“History prefers legends to men,” intones Honest Abe at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and despite comically purporting to take the opposite stance, so too does this ludicrous movie, which rewrites the saga of America’s 16th president into a ridiculous Matrix-indebted horror-action extravaganza. Working from Seth Grahame-Smith’s revisionist novel, director Timor Bekmambetov doesn’t need to make his material overtly wink at the audience because his conceit—that Lincoln spent his life slaying bloodsuckers, be it to avenge his mother’s murder or to free the South from vamps—is itself enough of an obvious dim-bulb joke. Rather, he merely delivers one over-the-top, in-your-face 3D-enhanced image and set piece after another, including CG aerial pans across the Gettysburg battlefield, or the super-slow-motion sight of Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) twirling his signature silver-coated axe (which doubles as a shotgun) with baton-twirling dexterity, and then using it to gruesomely decapitate undead foes. There isn’t a moment in Vampire Hunter that doesn’t commingle gravity and laugh-out-loud absurdity, with Lincoln’s solemn anti-vampire convictions and oration consistently complemented by feats of outrageous, video-game-ish heroism, none sillier than his computer-generated battle against his mother’s killer (Marton Csokas) amid a raging horse stampede—a sequence that finds the young Lincoln pursuing his adversary while dodging flying beasts and leaping from one horse’s back to another.
Not a single lick of Bekmambetov’s film makes sense, so that when it comes time for a now-elected Lincoln to wage the Civil War, his inner-circle cabinet is somehow comprised of Speed (Jimmi Simpson), the owner of the local store where Lincoln first worked in Illinois while studying to be a lawyer, and Will (Anthony Mackie), the African-American friend whom Lincoln saved from a whipping during their youth. Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) also gets some vampire-killing in by story’s end, though not before functioning as Lincoln’s potential weak spot against a vampire conspiracy led by Adam (Rufus Sewell), the first and most powerful of his fanged kind. Southern plantation master Adam wishes to uphold slavery because owning African-Americans provides an easily acquired and controlled supply of food, and if reconfiguring slave owners as literal monsters seems more than a bit reductive and insensitive, taking umbrage would also necessitate taking Vampire Hunter seriously. Rather, the film refuses to operate as anything more than a cheeky period-piece gag designed to hybridize one real icon with another make-believe one, a process that makes no logical sense, but affords moderate humor simply from the ludicrous juxtapositions of historical facts and gory fictions.
The script leaps forward with an absurdity almost as great as Lincoln’s own strength, which, his vampire friend and mentor Henry (Dominic Cooper) laughably claims comes from “truth.” By herking and jerking around without any concern for coherent plotting (the story abruptly resolves or ditches numerous conflicts and dilemmas as quickly as it introduces them), Bekmambetov’s film structurally admits to its own cheesy insubstantiality, as does its dialogue, which is comprised of countless trailer-ready one-liners. Too often, the sheer idiocy of the entire endeavor is more tiresome than enlivening, and while Walker cuts a presidential figure as the top-hatted commander-in-chief, he also fails to make a substantial impression, mainly because the proceedings, by their very nature, treat him and everything around him as a goof. By the time it finishes its hyper-drive finale involving insane skirmishes inside and on top of a speeding train traversing a burning bridge, Vampire Hunter feels like a flashy corpse largely drained of its comedic lifeblood, thus making its coda—which suggests that this is only the first of a planned presidents-as-superheroes franchise—feel like a feeble bid for reelection.