Okay, first a confession: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter didn’t suck. I just wanted to nail the vampire pun. The film is fine – the visuals are a lot of fun, the action sequences are fairly inventive and the vampires are actually vampires – mostly.
How much can you really expect from a film called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter?
I know, I know. But here’s the thing. Even though it was good enough for what it was, it could have been a lot more. Here’s how:
1. Make the mythology more overt
The reason the film works at all despite its snort-inducing title is because it nails the whole point of monster movies. As Scott Poole observes in his excellent book Monsters in America,
Master narratives are, by definition, lies and untruths. This is why we need to study monsters. They are the things hiding in history’s dark places, the silences that scream if you listen closely enough.
America certainly has a Master Narrative. Our Declaration of Independence claims that we
Hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Certainly this is a wonderful vision, a wonderful calling for our country to pursue. But when we tell ourselves that this is what we already are, we’re lying.
At no point in the American story have all people been equal and equally free.
Slavery was a glaring stain on the purity of the American Master Narrative. Thus, as Poole points out – the institution of slavery is a wonderful place for monsters to hide.
So what kind of monster, like a slave owner, thinks itself superior to other humans, lives off their blood? Vampires!
The Vampire is the monstrous, mythological embodiment of slavery. So the Slavery-ender becomes the Vampire Hunter.
Enter Abraham Lincoln. Though the Civil War began as most wars do – over resources and power, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he transformed the nature of the war.
In freeing the slaves, Lincoln turned the Civil War into a moral war, and thus a battle for the American soul.
It makes sense, then, for Lincoln’s quest to End Slavery (itself heavily mythologized in the film) to parallel a quest to eliminate vampirism from American soil. The vampires of the film are a vast empire, essentially propping up the South. They seem innumerable, invincible. Yet they must succumb to the inexorable tides of history, bound up in the tall, wiry frame of Lincoln himself.
Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t do very much with the deeper thematic elements. We get a few lines here and there – memorably that this war is to determine
If this will be a nation of men or of monsters!
But the really good, fun and strong thematic connections that make the book so excellent are largely missing from the film, subsumed in the action sequences.
Speaking of which…
2. Focus on characters over story
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a biopic/monster-movie mashup. Unfortunately, it leans too heavily on the monster-movie side while neglecting the biopic, to its detriment.
We know Honest Abe Lincoln. We know he eventually marries Mary Todd. We know one of his sons dies young. We know Abe’s a log-cabin-born lawyer who becomes president. We know he frees the slaves.
But if we immerse ourselves in the film, get lost in the spectacle of it all, it’s because we care about these characters.
Why are Abe and Will Johnson best friends? No idea. The film just tells us – literally in a line of dialogue from Lincoln. Why does Mary Todd, who’s way out of his league, fall in love with him? Not totally sure. We see like 1 1/2 dates and an awkward dance. How hard did he have to work to become president? And how, especially in this film, did his war with the vampires help or hinder him?
We don’t know, because the film is intent on getting us from one intense action sequence to the next. The end result is a visually exciting but emotionally empty film. I don’t care much about these characters, so I’m not invested in what’s happening.
Especially in a film whose ending I already know (spoiler alert: the North wins!), compelling, believable characters are vital.
Again, that’s not to say the film’s all bad. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch – especially if you can catch a cheap(er) matinee. The actors all do well enough that they don’t distract from the wild ride you’re on. And lots and lots of vampires are hunted and killed.
I just wish it’d been as epic as it could’ve been!