For the past several months, I've been completely torn about this film. On the one hand, I want to hate this stupid premise that has absolutely no right to work as a feature-length film. At best, this idea should be left to the Syfy network. But every time I see a trailer, the first thought that pops into my head is "I can't stay mad at you." I know the premise is stupid, but goddammit, that trailer promised me a film that could be gloriously stupid. I was determined to keep an open mind going into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, though I knew that it could easily turn out to be a failure. And I still wasn't prepared. This movie failed for reasons that I was never expecting.
Before going any further, I should point out that I did zero research for this movie or for this blog entry. How does it matter if Abraham Lincoln has a black friend in this movie who never existed in real life? Lincoln is off killing vampires who never existed in real life. So the troop movements in the Civil War aren't portrayed accurately? Right, and the Confederate army wasn't backed by undead legions. If the filmmakers didn't care about historical accuracy, why should I?
Getting to the movie itself, I hasten to add that none of the actors are at fault here. Benjamin Walker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, and Alan Tudyk all do fine work with what little they're given. I'll grant that Sewell looks more than a little lost, Tudyk's character is totally worthless, and the Abe/Mary romance arc feels very forced (though that one scene with the hat is rather cute), but those problems all come back to the script and the direction.
If this same cast was applied to an over-the-top campy action presentation of this same material, it would likely be a film worth watching. Hell, these same actors could be used toward a straight dramatic biopic of the 16th president, and I'd bet that the end result would at least be watchable. Instead, this particular film tries to approach its premise from both angles. The filmmakers tried to make a movie that could serve equally well as a shlocky action/adventure and as a serious drama. This idea turns out to be every bit as stupid as it sounds.
First of all, shlock is not something that one does halfway. A filmmaker with an outrageously brain-dead premise either has to go big or go home, otherwise there's no point. Secondly, presenting po-faced drama between moments of adrenaline-filled action will only serve to make the latter that much more boring, slowing the film to a halt in the process.
Third and most importantly, why would the filmmakers try to do such a thing?! Yes, I know that it's the Civil War. Yes, I know that it caused more American casualties than any other war in history. I can appreciate a solemn approach to the war and to all the lives lost. Ditto for the issue of slavery. But portraying such intense and emotionally loaded historical matters with a totally straight face looks really fucking stupid in a revisionist movie about vampires.
Oh, and let's not forget that Steven Spielberg is releasing a historically accurate Lincoln biopic this winter, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. If the makers of this film had stuck to their guns and just gone for broke with an overly silly fantasy adventure, then we might have at least gotten two movies that approached the same subject matter in totally different ways. As it is, there's only room in 2012 for one drama about Lincoln. Instead of setting itself apart from the upcoming biopic, Vampire Hunter placed itself directly in the other film's path, ready to get steamrolled into obscurity come December.
But enough about the film's ludicrous attempts at drama. What about its attempts at camp? Well, I'll grant that several of the action scenes are very good. When Abe finally starts twirling his axe and taking on bloodsuckers, this movie totally delivers the kind of outlandishly awesome fun I was expecting from it. The fights were creative, they were well-choreographed, they were all-around enjoyable. Yet even this half of the movie was not without flaws.
For one thing, this movie's rules about vampires are terribly presented. These vampires are weak against silver, but the explanation for why is both convoluted and absurd. Ditto for the reason why they don't cast reflections. And mind you, those are just the rules that get some explanation. Some vampires can simply turn invisible for short periods of time, others apparently can't. Some humans are turned after getting bitten, others aren't. We occasionally see vampires change their appearance, without any explanation as to how or why. Worst of all, these vampires aren't affected by sunlight. At all. They don't burn up, they don't turn to bats, they don't even sparkle. What the hell?!
Something else that affects the action, not to mention the rest of the film, is the visuals. From start to finish, this movie is terribly ugly. Even when the camerawork isn't totally bland (usually during the action scenes), the film's color palette is painfully drab and the CGI leaves quite a bit to be desired. There's also the matter of the film's 3D presentation, which might have been awesome if the post-conversion wasn't so awful. There were seriously times when the sides of the frame looked like I was viewing them without glasses, it was that poor.
Ultimately, what really sinks Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is its lack of tone. The godawful visuals don't exactly help matters, to be sure, but even that might be forgiven if the film had committed to being an over-the-top hack 'n' slash action romp worthy of its title. Instead, the film tries to balance its schlock with serious dramatic fare, a feat which none of the filmmakers were remotely capable of achieving. The end result is a boring, poorly-paced, tonally confused mess. Definitely not recommended.