'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter': Stake This Mess
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The Civil War (or the War Between the States, if you prefer); slavery; the Emancipation Proclamation; the cultural divide exemplified by the Mason-Dixon line -- none of these are trivial matters. And while individual events tied in with those topics are now literally hundreds of years in the past, their significance continues to inform, if not actually haunt, life and politics in the United States of America.
So to construct a fantasy scenario that relentlessly trivializes these things, one that posits, for instance, that slavery itself was not the creation of human beings just like you and me but the work of blood-drinking undead beings intent on world domination? A fantasy that supposes that the bloodshed at Gettysburg was at least in part the work of vampire Confederate soldiers who could make themselves invisible and pierce through the hearts of Union soldiers without them even knowing it? A fantasy that reimagines one of the most genuinely tormented and morally acute leaders the United States has ever known as an ax-wielding avenger and destroyer of supernatural beings? Well, that's kind of a dicey proposition.
And "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," written by Seth Grahame-Smith, adapting his own popular novel, and directed by Russian master of action excess Timur Bekmambetov, does not make good on the proposition. It constitutes a moral sin, if not an outright moral crime, and commits a grave insult against history.
And if you're going to sin against morality and insult history at the same time, you had better be ruthlessly, divertingly entertaining about it. And "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is mostly a dippy, self-important slog that doesn't even bother to be interestingly outrageous in its historical revisionism. Instead, it presents a U.S.A. of the mid-19th century wherein a non-slave African-American could just walk into a store in Springfield Illinois and browse without hassle ... and who of course turns out to be rail-splitter Abe's childhood best friend (Anthony Mackie, not particularly well used; but then, none of the cast is), who, along with Abe's boss at the general store, accompanies him all the way to the White House. Indeed, as president, Abe seems to have only a two-man Cabinet: those guys. Weird.
But who cares when there are plenty of up-to-the-minute bloodsuckers for Abe to behead, with the help of a vampire-destroying master who turns out to be -- non-spoiler alert! -- a vampire himself? Seriously, although Bekmambetov ups the action ante at times in his typically hypertrophied way, the movie never builds up the absurdist head of steam his Russia-made "Day Watch" and "Night Watch" supernatural sagas did, and it can't even muster the abhorrent but at least not-boring attitude of his U.S. debut, the meretriciously amoral "Wanted." No, this mostly offers stuff you could already see on "True Blood" crossed with indifferent "Interview With the Vampire"-redolent period detail. And with less nudity, at that. And then there's the offensive stuff, as in a New Orleans ball with interracial dancing that turns into a vampires-feasting-on-slaves massacre.
"Wait," some of you might be thinking right now, "you're getting all huffy over this, but you liked 'Inglourious Basterds'?" Well, yes, I did. Not just because I thought "Inglourious Basterds" was in fact ruthlessly, divertingly entertaining. And because there's a ton of precedent, in film, literature, and comics, for the movie's pulp-fantastic revision of history, to the extent that it's a World War II movie about World War II movies; that as outrageous as it got, it had a certain sense of boundaries; and finally, because of writer-director Quentin Tarantino's own particular, albeit idiosyncratic, moral fervor, expressed in his wish to have master image manipulator Hitler killed in a movie theater showing his own propaganda. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" never comes close to a metafictional trope that inspired or, for that matter, heartfelt; rather, it's content to wallow in its own high concept, which is already more than a little trite.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.