Lincoln and the celluloid vampires

By Michael Lynch

If there exists an ideal audience member for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, that hypothetical person should be somebody like me. On the one hand, I’m a certified history buff whose first real job was at a Lincoln museum. On the other hand, I’m of that generation of geekdom who grew up with ninja turtles and Masters of the Universe, and then never quite matured past the point of wearing t-shirts with dinosaurs and comic book characters on them. One might assume that AL:VH is one of the few films that might appeal to both sides of my warped personality—the professional side and the side that is anything but. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t enjoy it.

As its title suggests, this movie presents the Great Emancipator as a slayer of the undead. When one of these creatures sneaks into the Lincoln family’s Indiana cabin one night and kills Abe’s mother, he vows to take revenge. Years later, as a young man on the Illinois frontier, he meets a mysterious figure who gives him the skills (and the silver-bladed axe) he needs to wage a one-man war on the vampires, a war that eventually parallels the larger one tearing apart the country. The vampires, you see, are in the habit of preying on slaves, and the South is their stronghold. Lincoln’s political career thus allows him to take his anti-vampire crusade to the next level.

This is all ludicrous, of course, but it’s a premise with potential if you play your cards right. The only way to make a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is to embrace the absurdity. This film needs the same balance between perverse hilarity and genuine tension that Quentin Tarantino achieved with his 2009 send-up of WWII action flicks. And yet the makers of AL:VH play it straight. This isn’t to suggest that this is a somber film. AL:VH is all in good fun, but it’s the wrong sort of fun. It’s not a movie that takes itself seriously, exactly, but neither is it aware of how goofy this whole thing is. Tarantino took on WWII with a wink at the audience, but here we get historical mash-up without the smirk on its face. Having Lincoln chop the heads off vampires is a difficult thing to pull off unless it’s a running gag.

Having decided to make a straight-up action movie, the filmmakers obliged themselves to deliver the goods. The only third option is to go for an all-out so-bad-it’s-good C movie of the kind you’d see lampooned on Mystery Science Theater. Unfortunately, AL:VH is simply too bland to work either as a summer thrill ride or a cult classic. How in the world does one make a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and have it turn out so blamed boring? Most of the fault, I think, lies with Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. What passes for the story simply putters along for about half of its running time before completely unravelling once Lincoln hits the White House, and after that point the scenes are mere placeholders, failing to advance anything resembling a real plot. The dialogue serves no purpose other than exposition. The cast is fine, but the filmmakers have given them nothing to do. (This is a real shame, by the way, given that talented actors like Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rufus Sewell are on board.) Like last year’s Cowboys & Aliens, this is a premise without a movie to go with it.

For history buffs, it’s fun to take note of the historical figures and events that pop up from time to time, but these are few and far between. Lincoln aficionados might get a kick out of seeing cameos by Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis, but the only historical characters that get any real screen time are Mary Todd and Joshua Speed. Benjamin Walker, in the title role, looks suitably tall and lanky, but the script never gives him an opportunity to show us any of the things that made Lincoln such a distinctive individual—his awkwardness, his sense of humor, his intelligence. Without these traits, without a real character at the center of things, this movie might as well have been Chester A. Arthur: Vampire Hunter.

Given the film’s outrageous premise, it seems utterly gratuitous and pedantic to take issue with specific, minor inaccuracies. But one doesn’t come to a blog such as this without looking for the kind of critique you can’t get from Roger Ebert, so in the interest of professional obligation, below are a few discrepancies I noticed. This requires me to give away a few plot points, so feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re afraid it’ll spoil the movie for you.

Thomas Lincoln did not die when Abraham was a young man. Before taking on his first vampire, the onscreen Lincoln bolsters his courage with alcohol and ends up indulging a bit too much, but the historical Lincoln reportedly drank very little. His flatboat trips to New Orleans were earlier than indicated in the movie, and he first met Stephen Douglas before his move to Springfield. Lincoln began practicing law before he moved in with Joshua Speed, and Speed was not one of Lincoln’s close presidential advisors. (Speed’s brother James, of course, became Attorney General in late 1864.) Willie Lincoln appears in the movie, but Tad is conspicuous by his absence.

On the bright side, 1830′s Springfield is pretty convincingly recreated, although I would’ve preferred it a little rougher around the edges, with less of the seedy urban atmosphere and more frontier. Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s tombstone resembles the real thing—a surprisingly authentic touch for a movie about vampires.

It’s tempting to try to situate Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter within the broader context of the way we collectively remember Lincoln and the Civil War. Some critics have charged that the movie makes light of slavery by linking that very real institution to something as outlandish as vampirism. On the other hand, I’ve read a couple of neo-Confederate apologists who have lambasted the film because it depicts the bloodsuckers as Rebs. Having watched the movie, I think both parties are reading too much into it. At the end of the day, this is just an attempt to cash in on our collective fascination with Lincoln and the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for vampire-related entertainment. If it reflects anything about historical memory, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter demonstrates Lincoln’s ubiquity as a cultural icon. Simply combine him with any other such icon—vampires, in this instance—and you’ve got yourself a gimmick.

In this case, alas, that’s all you’ve got. I didn’t expect this movie to be weighty, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be accurate. I did hope it would be entertaining. At the screening I attended, most of the audience was made up of what appeared to be college students out for a lark: Abraham Lincoln making mincemeat out of vampires! What a gas! And it could have been, if only the writer and director had been in on the joke.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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One response to “Lincoln and the celluloid vampires

  1. Pingback: Pass the garlic | Past in the Present

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