Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA, 2012)

Why this film to blog about?

Well, I only really want to make a simple point.

But before the point, a rant: while I have of late missed stuff that only shows on one screen and at only one time that I really would rather not have missed, the local multiplex showed this and it was on at a time I could go to and is not the other side of town. It is a pity that basic pragmatics dictate what we watch, but there we go.

Now, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means the best film I’ve seen recently – but it is not the worst either. I’ll save my mini-comments about the other movies for another time.

But otherwise down to business. What is the point I want to make about AL:VH?

At several moments in the film, toys morph into real figures, evil vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell) morphs into an animated version of the story about himself that he is telling, moving shots of maps turn into fly-overs over supposedly real battlefields, and more.

It is this kind of shot that I want to discuss – the kind of shot where the map morphs into the terrain, such that the map is no longer separate from the terrain, but on a continuum with it – inseparable.

But this just sounds like a classic ‘postmodern’ argument, right? That is, in the postmodern era we are no longer aware of what is real and what is not.

This is not to say that we believe a film like AL:VH to be a documentary of some sort. Only a fuckwit believes that.

But it is to say that we live in an era when we can doubt and not believe whatever we wish to – since everything can be disproved, or rather since no one really believes in proof at all these days.

Since nothing can be proven or disproved, people believe what they want (and people refuse to discuss matters with people who do not share their opinion – perhaps the single most damaging human trait one can have, a kind of solipsistic closed-mindedness – meaning that the closed-minded person does not discuss at all, does not learn, and shrouds themselves in a discourse about rights whereby they declare their right to be a moron).

I can’t promise to argue that AL:VH suggests anything more profound than this in the kinds of shots mentioned above and which feature prominently in the film’s running time.

Nonetheless, I want to consider them in some detail, for the context of the film is also interesting.

That is, AL:VH is no normal vampire movie. It is claiming that the 16th President of the United States of America was a vampire hunter.

Again, no one believes this to be true (no one I would call sane, anyway). But what this means is that the film engages directly with history, which is something of a rarety for the vampire movie (as far as I am aware, and even though some prominent vampire films are also period costume dramas).

However, it is in keeping with the fluid shots of the film, in which model morphs into reality, that AL:VH should falsify history as it does. Here is a film in which there is no need to respect history – because it is all a bit of a joke and falsifiable anyway. So why not blatantly falsify it? This is in keeping with the spirit of the times we are living in, after all…

Perhaps only a post-Soviet filmmaker like Bekmambetov could do this. This is a generalisation – and as such in itself false – but without a god to fall back on, with the official history desecrated, the only rule left to follow is that there are no rules – and Abe Lincoln can be an axe-wielding ruthless vampire killer. Former Soviets know this; Westerners are beginning to know it better and better…

In the film, the vamps are made to stand in for the American South and for the benefits of slavery, in that Adam and his cronies live on a huge plantation down south and are implied as being slave owners and slave eaters.

However, the film here kind of mixes its messages. Okay – so slavery is indeed all about the consumption of humans, and so it stands to reason that the filmmakers would align slaveholders with vampires. But vampires are also people who wear black, who cannot come out in the day (a myth about vampires debunked in this film, as is the notion that it is only a stake through the heart that will kill them; plain silver does it), and who only function at night.

To me, this sounds at least in part similar to something trendy philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, when he discusses an

old European fairy-tale motif of diligent dwarfs (usually controlled by an evil magician) who, during the night, while people are asleep, emerge from their hiding-place and accomplish their work (set the house in order, cook the meals), so that when, in the morning, people awaken, they find their work magically done.

(For the full text, read here.)

I hope this is sufficiently clear – but what I am suggesting is that while vampires obviously consume human flesh, their behaviour is also like that of the slave already. While vampires are not going to set your house in order, their very invisibility (famously they have no mirror image) means that vampires are like slaves, too, together with all of the racial inequality that slavery has helped to produce.

In short, then, the film seems to argue that slavery is the invisible evil – both in terms of slaves (which in the USA has a distinct overlap with the country’s black population) and slave drivers (here, vampires).

But let us go further…

In another text, Žižek argues that batshit novelist Ayn Rand had one profound insight (and no more): that when money ceases to be in circulation, humans will begin to trade in flesh, using other humans as currency.

The reason that I mention this is because while AL:VH is set in the 1830s and onwards, it of course has been made in the early 2010s. And what is happening in the early 2010s is an economic meltdown that may yet prove to be the biggest since 1929, which in turn played a significant role in the development of world events between 1939 and 1945.

In other words, the shit might yet hit the fan as a result of this global economic crisis. And one of the ways in which that might happen is because without money, humans will trade in other humans. And perhaps even a film like AL:VH can imply something meaningful, then, in terms of how slavery remains an issue even today – and it is not something that is relegated uniquely to the past.

(This is, by the way, an issue – slavery, not vampire movies – that I have written about at greater length here.)

In this way, the ‘postmodern’ stuff – whereby we do not know truth from falseness – perhaps suits this film. It speaks both of how the invisible issue of slavery, believed eradicated, is in fact still with us today, and perhaps in more insidious (virtual?) fashions.

And, perhaps more importantly, it speaks of how in an age in which slavery is denied as existing, but which is also an age in which no one knows what is true anymore, then indeed there is perhaps only one logical truth that humans can accept – and that is their own experience.

What I mean to say by this is that people only know truth through their own bodies. It is not something to be read in a book or seen in a film. It is something to be experienced – with even thinking being (something like a) physical experience, even if a thought has no material reality for itself (you cannot touch a thought, though a thought can perhaps touch you).

If our truth is what is inscribed upon us, in that it is what physically marks us, it is our physical existence – then perhaps we already live in an age that is ripe for slavery and violence. For, bereft of any other marker, and cognizant of the fact that others are only ‘mere’ bodies, we perhaps decide to screw other people over – to trade in/with their bodies – before we choose to live a social existence.

In effect: there is no god and there is no law (Lincoln, played by Benjamin Walker, is studying the law, but basically sacks it off because the only law that slaveholders/vampires understand is the contents of a can of silver-tinted whoop-ass – i.e. learning the lesson that slavery is bad not in an abstract sense but through their bodies/experiences).

Since there is no god and no law, what is my incentive to be and/or do good by/with/to others? I have none. And since I live in a time in which only my own experience counts – in which, in effect, I cannot or perhaps will not learn from others, including the media and books, because those others are not telling me ‘the truth’ but are instead trying to ‘control’ me (even to enslave me and my precious tiny mind, I can kid myself!), then I have no reason to believe anyone who claims to lay down laws or hear from god.

How ironic, though, that it is the absence of ‘slavery’ (I lead my own life and no one else gets in my way) leads, within the context of a world also governed by economics, to, precisely, literal, real, physical, violent and nasty slavery.

A further irony: vampires function in films as proof of God, in that they are condemned to walk the earth forever as a result of their evil ways. In effect, the human propensity to be a slave driver, to be nasty to other humans, cannot be held in check by God. Even with God, even with the law, we make other humans suffer.

(Indeed, without God, or those who seeks to become powerful by claiming to be His representatives on Earth, Western slavery might never have taken the form that ultimately it did.)

So what emerges from a film as cynical as AL:VH is this morality: only violence solves problems, even though violence is also – more problematically – also the source of our problems. Do we solve our problems by addressing the problems, or by addressing the causes of the problems? AL:VH‘s AL decides not to use the law, to use thought and thinking, to encourage humans to think themselves ethically into a moral existence, but instead to use an axe.

He does not do what, ahem, university lecturers and some filmmakers try to do – and that is to try to encourage people to become better than what/who they are. Instead, he takes it as read that humans are bad and so just gets badder to get rid of the problem.

Indeed, as much is revealed in the person of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who is Lincoln’s mentor and, lo, also a vampire. Sturgess is a ‘good’ vampire. I place ‘good’ in inverted commas, because while he helps Abe and does do some ass-kicking of his own, Sturgess nonetheless does kill people to live. Indeed, we and Lincoln see Sturgess kill a drunk. Lincoln is not so upright a human that he decides to do something about this (like dob Sturgess in), but instead takes mercy on him because of his lost girlfriend sob story – which he naïvely believes.

That Sturgess is a vampire but also ‘good’ functions not to suggest that not all vampires are bad; quite the opposite, it has a vampire tell us precisely that all vampires are bad and must be killed. In effect, Sturgess is the self-loathing Jew or black man who justifies the white man’s racism – thereby legitimating slavery, the Holocaust and other atrocities.

In some respects, AL:VH‘s seeming belief that we are simply our bodies (though we must remember that our bodies only exist in relation – with other bodies, with all that surrounds us), does not excuse AL:VH from the rather odd decision only to have one prominent black character, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) in a film not just about vampires, but also about emancipation from slavery.

For, if we do wear our truth on our person, then the absence of prominent black characters in the film suggests something like a denial of slavery (that truth remains invisible in the body of the film, a secret hidden in darkness and travelling the roads only at night, when the film’s blacks are harder for the audience to see anyway; that is, we can pretend they’re not there).

It suggests that slavery was created to provide the conditions for white men to establish themselves as heroes and villains – to destroy an ethical life whereby we think about how we relate to others, and to create a moral life in which we blindly follow moral rules by rote. I would suggest that, contrary to an ethical life, such a moral life takes no real account of human life. Instead, other humans – as blacks do in this film – function as an excuse for white humans to feel good about themselves.

Indeed, by making slave owners out to be vampires – i.e. precisely not human – the film places ‘over there’ (beyond the human) an issue that is really right here, which is not carried out by literal bloodsuckers, but which is put into motion by regular people like you and me. A human issue.

In order to defeat the vampire scourge, Lincoln commandeers all of America’s silver. How he manages to convince people that collecting silver is a legitimate war effort is not entirely known, but we do know this: Lincoln cannot really tell people that this is all about vampires, because they would just be too scared or not believe him. In other words, AL:VH suggests that people should just do as they’re told (Lincoln as tyrant) because they wouldn’t be able to handle the truth – the real truth being, of course, that there is no truth, there are no vampires, but that people need to believe in something in order to keep them in order and there’s money to be made from convincing them that this is so, so why no tax the shit out of silver, claim to send it down South in a big anti-vampire bomb – without letting on about the anti-vampire bit – and instead keep all of the silver for oneself, like any good corrupt politician would do. Lincoln’s memory takes a shoeing in this film!

People pool their silver in AL:VH – for vampires fear it as it reminds them of Judas betraying Christ. As if Christ could have become Christ without Judas and without the marking on his body of all of the hatred that mankind bears towards those who come peddling unwanted truths.

This pooling of resources might seem to point to the possibility of a common wealth: we can all just share everything and thus overcome our problems.

Except that sharing is a phantom, suggested to the people by Lincoln who, as mentioned, does not use the silver for the purposes suggested at all (killing vampires). Does he in fact run off with the silver? Either way, there is no sharing, as the presence of Sturgess in the White House at film’s end suggests. As Sturgess offers to make Lincoln immortal, and as Lincoln goes to the theatre to die (he will be shot by pro-vampire conspiracist John Wilkes Booth), we get the sense that the vampires are here and will never go away. That the desire to share is not genuine; it is the desire to give away one’s silver in order to feel slighted by one’s government. To attest to one’s own powerlessness. To feel disenfranchised and misunderstood. To feel as though one cannot trust anyone. To feel as though one only has one’s own body. To be a closed minded solipsist who reinforces the system of consumption and waste that AL:VH claims to be defeating.

Vampires believe in God, but they are condemned for their bad faith. To believe nothing and no one, to be a solipsist who only relies on their self, that is also to have bad faith. To have no faith in anyone else. Perhaps not even in one’s self. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter suggests that we are all vampires now.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Film reviews, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA, 2012)

  1. Penko says:

    I haven’t seen this one yet, young Brown. I were going to wait until I can rent it at the Blockbuster in Barnard’s Green. It’s very expensive going to the cinema these days with the price of popcorn and everything. Plus there’s all the wear and tear on underpants.

    I’m looking forward to this un though. I never knew that Alan Lincoln was a vampire. The Sheriff met him once you know, when he was young, but he didn’t look like a vampire as a boy apparently.

    • wjrcbrown says:

      Cheers, Penko! I understand entirely. I belief Keith Moore was also a close friend of Adam Lincoln when he was young. Indeed, I have a feeling that Don Moorleone was the inspiration for the guy who trains Lincoln in the film…

  2. Doc says:

    *yawn* seems like you took this movie very seriously.

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