The trouble with the so-called high-concept film is that too often the concept is the best thing about it and the actual movie essentially a series of rather rote, progressively more tiresome variations on its premise. Think Snakes on a Plane,Twins with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito, Alien vs Predator, Dumb and Dumber or Hobo with a Shotgun: The biggest high comes from the images evoked by the title alone, or the title in tandem with the movie poster, doesn’t it?
Certainly this is true of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Director Timur Berkmambetov (who had a hit a few years ago with Angelina Jolie in Wanted) piles on the CGI, the 3-D effects, the fangs and the phlegm and the gore. But finally the veins are drained in vain: with few exceptions, Berkmambetov’s techno-strenuousness delivers no more kick than the simple, silly but nonetheless inspired gambit of mashing the name of the 16th president of the United States with the Buffy-esque job title “vampire hunter.”
Based on the best-selling 2010 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also co-wrote the screenplay), the movie takes some of the touchstones of Lincoln’s 56 years and warps them into a weave of the factual and the fantastic. It’s well-known, for instance, that Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, died in 1818 when Abe was only 9. The cause of death is generally ascribed to her having consumed poisoned milk, apparently a common phenomenon in rural America in the 19th century. But in Grahame-Smith’s revisionist hysteria, Hanks’ demise is the result of being bitten by a vampire named Jack Barts, a violation the young Abe just happens to witness from his attic perch and, of course, later vows to avenge. A dab hand with an axe in real life – one of Lincoln’s many nicknames was “the rail splitter” –Grahame-Smith’s young-adult Lincoln (Benjamin Wallace) crosses paths with a dissolute vampire hunter, Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who steeps him in both vampire lore and a spew of axioms (e.g., “Real power comes not from hate but from truth;” “Only the living can kill the dead”) while sharpening the lad’s chops to lethal perfection. Soon it’s chop, chop, Abraham Lincoln’s silver axe hacking down upon their heads, whack, whack, Abe’s silver axe making damn sure they are dead!
Berkmambetov shows real kinetic skill in these early encounters, which are all the more potent for their relative brevity. There are also flashes of droll humour: while picnicking with Mary Todd, the woman who will eventually be his wife (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Lincoln apologizes for his weariness and distractedness by saying “I’m sorry; I’ve been working nights.” Expanding upon that, he confesses: “I’ve killed six vampires,” at which an amused Mary remarks: “And I thought you were an honest man. Really, Abe!”
Would that Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter had more such playfulness. Instead, it gets more like a comic book; the set-pieces ever more (and numbingly) violent, longer, gimmick-laden and noisy, the story preposterous, cartoonish, impenetrable, the characters like cardboard cut-outs in dressup. Somewhere in all the murk, Lincoln decides to forsake hatchet jobs for marriage, family, an obviously fake beard that gives Wallace all the eminence of a whiskery Robin Williams, the presidency of the United States and the abolition of slavery. Of course, once a vampire killer, always a vampire killer, even if you’re pushing 60: when in the course of the Civil War, Lincoln’s desperate Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis agrees to an unholy alliance with Adam, the 5,000-year-old King of the Vampires (Rufus Sewell), the prez realizes he has to come out of retirement and apply both his smarts about the undead and his axemanship to ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Last time I looked the U.S.A. was still standing, but what likely could perish this weekend is this movie as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter finds itself trading box-office blows with Pixar’s mighty Brave. You can see the headline now: Vampire Sucks, Brave Success.