Reviews of the would-be summer blockbuster “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” have been as chilly as a vampire’s embrace. While most criticisms focus on the film’s humorless, disjointed script, its over-the-top computer-generated effects, its patchy production values, and its fetishized carnage, there has been little discussion of the film’s narrative substance.
At first glance, the film’s central premise – that Honest Abe was actually our nation’s foremost slayer of the undead – appears merely silly, harmless, maybe even clever. Certainly Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel and script weave fact and fantasy together in inventive and entertaining ways. But on closer inspection, the film’s themes are more deeply disturbing than its slow-mo decapitations and blood-soaked action sequences.
At its heart, the film wishes away responsibility for some of America’s most tragic and horrific chapters – the frontier slaughter of Native Americans, the abomination of slavery, the anguished violence of the Civil War. In the alternative reality created by the filmmakers, no one is to blame for these horrors – at least no human is to blame – because vampires actually orchestrated all of these bloody episodes and more.
In this imaginative reworking of history, the Civil War isn’t about abolishing slavery or preserving the union or even states’ rights. Rather, it is Lincoln’s heroic effort to prevent slave-trading vampires from turning America into an empire of the undead. And when the 16th president signs the Emancipation Proclamation, it is not so much to set an enslaved people free as it is to deprive the Confederate vampire soldiers of their sustenance, the blood of their captives. Slavery is only a secondary injustice here, a convenient, if unfortunate, means to the vampires’ more sinister ends.
Let me say that I realize that “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a work of fantastical fiction, and we aren’t meant to take it literally. Yet fiction is so powerful precisely because it taps into our deepest desires and fears. So what does it say about us, as an audience, as a nation, that we have an appetite for films that deny both the origins of slavery and its enduring legacy? What does it say when our popular culture trivializes the brutal trade in human flesh? (“We’re all slaves to something,” as Lincoln’s vampire nemesis reminds us.)
What does it say about society that Hollywood transforms one of the most eloquent statesmen in our nation’s history into a brawny, axe-wielding action hero with kung fu moves to rival Bruce Lee’s? And what does it say that such a film has grossed more than $36.8 million?
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” may not have been designed to teach us much about history, but it reveals uncomfortable truths about the present state of our nation – its smack-down politics, its embrace of bellicosity, its impatience with measured argument, and its unwillingness to tackle issues too complex to be solved by a silver bullet.