Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter draws its narrative life force from the history-lesson mashup of the same name published by Seth Grahame-Smith in 2010, a moderately clever literary-fad follow-up to the author’s own Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But somewhere between Elizabeth Bennett’s charming ninja exertions against the undead and the grim determination with which our 16th president now wields an axe against blood-suckers in this flashy adaptation directed by Timur Bekmambetov, mash-up mania appears to have subsided. And with it, all its diverting silliness. As a result, the movie-version Vampire Hunter is both more arty-handsome than the concept warrants, and less out-there than it ought to be.
No spoiler: Lincoln first began his hunting expeditions because, as a boy, he saw those suckers go after slaves. (They’re all white, these vampires.) When he intervened to save a little black friend, they went after his own mother. And when he became a man — the adult Lincoln is played by Benjamin Walker with a look of perpetually stricken self-effacement — he committed himself to the eradication of the infernal species, under the tutelage of a rogue good vampire named Henry Sturgess. As played by Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!, The Devil’s Double) with brisk gusto, Henry is the guy who appears to be having all the fun. And when Cooper has scenes with Rufus Sewell as the chief vamp meanie, the two Brits put on a jolly show of vampire eyeball glares. In the face of all their energy, Walker — who made a sexy splash as yet another past POTUS in the title role of the Off Broadway hit Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — loses his edge.
Bekmambetov is the Kazakh stylist who made the Russian cult pics Night Watch and Day Watch and gave the Angelina Jolie action fantasy Wanted its distinctive visual hustle. Here, he tints Vampire Hunter in fine, Civil War-appropriate sepia tones. He also works productively with the weird tendency of 3-D movies to make everything look like a pop-up book. Why not — this warped history is essentially a pop-up book. But in the process, the director and the screenwriter (Grahame-Smith, pruning his own book of any complexity and skipping the whole John Wilkes Booth portion of the story) back away from risking a point of view. With a title like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this production has the opportunity to be crazy-absurd. With the notion of slave owners as the world’s true vampires, it has the possibility of making stirring political analogies. With the bloody bloody agonies of the Civil War as its centerpiece — Lincoln makes his Gettysburg Address in the middle — the picture could have been a shriek against the ghoulishness of battle. And with so much flesh crunching and bloodletting, it could have been scary as all Walking Dead get-out.
Instead, the movie plays safe by cutting every theme down the middle — a swing that’s effective when splitting wood or vampire skulls, but dull when applied to filmmaking. C+