According to screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the original novel, as well as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), his inspiration for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was seeing a bookstore display for the “Twilight” books cheek and jowl with a table of volumes about Lincoln. Lincoln ... vampires .... vampires ... Lincoln .... hmmm....
Yeah, it's an amusing idea, but that's really all it is. The entire joke is conveyed in the title; anything more is superfluous. It's the sort of concept that would work better as a fake trailer within something else, like Mel Brooks' “Jews in Space” in “History of the World: Part I” or Rob Zombie's “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” (“with Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu!”) in “Grindhouse.”
You'll be shocked to learn that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” takes a few liberties with history. Abe's mother (Robin McLeavy), for instance, didn't actually die from a vampire attack, but rather from “milk sickness,” which sounds almost as weird. If my foggy memories of 10th-grade history are correct, I'm pretty sure that the slave trade wasn't run primarily by literal bloodsuckers. And it seems overly convenient to have Lincoln's wife-to-be, Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), also being courted by political rival Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk). Oops: Actually, that part is real. So much for my memories.
Still, was Abraham Lincoln two-fisted? You bet! And, as a former rail splitter, he could wield a silver-plated ax like nobody's business. As portrayed by Benjamin Walker, he — along with mentor, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) — also appear to have learned a lot of moves from the monks of the Shaolin Temple. Walker looks so much like a young Liam Neeson that I wasn't surprised to discover that he played a younger incarnation of Neeson's character in “Kinsey.”
Today's southerners may be able to take in good humor the jokey notion that the Confederate Army was largely composed of the Undead. But to actually show Jefferson Davis signing a pact with the boss bloodsucker (Rufus Sewell)? That may be going too far — particularly given that the producers handed the project over to director Timur Bekmambetov, a Russkie.
Before coming to the U.S., Bekmambetov directed the brilliantly inventive “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch,” both of which make great use of all the flashiest, state-of-the-art action-movie techniques. His next project was “Wanted” — the movie where Angelina Jolie teaches James McEvoy how to put English on a bullet — which wasn't quite up to its predecessors but still showed the director's masterful stylistic excess.
Here, however, he seems more restrained, as though the “historical” nature of the material required a little ... “respect”? Really? I mean, if you're going to make an entire feature built around the title “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” the proper approach would seem to be “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Only in the final big set piece — more or less a retread of the climax of “Wanted” — does Bekmambetov achieve the sustained frenzy of his earlier work. And he gets to have our 16th president yell the mandatory “Nooooooooooooooooo!” — in accordance with whatever statute controls action-film production requirements.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times