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— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell the bloodsuckers from the politicians. At least Abraham Lincoln tried to take a stand.

Manhunt

Abraham Lincoln: Ax Man
Abraham Lincoln: Ax Man

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The title says it all. It’s exploitative trash (with 3D effects that provide a sense of cheesy 1980s horror film fun) mixed with some historical seasoning. The book, by mash-up maestro Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, takes pains to build historical context around Lincoln’s vampire-killing adventures. Those pains include Photoshopped images tweaked with vampirical symbolism.

This movie version is more akin to a companion piece, an overhaul of the source material that gives the narrative more structure and transfuses it with a couple excellent action set pieces.

Unfortunately, taking the book and the movie as stand-alone pieces of entertainment, neither works exceptionally well. Taken as a set, they almost add up to a complete vision of history rewritten. And Grahame-Smith can’t really complain about what the screenwriter did with his book; he was the sole author of both.

Particularly in regard to the movie, yeah, it can be said it simply doesn’t sink its teeth into the material with enough relish. You’ve got the title, now you’ve got to live up to it. The movie’s fun – in spots – but it’s not the full-out outrageous experiment in exploitation the material demands to be. Maybe Quentin Tarantino should’ve taken the reigns and sauced it up with his brand of audaciousness, as seen in Inglourious Basterds.

Instead, Timur Bekmambetov, who showed his flair for over-the-top action in Wanted, takes a stab at the material to middling success at best.

Unwanted

The aforementioned action set pieces are pure Bekmambetov (if such a thing can be said of a director with one bona fide Hollywood blockbuster to his name). One is a hyper chase involving a horse stampede and a couple very agile horsemen who jump from horse to horse while duking it out; John Wayne would be proud.

The other is a climactic race against the clock involving the president, a train, vampires, and a burning bridge.

The latter is a particularly dramatic diversion from the book, but one that opens up some interesting historical notes unique to the movie. For two, it allows for a (very brief) cameo by Harriet Tubman and an interesting use of the Underground Railroad.

There are other dashes of history, such as Stephen Douglas, with whom Lincoln competed for both votes and Mary Todd’s love.

But while Grahame-Smith has fun reworking historical elements to his unsavory needs in the book, the movie dials it back a bit too much. In cinema-speak, sensational newspaper headlines and telegrams of the day splattered across the screen might have helped bridge the gap between reality and fantasy.

Instead, the movie dances around some interesting themes that don’t quite sink in with the much-needed resonance.

Abe Lincoln: Ax Man

Sure, Lincoln is driven to hunt vampires because one such beast murdered his mother (and later, one of his sons). Her death, when he was a young boy, changed the course of his life and turned him into a real bad ax. Wood wasn’t the only thing he could split with an ax blade.

The book goes so far as to identify John Wilkes Booth as a vampire, but the scene of the infamous assassination by the actor/vampire is merely alluded to in the movie’s closing minutes.

But why were so many Confederate soldiers vampires and all of the Union soldiers humans? Well, therein is the crux of Lincoln’s stance on freedom. The vampires were able to feast on the slaves without fear of retribution because of the slaves’ lowly, lowly place in society. Abolishing slavery would abolish their prime source of food, and a prime reason for the vampires’ arrival in America.

Equally significant, though, is Lincoln’s notion that until all men are free, we are all slaves. Surely, had the Confederacy won, vampires would’ve ruled the country and sent all mortal men into slavery.

That fairly crafty rewriting of history is there, lurking around in the movie, but it’s ultimately lost amid a greater desire to be a populist piece of summer movie fare.

Cast Aside

Given the narrative failings of both the movie and the book, it’s easy enough to deride the material and belittle what it attempts to do. Even so, credit needs to be given where credit is due.

For the movie, that includes Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography. The man photographed The Patriot and The Natural, among many others, and he makes things look as good as can be, including Bekmambetov’s unique take on the human body’s ability to jump and bounce around (in 3D!).

And the cast is top notch from the leads down to the minor players. In particular, Benjamin Walker (Kinsey) makes a fine Abe, and he improves with age. That is to say his older Abe, with the familiar beard and stovepipe hat, is quite well done.

The same can be said of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who’s captivating and appropriately elegant as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess), who imbues Henry Sturges, Lincoln’s “oldest” friend, with a classy kind of 19th century cool.