Revisionist History Continues with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

When I saw the trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I was intrigued. So many of our presidents have become heroes, were deified by their deaths, so the idea of pairing off some of our better ones with monsters to see what happens—well, that’s interesting. My young friend Valerie and I spent a subway ride home trying to match U.S. presidents with appropriate monsters. For some reason, we decided President Obama should go up against the Mummy. I like the idea of pairing Teddy Roosevelt with zombies—there would be a whole lot of shooting going on. And his daughter Alice liked to pack a pistol in her purse, so that could make for some great scenes. We’d need a night owl president to go up against werewolves, and who would we pair JFK with? A succubus, I guess.

After seeing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I’m no longer sure that this is a good idea. The movie started out well for me, but I think I was manufacturing my own horror. I got to the Park Slope Pavilion Theater this morning for a matinee, and I was the only person there and as jumpy as my cat Marlin, going off when the air-conditioning vents started blowing. It reminded me of when I went to the New Orleans wax museum all by myself. The tableaux there are amateurish and cheesy, but when you’re there all alone with these people-sized figures the terror is amplified. It’s something more about the situation than the entertainment. Unfortunately, two other people came into the shabby theater with its vinyl-covered seats and patched screen, or I think I would have enjoyed the movie better, imagining the creepy things that could happen in an empty theater.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is shot in the steampunk style that I’ve seen most recently in the Sherlock Holmes series, and while it’s lovely to look at, I think the style brings up more questions than it answers, such as, Where do all these people get the tinted John Lennon glasses during the pre-Civil War era? and Why’s this blonde lady running around in pants?

The story’s pretty flimsy and tries to do too much, hemmed in by history or is it the other way around? This is a bastardized version of the Abraham Lincoln story that attempts to hit the major points while also explaining the origin of vampires in the United States. This particular story predates the one that Bram Stoker came up with, and vampire Count Dracula would have been quite surprised by what he sailed into.

With everything that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter tries to cram in, the story feels rushed and oddly disjointed. Not a lot of time is spent on character development. The audience is quickly introduced to the bad guy, who resembles the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland but is shown to be undead. As a child, Lincoln loses his mother to this creature and a vendetta is born. Unfortunately, by the time Lincoln matures and is able to do something about this, he appears to have lost his fire. He is introduced to a twitchy mentor, Henry Sturges, who decides to train Abraham Lincoln to be a vampire hunter and killer. What follows is the most half-assed Rocky training sequence that I’ve ever seen. After about a minute with a little pep talk, Abraham Lincoln can suddenly twirl an ax like a baton, which he does constantly throughout the rest of the movie. This version of Abraham Lincoln is too milquetoast to pull it off, though.

That’s what kills me. The moviemakers have taken this iconic image—the black stovepipe hat, greatcoat, and beard combined with oratorical power—and totally blown it. Abraham Lincoln comes off as a patsy for members of vampiric society, and once this is established there is no substance to back up the actual important events of his life. The fight scenes where he contorts his body in Matrix-like gymnastics while twirling his ax handle just look buffoonish, and what should have been a great climactic moment—when Abraham Lincoln grows his whiskers and becomes president of the United States—falls flat.

This movie is all style and no story. There are some moments that could have really been opened up and made memorable—a feeding ball for vampires, an army of undead fighting Union soldiers, the presidential election, for God’s sake. But these events are glossed over, speeded through with a few montages, and instead the movie focuses in loving detail on chase sequences. I felt like I was on a train to nowhere.

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

When my friend Susan told me that Guillermo del Toro was doing a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I was taken by surprise.

What would he be reading? part of a book collaboration on film? No. It turns out that between screenwriting and directing, del Toro has taken time out to plan and write the first book of a vampire trilogy with writer Chuck Hogan (of the very excellent Prince of Thieves).

I knew I wanted to see this and got to the bookstore an hour before the event was to take place. The seating was already half taken up–mostly by men, I noticed–but I was able to find a decent spot halfway up to the reading area. As the time grew closer, the seats were all filled and those who went to the bathroom five minutes before the event lost their seats. The staff selected only females out of the sizable crowd standing in back to plug up the holes; this is nothing I’ve ever seen before at readings. Forced diversity?

I almost never buy a hardcover book anymore since space is at a premium in my apartment and I live close to some of the world’s greatest libraries. When del Toro said, though, that The Strain copies with the slashes in their book jackets were a limited run, I did geek out and buy one.

It is a beautifully designed book. Beneath the book jacket is a blurry blood-tinged photo of Grand Central Terminal, what I’ve always thought of as the gateway to New York’s subway system, which plays a big part in The Strain.

The Strain borrows some from the plot and characters of that vampire classic Dracula. The most successful refurbishing, I think, is the arrival of the vampire from the Old World to America. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an empty ship, the Demeter, crashes into the coastline of England; it has been mysteriously abandoned, but when the ship’s log is studied, officials discover that the crew was picked off one by one and sometimes in twos. In The Strain, a Boeing 777 cruises into JFK and then all communication stops. When an emergency response team finally boards the aircraft, they find rows and rows of dead passengers. Miraculously, four survive, but one of them, a lawyer, gets them sprung from quarantine. Later, the dead passengers reanimate, as well, and quickly get to work turning the New York population into vampires, with stingers beneath their tongues instead of fangs. These vampires are more akin to zombies, only looking to add to their group of the undead. They are not as finicky as the vampires I’ve grown up with and the turning procedure is as easy as sneezing on somebody.

The Strain moved quickly for me. I found it a gripping read until I got to the final showdown in the subway tunnels. In a Paris Review interview with Robert Gottlieb on the art of editing, writer Charles McGrath says, “There was a certain type of writing we used to laugh about a lot. We called it ‘cry of the loon’ writing–that kind of overblown nature prose.” In The Strain, I found evidence of what might be the “cry of the sewer rat.” Suddenly there was obsessive detail upon detail about the bowels of the New York City subway system, slowing down what had been a fine, clipping pace to a dead stop.

I can forgive it, however, when given such gems as these: “Matt’s throat rippled and bucked, and Eph attacked it, stabbing, knifeknifeknifeknifeknife.” That is a fine use of italics and stands as my favorite sentence of the book.