Movie of the week: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

We are all still hanging on for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the United States’s greatest president in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming Lincoln; we’re waiting to see how he’s going to do the walk, how he’s going to play the transition from smooth-cheeked youth to granite-faced adult and, perhaps most of all, what incredible voice he’s going to come up with.

Yet I have a strong feeling that in all these things Day-Lewis and Spielberg might have been upstaged by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a cheerfully subversive post-steampunk fantasy starring Benjamin Walker, directed by Timur Bekmambetov (who made Night Watch and Day Watch) and adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his own graphic novel. It’s a joke that some will find in sacrilegious bad taste. For me, the self-aware craziness is the whole point.

This is about that side of Lincoln’s life neglected by the historians: his passionate vocation as a vampire hunter. Lincoln’s haggard look is now explained. His whole life he was pulling a double shift. By day, a political idealist. By night, a slayer of the undead. And why? Revenge. One of these murky red-eyed creatures, a hateful figure called Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) killed his mother, and now, with the help of a mysterious figure called Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), Abe has been trained in the samurai discipline of vampire hunting.

And it turns out the entirety of the American South, the confederacy itself, is a colossal parasitic conspiracy of vampires who have come to the US from a sinister place called “Europe”; they now feed off the blood of the slaves, and indeed the material resources of the United States. Lincoln’s personal anti-vampire mission will become a civil war for the US’s  soul.

The whole thing is so bizarre that it’s tempting to imagine a franchise: Warren G Harding: Vampire Hunter, Jimmy Carter: Vampire Hunter, perhaps even a revisionist Richard M Nixon: Vampire Hunter. Lincoln’s own Republican affiliation is not mentioned here.

When young Lincoln, serving behind the counter in a Capraesque neighbourhood store, encounters an anti-abolitionist politician, he is contemptuous of the man’s supercilious and evasive remark that the slavery issue is “complicated”. Tellingly, it is the chief vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell) who tries to reinforce this line of thinking with a sneering declaration that we are all slaves in one way or another, and that he has himself seen Africans sell other Africans into slavery. It is extraordinary how often that fatuous and insidious line of argument is deployed in real life, incidentally — and interesting to see it attributed to a vampire here. Finally, with the cares of state upon him, and his small son playing underneath his desk (a cheeky allusion to the famous Kennedy photograph), Lincoln must confront his destiny.

Bekmambetov directs with gusto, and the forthright absurdity of the story, combined with its weirdly heartfelt self-belief, is winning. Unfortunately, it loses ground when it comes to the war itself. But only the very solemn could object to this bizarre adventure dreamt up for the 16th president. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Peter Bradshaw
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