Earlier this year mash-up darling Seth Grahame-Smith’s first screenplay, the Tim Burton-directed Dark Shadows, made its way to the big screen with little fanfare and much criticism. Although visually appealing, it left a lot to be desired, with many critics citing its disjointed nature and issues of character abandonment as a major detriment to its success. Now with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, adapted from his book of the same name, Grahame-Smith is given a second chance, this time with Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov behind the camera.
The film opens in 1818, with young Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) and his family working on a plantation in Indiana, working off debts for plantation owner Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). While working on the docks, Abe intervenes as a slave owner whips his William, prompting Abe’s father Thomas (Joseph Mawle) to punch him off the dock and into the water. Barts in turn fires Thomas, who refuses to pay back the past debt, prompting Barts to suggest there is more than one way to collect. Later that night, Barts sneaks into Abraham’s house and kills his mother Nancy (Robin McLeavy). Nine years later, Lincoln seeks revenge on Barts, quickly learning that he is a vampire. He is saved by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a mysterious man who teaches Lincoln the ways of vampire hunting.
Consumed with thoughts of revenge but strictly forbidden from killing Barts, Lincoln heads to Springfield where he takes up employment as a shopkeeper. Here he becomes good friends with his employer Speed (Jimmi Simpson), and is reunited with William (Anthony Mackie), who now frees slaves via the Underground Railroad. After striking up a relationship with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is (was?) engaged to Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) he learns Barts has targeted her, prompting him to seek him out and exact his revenge. Unfortunately, Barts is little more than a peon to Adam (Rufus Sewell), the progenitor of all vampires in America who seeks to take control of the country.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a thoroughly inept film. Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay is a broken mess, filled with aimless exposition and voice overs that infuriate more than entertain as it jumps randomly from scene to scene without attempting to explore anything that might be deemed important or relevant. It also jumps from time period to time period, with the entire process of Lincoln’s campaign ignored in order to progress the film into the climactic third act. By the time we get to this point, however, you’re left with more questions than answers.
Throughout characters are introduced and abandoned before reappearing where necessary to help further the story, with Lincoln and Sturgess being the only two developed enough to genuinely care what happens to them; their relationship, although hastily formed, is one of the only aspects of the film that doesn’t insult the viewer. Douglas, a seemingly major player in Lincoln’s history, is given little screen time before disappearing for much of the film, while major players such as Adam and his sister Vadoma (Erin Wasson) aren’t given the respect they deserve, their backstories being little more than a way to reconcile the true history of slavery with the film’s alternate history.
Others are relegated to the sidelines, such as the woefully miscast Winstead as Mary Todd, whom Lincoln courts and eventually marries. Beyond this she does little more than make weak attempts at tugging at heartstrings or make Lincoln feel bad for keeping his secret life from her for most of their relationship. It gives off the impression that Grahame-Smith was forced to include her out of historical necessity, not because she’s important to the story. Given his loose interpretation of history, putting the focus entirely on Lincoln and vampires set against the backdrop of his campaign and Gettysburg would have been far more enticing a film; no need to include the supporting cast if they’re irrelevant to the story.
This history is, unfortunately, exceptionally boring, with the only respite from the mediocrity coming in the form of slightly less mediocre fight scenes. Bekmambetov takes a page from the Zack Snyder book of filmmaking, slowing down the fight scenes, presumably to showcase the inventive ways in which Lincoln, who prefers an axe to a gun (though his combination of the two is pretty creative), dispatches vampires. At first the fight scenes are simple, with Lincoln seeking out and killing a number of small time vamps at the behest of Sturgess, but after Barts targets Mary, things pick up in a way that’s almost parodic. The film takes itself way too seriously, which makes a scene wherein Barts and Lincoln literally jump on the backs of horses as they stampede all the more ludicrous. We’re given a glimpse of the intrinsic humor in the film when Barts swings a horse around and launches it at Lincoln, but beyond this Bekmambetov plays everything with a completely straight face. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a foolish endeavor, but the combination of Grahame-Smith’s disjointed and incredibly weak script and Bakmembetov’s visual style just simply doesn’t work.
Mash-ups are all well and good, but Grahame-Smith can’t seem to translate what made his novels so popular into a film. He’d do well to read a few books on screenwriting before endeavoring to make his mark on the big screen.