And here all this time you thought that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and that “peculiar institution” called slavery, that the Underground Railroad was a network of escape routes across the Mason-Dixon and the southern plantation system was built on the backs of black labor.
Silly you, you must have snoozed through sophomore history.
As any fan of Seth Grahame-Smith’s melding of fact and fancy will tell you, it was all about vampires. That’s right, the root cause of the war between the states was a secret army of bloodsuckers who used slaves as its main food source. And the young Abraham Lincoln of Pigeon Creek, Ill.? Why, before passing the bar and debating Douglas, he was a vampire slayer extraordinaire, a regular “Honest Abe” Van Helsing who did more than split rails with his trusty ax.
At least that’s the high-concept, lowbrow premise behind “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a monotonous, knuckle-headed fusion of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” directed by Timur Bekmambetov (“Taken”) and adapted by Grahame-Smith, fresh off last month’s marginally more entertaining “Dark Shadows.”
What seemed ingenious, a tad sacrilegious, on the printed page comes off as just plain dopey on the big screen, despite some wonderful Mathew Brady-inspired tableaux by veteran photog Caleb Deschanel (“The Natural”) and an amiably awkward performance by Benjamin Walker, who as Lincoln resembles a young Liam Neeson. (Walker played Neeson as the teenage Kinsey in “Kinsey.”)
Young Abe, we learn in flashbacks from the Oval Office, was driven less by a nagging sense of justice t’ward all men than by vengeance. He vows to hunt down and dispatch Black Barts (Marton Csokas), the vampire who killed his mother. Obviously such a quest calls for a mentor. Enter Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who, like the sensei in “The Karate Kid,” teaches Abe to channel his inner demons and chop/drop-kick his enemies into submissions. Lest you write Abe off as a common stake-driver, all the bloodletting, we’re reminded, is done to “ensure this remains a nation of men, not monsters.”
Every superhero needs a day job and cover story. Abe’s sure beats Bruce Wayne’s. All grown up, he dons stovepipe hat and plays crusading politician. Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes a shine to this Lincoln, who apologizes for seeming preoccupied: “I’ve been working nights.” Obviously something has to give. Tired of moonlighting, Lincoln retires his ax-cum-blunderbuss and, as fallback career, becomes president ‒ until war breaks out and his generals report that the Confederate army is infiltrated by phantoms with fangs.
Genre buffs will be glad to hear most of this comic-book horror opus is pure action. Unfortunately, as orchestrated by Bekmambetov and his f/x army, the action is more stultifying than suspenseful, more cartoonish than cathartic. In an idiotic twist on the freeway chase in “The Matrix,” Abe chases Barts across the backs of stampeding horses. The climactic battle aboard a locomotive ‒ barreling toward a burning trestle bridge, natch ‒ is so heavy on CG we might as well be watching the opening moments of “Toy Story 3.”
Our advice: give this bad mix of vampire lore and melodramatic prattle (“How could I bring her into this world, a world of demons and danger”) a wide berth and check out the greatest of great locomotive chases, Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece “The General.”
Now there’s a Civil War cliffhanger you can sink your teeth into …
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER ✮1/2 With Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith. 105 min. Rated R (for heavily stylized horror, generous bloodletting)