Last summer while I was waiting to board a flight I came across the book ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER in one of those overpriced airport bookstores. I had forgotten to bring any kind of reading material but it looked like the most interesting book available so I bought it. The book ended up being one of the best books I read that year. I loved it for its ability to plausibly edit history and insert supernatural creatures. It gave a whole new background to many of the events that occurred in Lincoln's life while still grounding it in the history we know. It was so smart and inventive and gave me a whole new interest in our sixteenth president, even if it was all fake. So I was super excited to hear that it was being adapted into a movie and by the author no less. However after seeing DARK SHADOWS earlier this year I started to get a little worried. Seth Grahame-Smith, author of AL:VH, wrote the script of DARK SHADOWS and it was a mess! The characters had zero depth, the story was thin and it was incredibly boring. I am extremely disappointed to say that AL:VH followed suit.
This is a story that depicts how vampires have permeated Honest Abe’s life since he was a little boy starting with the death of his mother at the hands of one. After her death he becomes determined to rid the world of vampires, one kill at a time. Only problem is he’s terrible at hunting vampires, barely making it out alive after his first hunt, and it’s only after meeting a “good” vampire named Henry that he learns how vampires operate, what their weaknesses are and how to properly kill one. Henry becomes his mentor, giving him hunting assignments and guidance. But Abe wants more. He wants to be a lawyer so he learns to balance hunting with his career. As Abe becomes more successful, becoming a politician and eventually president, while also falling in love with Mary Todd, he wants less and less to do with vampires. He wants to lead a normal life but that’s not possible anymore, as the Southern vampires have caught wind of his aspirations to eliminate slavery, a business that has been providing them with a great source of food, and in no way want him to succeed. They do all that they can stop Lincoln, going so far as to harming his family and participating in the Civil War as soldiers to ensure a swift victory for the South. The Northern aka “good” vampires believe in Lincoln’s vision and he’s forced to align with them to protect not only his family but also his country.
I was never one for biographies or politics but the above story that Grahame-Smith writes is absolutely thrilling and exciting to read so I was absolutely baffled at how he was able to take his own story and completely fuck it up on screen. You can try to blame the director Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton’s involvement for the film being so dreadful but I place full blame on Grahame-Smith. How do you fuck up your own material?!?!
The movie fails because it simply comes off as a bunch of broad scenes taken from Lincoln’s life that is then filled in with vampires. It bounces from one scene to another without creating any kind of meaningful connection with Abe or the other characters. It moves around Abe’s life long enough to show us that something happened but never giving us enough to get attached to Abe or care about what’s going on. Within the first ten minutes we see Abe (Benjamin Walker) go from being a child to a drunk, angry teenager/twenty-something barely surviving his first attempt at killing Jack Barts, the vampire who killed his mother. There’s no explanation as to what Abe had been doing in that huge gap of time, if he’d encountered other vampires in that time, if he’d researched vampires or anything. No, now he’s an angry young man out to kill. And boom! In his first attempt to kill a vampire he meets his mentor Henry (Dominic Cooper), whom he has no idea is a vampire (naïve much?) but automatically accepts Henry’s offer to learn how to kill vampires. Abe doesn’t even question how Henry knows this. He’s just like “oh you know how to kill them? Awesome! I don’t care that you wear lots of sunscreen outside or strange sunglasses or somehow have this intimate knowledge of vampires. Teach me sensei.”
Now one does not become an expert vampire hunter overnight. At least I would imagine so. You have to train, learn their weakness and attack methods and how to wield certain weapons. Cue obligatory training sequence. While I'm fine with a training montage, it needs to happen, what didn't sit right with me is how inconsistent Abe's skill level is shown. After barely being strong enough to fend off Jack Barts days earlier and hardly being able to spare with Henry, Abe is shown to almost immediately have the strength to chop down a tree in one swoop. That type of strength takes time to cultivate but this boy does it within minutes of learning to wield an axe. If you want to make this somewhat realistic at least show him practicing over time, getting stronger and stronger and then eventually cutting down the tree. Not have him chop it down in the first go.
Throughout the rest of the film Abe is portrayed as being a very strong and skilled man but never superhuman like the vampires. Yet in another battle with Barts during a horse stampede, Abe literally has a horse thrown at him. It rolls right into him but somehow he magically appears on top of it to ride the horse right back at Barts. And THEN these two bounce from horse back to horse back as if they're jumping from stone to stone across a pond. What the fuck? I'll allow the vampires to do that because they're supernatural but not Abe. You're good but not that good.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was finding out the different ways vampires had assimilated into society and how they had all these secret lairs where they killed their victims or means of collecting human blood. The first time Abe hunts we get to see one such lair and it was scary and upsetting to witness but also fascinating. I thought this was setting the tone for the rest of the film. We’ll get to see all these creepy dungeons and the ways in which they prolong their victim’s deaths, pero no. You get just that one and then all you see from then on are the dead bodies after his hunts. Half way through the movie Abe stops hunting entirely and only resumes killing because the vampires have taken someone from him. Excuse me? This is called ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. I better see him hunting some motherfucking vampires.
Of course any good hero needs sidekicks to help them fight evil and Abe has two, the first being Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), whose character motives constantly flip flops in the little screen time he has. The second is the entirely pointless Will played by Anthony Mackie. Will is a slave Abe grew up with who seeks out Abe to get a writ of freedom because some bounty hunters want to arrest him. Abe says he will help him but we never see it happen and then it's entirely forgotten from the story. There is no other depth to Will other than he was a former slave who Abe knew yet he is kept in the story despite adding dick to the story. He's just there to fight vampires with Abe, even though we never see Abe training him. He is an empty and pointless character that replaced a much more interesting character from the book, Jack Armstrong.
Dominic Cooper is fine as Henry and the film even adds a nice little scene that looks into his backstory but once again Grahame-Smith fails to give the events any kind of meaning or significance other than they happened. The scene explores Henry’s first encounter with the film’s villain, Adam (Rufus Sewell), who may be the first vampire ever (get it?) but gives no real reason as to why Adam and Henry are meeting in the first place or how they came to be adversaries in the present.
Speaking of adversaries, Abe falls in love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but she’s already engaged to the politician Stephen Douglas (an underused Alan Tudyk) so you’d think Douglas would become a political and romantic rival for Abe. It would make Abe’s all too easy task of wooing Mary Todd more difficult and later down the road, give the Southern vampires a politician to work with in hopes of taking down Abe. But that would cause Abe to struggle and take all the villainous focus away from Adam so just like that Tudyk’s gone from the story and so too is an extra dimension to the story.
Perhaps I was spoiled by reading the book. I came in knowing so much about Abe's vampire history. I knew about the different journeys he'd been on, the people he'd met along the way and the tales of other vampires in history. I knew that all of this couldn't be included but I expected the movie to be a streamlined cohesive story that was an exciting, playful and intriguing look into a president’s past and the untold history of the US. Was that too much to ask for? Apparently so, because what I got was a choppy, boring adaptation that literally sucked the life out of such a fantastic book.