If you're going to call your movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, then it damn well better be as surreal as its title suggests. Therein lies the underlying defect of the film. In its attempt to concoct a clever spin on both horror movies and historical dramas, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter forgets that it is, or at least should be, just a goofy exercise. That screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (on whose novel the movie is based) takes the exercise so seriously—even if director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) seems incapable of doing so—actually robs the movie of any measure of credibility.
Forget its borderline offensive central concept: vampires precipitate the Civil War, secretly allying themselves with the South in order to harness its slave trade for the purpose of providing strong, healthy food stock for the undead. If you want to hear more about that, my friend Glenn Kenny addresses it better than I can here. Instead, let me hone in on one line in his review which best characterizes what I thought of the film: "...if you're going to sin against morality and insult history at the same time, you had better be ruthlessly, divertingly entertaining about it."
It is this component that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter seems to forget. Rather than indulge itself in some of the more lurid, ridiculous directions one could take the story in, the movie instead tries to ground its flight of fancy with hollow references to slavery. It neither utilizes the vampire mythology as a metaphor about slavery/racism, nor does it use historical fact to give any kind of depth to the villainous monsters of the film. It's unfortunate too, given some of the setpieces imaginatively executed for the movie like an extended mano-a-mano between Abe (Benjamin Walker) and the vampire (Marton Csokas) that murdered his mother. More than just a mere duel, Bekmambetov ups the kineticism by placing the two in the midst of a seemingly endless herd of galloping horses.
Worse yet, the viewer is forced to watch appealing actors like Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who plays wife Mary Todd Lincoln) give it their all in the central roles of a vacuous movie not worthy enough to merit such performances. It is as if this might be the only chance they'll ever have to play such larger-than-life historical figures (a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one). Walker is especially fine in evoking the gentle but indomitable spirit of perhaps our greatest president. But the fact that he plays the role so straight is a major miscalculation.
Lacking the confidence to play its horrific events in the manner of a grindhouse Grand Guignol, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ends up usurping true events for the purpose of dramatic punctuation. After the Civil War has ended and the villains have been vanquished, not exactly the last line of the film (but close to it) is a predictable one in which Mary calls out for Abe and delivers the inevitable, "Hurry, Abe, or we'll be late for the theater." It's these kind of bad, predictable choices to give historical weight to what is essentially an absurd, revisionist, secret history that ruin what might have been an outrageously fun cult film.
* * *
For a look at what might have been a better direction to go in, check out this fan-made trailer for Chester A. Arthur: Sasquatch Trainer: