from the trailer of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”

It happens every so often. Two movies with similar plots and subject matter are released within a very short period of time. Think “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact.” Or “K-9” and “Turner and Hooch.” Or all of those body-swap movies from the ‘80s. It even happened earlier this year, but now, it is Abraham Lincoln’s turn.  He is the subject matter of both the highbrow Spielberg biopic, “Lincoln,” opening this Christmas, and the no-brow action fantasy “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which opened last Friday.

When these movies pop up at the same time, one of two factors could be at play. Either one studio stole another’s idea, which is unlikely in this case, since the two films are in different genres. The more likely scenario is that there is something about the subject matter that reflects our particular era. So the question is: why Lincoln and why now?

As the president best known for ending America’s original sin, Lincoln has become our least politicized and most idealized president. He is held up by Republicans because he was one – although the party stood for far different things then. He is revered by Democrats because he was the first civil rights president. In our current political climate in which everything from what we eat to whom we love is politicized, we are starving for a leader that we can all get behind, and Lincoln is the only one in our past, present, and maybe even our foreseeable future who fits the bill.

Not much is known about Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” although I would guess that its attitude will be one of reverence. That’s kind of Spielberg’s thing. It should come as no surprise that “Vampire Hunter” takes the exact same tack. There is simply no room in our world for a Lincoln movie that portrays him as anything but an unqualified hero. His myth is too large and too important to our national psyche. Although the styles and tones of this year’s Lincoln films will be markedly different, “Vampire Hunter” gives our sixteenth president the highest honor, reframing him as the archetype that our culture reveres the most: the action hero.

The story follows him from childhood right up until his assassination. As a boy, Lincoln watches as a vampire/slave-driver beats his best friend and murders his mother. As he grows into a young man, he vows revenge until he learns a secret from his friend, Henry (Dominic Cooper). The man who killed Lincoln’s mother is a vampire, and there are many more. The South is littered with vampires, and, worse than that, they are beginning to expand their territory.

It’s not the most nuanced view of Civil War-era politics, but it is representative of the film’s approach to storytelling. There is nothing subtle here. As Henry turns Lincoln from a young, angry man into an axe-wielding killer of the undead, the film follows a formula we have come to expect from the super-hero origin movie. There is a lengthy training sequence. There is a tense first outing that almost ends in disaster, but Lincoln emerges unscathed. He meets a girl, the young Mary Todd, whom he loves and wishes to marry, although he fears that the vampires will target her to punish him. He puts his alter ego aside, as he learns the power of the bully pulpit and decides to fight slave-owners/vampires with words instead of an axe.

Between what we know of Lincoln’s life and our recognition of this formula, there are few surprises in the film. But no matter: “Vampire Hunter” is more spectacle than story.  Director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) knows how to stage an action sequence and set a mood, although he has no feel for drama. Similarly, as Lincoln and Mary Todd, stars Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have charisma and chemistry, but their efforts are largely wasted in a script that uses only romantic cliches to characterize them. Still, Walker’s performance is worth lingering on. His Lincoln is humble yet determined, with a dash of comic awkwardness. It is a star-making turn, and we’ll be seeing more of the young Walker in the near future, I’m sure.

Although the film is far more concerned with entertaining a summer audience that provoking thought, it is to the filmmaker’s credit that he does not shy away from the moral imperatives of the era in which the film is set. While the film only loosely associates slavery with vampirism, Lincoln’s quest for justice is his motivating characteristic. It’s a bit easy, I suppose, to make us root for him: he is working to end slavery and save the human race from evil monsters. But why did it need to go this far? Isn’t our nation’s history of slavery monstrous enough?

It’s a good question but not one that this film is interested in answering. Seth Grahame-Smith, the screenwriter who also authored the book “Vampire Hunter” is based on, has remarked that he came up with the idea after seeing a biography of Lincoln next to a “Twilight” novel in a book store. And that’s about as deep as this movie goes. Like its hero, it is largely apolitical, but that’s what you get when you deal with Lincoln. If you prefer a more thoughtful piece of reverence, then wait for Spielberg. “Vampire Hunter” offers only cheap thrills and a story that affirms our pre-conceived notion of a transcendent president.

When the villain corners Lincoln in the film’s final scene, he threatens to “destroy the myth of Abraham Lincoln, so that history will know [him] not as a man but as a monster!” The truth is that we don’t know him as either, only as an idea that has been co-opted by both the right and left. He, in fact, may be the last non-partisan left in our political history, and it is that fact that prevents us from knowing him any better. We still prefer the myth. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” promises us a new take on everyone’s favorite legend. Unfortunately, this Lincoln is the same old hero.

My Rating: Skip it Altogether

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