The problem with coming up with the title first and the story later is that sometimes you don't get around to coming up with the story. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" seems to be an example of this, promising so much campy-awesome historical-fiction insanity with that title but delivering a benignly dumb product that's disappointingly restrained.
Maybe the novel is different, although its author, Seth Grahame-Smith, wrote the screenplay too. Oh, and he's also credited for last month's miserable "Dark Shadows." He evidently has a passion for vampires that outpaces his ability to write about them.
In this version of American history, young Abraham Lincoln (played as a child by Lux Haney-Jardine) is devastated by the death of his mother at the fangs of a vampire named Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), who by day is merely a ruthless local merchant. He's pretty racist, too, but there was a lot of that in those days.
There was apparently a lot of vampirism as well. Abe grows up seeking vengeance against the evil Barts, and as an adult (now played by Benjamin Walker) meets a drunk, carousing vampire tracker named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who fills him in on just how prevalent they are. Henry even has photographs of some of the more prominent bloodsuckers, which he displays via carousel slide projector in much the same way that CIA officials fill their agents in on the facts of their cases. Of course, we all know that vampires can't be photographed, and especially not in 1837, but whatever. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is set in a fictional version of history where Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, and where advancements in photography were made much faster.
They have sunglasses and sunscreen, too. And these things allow vampires to walk around in the daylight. But again, whatever. I SAID WHATEVER!
Abe moves to Springfield, Ill., to study law, and to bump off the vampires on Henry's kill list. He meets a lovely young lady named Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), gets a job working in a shop owned by Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), debates Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) on the merits of slavery, and I guess becomes president at some point. (The movie kind of glosses over it.) Through it all, Abe and Henry strive to wipe out the vampire population, which is led by a creeper named Adam (Rufus Sewell) and is making alliances with certain Confederate folks.
There are two ways to tell a tongue-in-cheek revisionist-history story like this, the clever way and the dumb way. The clever way involves adding fictional details that coincide with -- and do not contradict -- the actual facts of history. The dumb way involves a half-hearted attempt at that, combined with a lot of flaccid references to famous things. Guess which route we're taking here.
This is a step down for Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, whose "Night Watch," "Day Watch," and "Wanted" (with Angelina Jolie) were exactly the kind of energetic preposterousness that "AL: VH" ought to have been. Sure, there's a battle scene in which a vampire throws a live horse at Abraham Lincoln. What the movie needs is MORE of that -- more crazy nonsense, more outrageous history-baiting, more "I emancipated that vampire's head from his body." (That's not in the movie. It should be, is what I'm saying.) Bekmambetov doesn't expect us to take the premise seriously, exactly. But he doesn't seem to want us to laugh at it, either. He seems caught in between, working both angles -- intense vampire flick and campy spoof -- at the same time. And as history teaches us, a house divided against itself cannot stand.