As Americans, we are expected to be optimistic. We look to the future, and the vista of endless progress — but we're still haunted by the past, including the stuff we brought with us from the Old World. And vampires perfectly represent this great national tension. They're going to live forever (just like Fame!) but they're also connected to the past, because they've lived a long time.
It's fascinating to watch this opposition play out in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, out today. It's a super-fun movie when it's about killing vampires (progress!) but it becomes almost unwatchable when it tries to concern itself with history's terrible claims on us, in the form of slavery. Spoilers ahead...
There's always something to be said for vampires in old-timey settings — whenever The Vampire Diaries puts Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev into fancy wigs and shows them in the Renaissance or the Civil War, it's always a blast. (Wigs = time travel.) But the concept of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was a wonky one to begin with, because it's not just an alternate history in which vampires are inserted. This movie (and the book it's based on) dare to be a biography of one of America's most well-known figures, only with vampires.
That means, in turn, that we can't just have a fun 19th Century vampire-killing movie — there have to be, you know, actual facts about the life of Abraham Lincoln in there somewhere. And that need to include bits of historically accurate information is really what prevents Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter from being as fun as it wants to be. And sadly, this film is not very much fun at all, for long stretches.
You just know that director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) would much rather have made a fun action movie about a random dude who learns to kill vampires in the era of railroads and axes and spikes. To the extent that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter works as a movie, it's as a straight remake of Wanted, only with some British dude in the Angelina Jolie role. The recruitment and training feel pretty similar, and the climax of both movies is a virtually identical train sequence. (Honestly, you might be better off renting Wanted on DVD.)
As my friend who saw this movie with me said, it's not quite able to be as awesome as A Knight's Tale, a straight-up movie full of historical mayhem and rock music. Because it keeps getting bogged down in actual history. And that's really too bad, for those of us who just wanted two hours of vampire decapitation and mid-19th-century white guys who somehow know kung-fu.
Honestly, there's about 30 minutes of vampire-killing action in this movie that's quite beautiful, and when you eventually rent this movie and fast-forward through every scene where someone is talking, you'll get a kick out of it. (Although I suspect the cheap-ass computer effects in this movie will look even crappier when you can watch at home, and freeze-frame things, then it does on the big screen.)
Sadly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn't quite rise to the level of A Knight's Tale. It's not even quite on the level of Nic Cage's historical epic Season of the Witch, with which it shares some of the same anachronistic kitchen-sink glee. And that's largely due to the need to grapple with the evil of slavery, which this movie tries to tangle up with vampires, without quite saying vampires caused slavery.
That slavery thing
There's one particularly cheeseball sequence, about halfway through the movie, where the head vampire (Rufus Sewell, who clearly wishes they hadn't cancelled The Eleventh Hour) explains that humans have been enslaving each other for thousands of years. The Egyptians enslaved the Jews. The Romans put Christians in chains. And so on. And wherever there have been slaves, the vampires have been there to feed on the victims of this institution — because, I guess, slavery offers a ready supply of disposable people who would never be missed.
In this film, vampires are plantation owners and slave traders, who use their inhuman strength to help perpetuate this terrible, dehumanizing institution. And later on in the film, when the Civil War is in full swing, Confederate President Jefferson Davis turns to the vampires, who promise him as many vampire soldiers as he needs. And the Battle of Gettysburg is basically a conflict between a bunch of human soldiers and some unkillable vampires. Oh, and Rufus Sewell talks about the Confederacy in terms like "we [vampires] need a country of our own."
And like we said earlier, Abraham Lincoln as vampire-killer is an agent of progress, improving the world by getting rid of predators who drag everything down. The vampires represent the old world, and Lincoln brings the new world into being with his weirdly high-tech axe that has a sort of shotgun inside it. Slavery is the great historical evil that stands in the way of the United States becoming a great country — and vampires are like the avatars of that terrible past.
It's sort of an intriguing notion — vampires are often used to represent an actual, real-life evil in pop culture, so why not slavery and racism? Also, it's interesting to see this version of vampires, in which they're like parasites that feed off the worst aspects of our nature. Sure, it's tacky — but so is most pop culture. And yes, it trivializes slavery. But it's still a notion that could have yielded some interesting story-telling. (Could have, but doesn't.)
But the real problem with this set-up is that the film never really commits to it in a meaningful way, and it drags the film down kicking and screaming.
This movie doesn't really want to say anything about slavery or the Civil War — because whatever the film actually says, it will alienate or offend some portion of its audience. So instead, the movie throws in cameos by Harriet Tubman, and random platitudes about the Underground Railroad and way-too-cute little turns of phrase like "this will be a country for the living, not the dead."
There are literally one or two scenes in which we actually see slavery in action — one early on, where a young Abe Lincoln watches his friend's parents being dragged away in chains by a whip-wielding vampire. And another one later on where some vampires feed on a group of slaves whom they've been randomly dancing with. You could easily imagine a horror movie in which slavery is depicted, in all of its actual awfulness, and we see vampires in the midst of it, taking advantage of all that free blood. That might be a movie most of us wouldn't want to watch, but it would be a movie with something to say.
Americans have seldom been willing to confront slavery in pop culture — there was a brief moment in the late 1970s where everybody watched Roots and processed their feelings, but that was about it. We choose to act as though this is one of those historical injustices that happened, and now everybody's over it, and there's no need to talk about it. A film like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is fascinating because it takes our claim that we're "over slavery" at face value — since we've all gotten over it, and it's no longer an issue, let's make a silly-but-taking-itself-kinda-seriously action movie about it. And yet, somewhere along the way, the makers of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter probably realized that Americans really haven't gotten over slavery and the Civil War as much as we like to claim. Hence the fact that this film is really choppily edited — you get the sense that key scenes were taken out at the last moment.
Anyone who wants to see quite how wrong and pointless vampire stories can get should definitely rent Abraham Lincoln at some point. If your friends do drag you to this film in the theater, though, a bit of advice — take a half-hour pee break when he becomes president. The movie literally drags to a halt once he's got the famous beard.