REVIEW: Ladies and gentlemen, the 16th president of the United States was an ax-spinning, head-lopping vampire killer.
Here is the worst thing to happen to Abe Lincoln in a theater since he attended "Our American Cousin." The action-horror-history mashup "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" stakes out turf midway between Ken Burns and Bram Stoker. But the action is frenzy without form, the history is flat cliché, and there's no horror unless you count some of the performances. Everything is exactly wrong.
Playing its wild premise completely straight, the film positions our 16th president as a man with two driving passions, disgust at slavery and hatred for vampires. The two causes combine for him at an early age when young Abe watches a smirking slaveholder (Marton Csokas) lash his little black friend Will, and then sneak into the Lincoln cabin at night to tap his beloved mother, Nancy, like a maple tree in syrup season.
As a strapping young man (now played by Benjamin Walker), he's an ideal recruit into the ages-old clandestine battle against vampirism. Abe is mentored in the lore of vamp-destruction by a renegade neck-biter (Dominic Cooper) sworn to end his bloodline's evil ways. Swinging his silver-headed ax like a samurai warrior, he chops his way to victory in showers of vampire blood.
There's an inspired, bats-in-the-belfry looniness to linking Confederate slave owners with literal bloodsucking. The ferociously smart premise propelled screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith's history-twisting source novel to the top of the bestseller lists in 2010.
Russian director Timur Bekmambetov attacks the material tooth and nail. His gearbox has two speeds, neutral and overdrive. He pulls off a couple of over-the-top action scenes; there's zany brilliance in a high-energy battle between Abe and a fangster in a thunderous horse stampede. The horror aspects of the film evade him; his fright effects are more disgusting than scary. There are some giggles for history majors here, introducing Lincoln's close friend (some would say intimate friend) Joshua Speed into the tale, and making his political rival Stephen Douglas into Mary Todd's possessive boyfriend. But where "Inglourious Basterds" recombobulated World War II history into wild pop fantasy, Bekmambetov lacks the wit to make this work as thinking person's trash.
There's a void at the movie's center. Abe just isn't interesting. We get none of his humor, none of his pragmatic complexity, and Walker is better at looking grave than really acting. By the time he faces off against the head of the South's undead legions (a smug, dissipated Rufus Sewell) you yearn for the spunky originality of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Amid all the artery-spurting gore, one wonders if even the undead can be bored to extinction.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186