The title sells itself, doesn't it? With just four words, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" promises gonzo thrills and postmodern dissonance, refashioning our 16th president into a hipster action figure: the beard, the hat, the bloodied ax. Surely someone, somewhere, already has the tattoo.
But "Abraham Lincoln" has a different idea: It wants to be taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the film seems to consider itself a legitimate biopic, as somber as "J. Edgar" and as rueful as "The Iron Lady" -- and that's despite the presence of gurgling Confederates in pancake makeup. It's a baffling approach to an audaciously silly concept, and the result is not just a letdown but an absolute disaster.
The straight-faced treatment sucks the fun out of this material and leaves only the pulp. The notion of Lincoln (a likable Benjamin Walker) slaughtering vampires to avenge his mother's death feels stale from the start, and there's nothing fresh about characters like good-guy vampire Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) and coven leader Adam (Rufus Sewell). Lincoln's friend Will (Anthony Mackie) represents some vague connection between slavery and vampirism -- an intriguing idea -- but the film lacks the wit to illuminate it. As skulls are split and guts spilled, first lady Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) remains outside the fray, growing quietly gray near her husband.
The incoherent script (adapted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his novel) is perfectly matched by the flailing direction of Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted"), who lingers on dull stuff like marital bickering and rushes through the action sequences in a jumble of mismatched styles (slow-mo, fast-mo, parchment-hued authenticity). "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" could have been a lowbrow treat, or at least a campy hoot. Instead, it's a failure so complete that it may indeed make history.
PLOT In which our 16th president fights a different kind of civil war
RATING (violence, gore)
PLAYING AT Area theaters, some in 3-D
BOTTOM LINE Not the gonzo mashup it should have been, but a humorless, self-important slog that seems to think its dopey premise is true.