When history won’t do: ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter’

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'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' is out now (Stephen Vaughan/20th Century Fox)
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Mark Sussman

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Let’s get this out of the way: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Riddled with historical inaccuracies.

But you already knew that, and as Lincoln (an appropriately awkward Benjamin Walker) himself tells us in the film’s opening lines, “History prefers legends to men.”

And it’s true. Any imaginative retelling of history, whether it’s a scholarly work, a Ken Burns documentary, or a movie about our sixteenth president’s hatred of the undead, involves a bit of fudging to flesh out the characters, move the story along, or add some conflict. It’s expected, even necessary.

Most of the things people do, even charismatic, adventurous, brilliant, or otherwise compelling people, are pretty boring: legends wait for trains and sit on the toilet just like the rest of us. And so who’s to say, on the week of Juneteenth—with a Lincoln Industry that has spent over a century churning out books, documentaries, TV mini-series, inspirational posters, and God knows what else—that our most legendary president couldn’t do with an infusion from a newly-revitalized Vampire Industry?

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If the title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounds too tongue-in-cheek, too absurd, if it sounds like too much, then we might consider the shopworn state of the stories about Lincoln that “everyone knows.” Born dirt poor in a log cabin; self-educated, embodying the can-do American Spirit; had a deep-seated hatred for slavery; won the Civil War, kept the Union intact, and abolished slavery; died in a sort of post facto martyrdom. The truth is quite a bit more complicated than that. But the truth doesn’t always make for the best story, and does not, as Hollywood so often requires in this day and age, include any vampires at all.

Which is not to say that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is necessarily that best story, or even a particularly good one. It does, however, have vampires. Adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his own rather tedious novel, and directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter begins in 1818 and proceeds from the premise that vampires are real and that they were the prime movers behind the slave trade, which provided them with a source of profit and fresh blood. After trying to stop slave trader Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) from selling two free blacks down the river, and then refusing to pay their debt to him, Lincoln’s parents incur Barts’s wrath.

“There’s more than one way to pay a debt,” Barts, who, it turns out, is a vampire, tells the Lincolns. He sneaks into the hallowed one-room cabin at night to infect Lincoln’s mother with a vampire-borne fever that takes her life. Witnessing the assault, Lincoln vows to take revenge on Barts when he is old enough and strong enough. His first attempt fails and Lincoln is saved from Barts by good samaritan Henry Sturgess (a not quite charming enough Dominic Cooper). After that near miss, Sturgess tells Lincoln all about vampires and agrees to teach him how to hunt and kill them.

The vampires of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter aren’t the hypertrophied, hormonal teen models of Twilight, nor are they quite the dandyish epicureans of Interview With The Vampire. In their human form they look like anyone else, but on the attack they resemble demonic wolves more than anything—they’re ugly. The film spells out at every available opportunity the idea that vampires, who seek to enslave and devour the human race, are basically the same thing as slave holders. We see a jovial Jefferson Davis making a deal with head vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell), an indignant Lincoln inveighing against the evils of slavery by day and hunting local vampires by night, and the constant reminder that impoverished, enslaved, and helpless blacks are the vampires’ primary targets.

We’re afforded some glimmers of the kind of gleeful mayhem that Bekmambetov unleashed in Wanted, though not nearly enough to make it as fun as that film. Lincoln hacks through his vampires with a heavy heart, and we look on as he grimly does his duty. When Henry hands Lincoln his axe and commands him to cut down a tree with a single blow, it’s hard not to think “curve the bullet.” And when, in Abraham Lincoln, a train goes off the rails and falls into a valley after a wicked fight scene, it’s hard not to think of that part, in Wanted, where a train goes off the rails and falls into a canyon after a wicked fight scene. Honest Abe hates vampires and slavery, Timur Bekmambetov hates trains. They both fight for what they believe in.

Thematically, too, the film suffers from overkill. After all, wasn’t slavery bad enough? Would vampires have made it worse? The unsettling implication of the vampire-slavery scenario is that we humans, because we are mere pawns of our vampire overlords, bear less responsibility for slavery and its legacies. When history is manipulated by large, hidden forces, the problem of complicity conveniently steps into the background.

It’s also worth noting that the film breaks an implicit filmmaking code: in portraying Confederate soldiers as vampires, it literally demonizes en masse what were, in some sense, American soldiers. Killing them becomes a significantly less morally fraught act (no more of that "brother against brother" angst), since, as Henry notes, and as people in vampire movies never tire of noting, you can’t kill what isn’t technically alive.

Movies and legends both excel at making us forget the boringness and the moral complexity of history—indeed, often enough, boringness and moral complexity are one and the same thing. And it can be a lot of fun to let go for a spell. But nobody is going to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to confront the moral complexities of the Civil War any more than they are to find out about the real secret history of vampires in the United States. If they are, they’ve profoundly misunderstood the purpose of something that seems to have begun as an attention-grabbing title, and only belatedly developed into a story (See also Snakes On A Plane).

In that sense, whether intentional or not, timing the film’s release to Juneteenth is, if not exactly cynical, then at least a little tone deaf. Whatever catharsis we’re granted by watching slavery annihilated, it comes at the price of forgetting that its origins are far more earthly than supernatural.

For a film striving to turn the nightmare of history into a popcorn pusher, that’s not an easy fact to surmount. But once the lights go down you can forget all that.