“There are two kinds of people in the world,” explains Jack Barts (Martin Csokas). “Those who have the guts to pull the trigger and those who don’t.” Barts is bestowing this bit of wisdom on Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), who at this very moment is loading gunpowder and a bullet into his weapon. What young Abe hasn’t figured out yet is that even when he does pull his trigger on the villain Barts, it won’t matter, because Barts is a vampire. You, on the other hand, know what’s coming, because you’re watching a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
It takes Abe a few minutes to catch up, but by that time, it’s too late—for his mother, whom Barts killed years before and so ignited Abe’s erratic thirst for vengeance, and also for the rest of the American population, who will become Abe’s responsibility once he’s elected president. You might be feeling that it’s too late for you too—because, again, you’re watching this movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Let’s start with that colonated title’s premise, the jaunty mashing up of US history and horror story. It’s not a terrible idea to rethink the problem posed by the Confederacy, to elaborate on its threat to the nation, the literal practice of slavery turned metaphysical, as vampirism. But still, you’d hope such elaboration would be, well, more elaborate than pitting Abe against a bunch of vampires. Apart from the self-styling slave-master Barts, this bunch is awfully generic, veiny, toothy types who follow their leader Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his hissy sister Vadoma (Erin Wasson, used here like the fashion model she’s been, as set dressing). In fact, Abe dispatches with most of them pretty easily using an ax, which he prefers to a gun because, he says, of his (off-screen) personal history as a rail-splitter.
These action scenes are notably grim, partly because of the 3D glasses’ added darkness, because killing anything in the mid 19th century is an atrocious business, and because Abe spends dour time pondering his self-appointed mission. He’s enabled, at first, by mysterious stranger Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who serves rather like a Watcher, training him to chop down trees and then kill vampires (for both activities, Henry instructs, “Real power comes not from hate, but from truth,” whatever that means) and assigning him targets, vampires passing as shopkeepers and bankers. While he’s sometimes assisted by his Black Best Friend, Will (Anthony Mackie), youngish Abe keeps his night life secret from his wife Mary (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who wants him to focus on his increasingly important political career.
The film, rather carelessly, suggests that this career is accidental: Abe gives a couple of speeches about the evils of slavery (and is supported in this thinking by Mary) and eventually runs for president against fellow Illinoisan Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk), here cast as well as Mary’s former beau and determined slavery supporter. As president, Abe does his best to repress his vampire-hunting past, going so far as to stow his ax away in a trunk, until Adam designs to make the nation not just slave-owning but vampiric, the apparent rationale being that the vampires eat slaves because white people (that is, white men, land-owners and voters) don’t misses slaves. If this logic is sketchy, it does allow for an otherwise anomalous appearance by Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming), and also underscores Abe’s awesome foresight in being friends with Will since childhood.
The movie doesn’t explain how Will and Abe actually know one another in this first instance (little boy Abe intervenes—with an ax, no less—when he sees Will being whipped) or how Will keeps popping up at key moments in Abe’s private and public lives. But Will comes to embody, awkwardly, the primary ethical point of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, that slavers and vampires are related evils, in need of Abe’s vanquishing. Indeed, when Abe is president and the South secedes, the silly human elements in the rebellion, say, Jefferson Davis (John Rothman), are made pawns in Adam’s broader scheme. And so, when Adam offers the South an army of vampires—whom Davis calls “your kind” in a brief planning convo—it’s not entirely clear that said South understands what’s at stake. It appears here that the South is so fixated on winning the war against the big bully Union and its figurehead Lincoln, that it’s quite willing to sell its soul, so to speak.
It’s probably a stretch to see in this terrible bargain any allusion to the Tea Party and today’s Republicans. But still, the bargain leads to a series of horrific battles, after which someone who might be Matthew Brady takes pictures of hundreds of bloody corpses. During the later battles, however, the vampire Confederate soldiers don’t go down when shot—until, of course, Abe remembers that silver bullets and swords have a certain effectiveness. The bargain leads as well to the requisite humungous showdown between Abe and Adam, each attended by helpers who prolong the fighting, the exploding, and the dying.
It’s here, in the depictions of so much dying, that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter might be slightly different from other summertime entertainments that made US presidents into action heroes, like Independence Day or Air Force One. For this movie shows how brutal death—living death too—is deeply entwined with idealizing and politicking and speechifying. There is no end to any of it, which is not to say the film imagines a sequel: the problem is, of course, that Abe’s story is known. And so, even as he wins, even as he “pulls the trigger” on Adam and gives the Gettsyburg Address, you know the dying isn’t over. But you’re grateful the movie is.