Abe Lincoln and his war with the Undead
A new movie portraying the US civil-war president as a battler of blood-sucking ghouls is a pleasingly naff mash-up of genres.
Whenever Hollywood goes historical, critics begin frothing at the mouth ready to tear into such films for their inaccuracies, exploitations and oversights. Now, one would imagine that a film entitled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would be above such a line of criticism, but bizarrely a number of reviewers have torn into it with as much zeal as they did Shakespeare in Love.
Although it hardly takes much explaining, the film is a mock biopic of the sixteenth US president in which his ascension to power and triumph in the American Civil War is intertwined with his secret battle against bloodsucking ghouls. While, to their credit, reviewers haven’t taken issue with the vampire-slayer twist itself, many have nevertheless attacked the film for doing an injustice to the history which inspired it. One reviewer for the Guardian took issue with the film’s portrayal of Lincoln as a life-long abolitionist when in fact he was, by contemporary standards, a white supremacist who only signed the Emancipation Proclamation to cripple the Confederate war effort. Mark Kermode felt that the film failed to fully explore the tantalising parallel between vampirism and the slave trade.
So it seems many have somehow managed to take a film about Abraham Lincoln slaying vampires far too seriously, yet much of the blame for this lies with Seth Grahame-Smith, the writer who wrote the screenplay as well as the novel on which it is based. The unprecedented success of his 2009 parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, popularised the so-called ‘mash-up’ literary style, in which the stories of existing literary or historical figures are irreverently reinterpreted with fantasy embellishment. In the face of those who dismissed his work as little more than mindless and cheap juxtapositions, Smith has insisted that his works are labours of love primarily aimed to illuminate and introduce the work he parodies to younger audiences. Of course, this is a gross overestimation of the genre, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter only manages to sustain its own adaptation by wholeheartedly embracing the one-trick-pony charm of the mash-up form.
Paradoxically, the film achieves this by maintaining a straight face throughout, as the narrative unfolds as if it were your standard action-adventure fare. In a hasty prologue, we are taken through Abe’s young days as the son of penniless pioneers and witness the events which spark his dual hate of vampires and slavery. As he grows up, Abraham (played by newcomer Benjamin Walker) is torn apart by rage and is recruited by veteran vamp hitman Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper). From then on, Lincoln fights the evils of America with two lethal weapons, diplomacy and an axe.
The director, Timur Bekmambetov, whose credits include supernatural cult thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch, brings to the film his distinctly dark, stylised and CGI-laden aesthetic. The increasingly overblown action sequences that Bekmambetov offers feed well into the absurdity of it all. As much as you may think that the novelty of seeing Honest Abe back-flipping and decapitating his enemies would eventually wear off, the lean hour-and-a-half running time ensures otherwise.
The reinterpretation of Lincoln’s story is done in a clunky and blatant fashion, whereby every one of his personal trials, from the outbreak of the Civil War to the untimely death of his son Willie, is blamed on the malevolent bloodsuckers. Yet the sheer shamelessness with which the dots are connected is a continual source of entertainment as the ludicrous plot plods towards its conclusion.
Tim Burton, who takes up the role of producer, has stated that he signed up for the project having only seen the front cover of Grahame-Smith’s novel. As such, the challenge facing this adaptation was that the joke which anchors the entire narrative is effectively told once we have read the title. But by embracing the inescapable superficiality of the mash-up form, Bekmambetov has managed to stretch the paper-thin concept into a pleasingly naff feature length. For this feat alone, this film deserves some recognition.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
Watch the trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: