Confederate Vampires: How Abraham Lincoln Fights for the 99 Percent
I really wanted to see this movie in the South. How would scenes of Abraham Lincoln killing Confederate vampires go over in the red state land of Dixie flags and Jesus lovers? Would they boo where we cheered?
After a weak $16 million dollar, it won’t last long but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will be a cult classic. From the bloody beheadings to the stilted acting, it is a big budget camp movie that lets us laugh at the absurd mash-up of history and genre. But its secret pleasure is the way it breaks political taboos. The film makes visible the essence of slavery and capitalism. Second, it portrays our most famous president as a revolutionary serial killer who gets his hands dirty for The Cause.
The dead have always haunted the living. Panicked whispers of ghouls thirsty for blood are part of global folklore. Nearly everyone everywhere has a version of it. Unique to the Leftist tradition of critique is the use of vampires not as an image of an individual spirit but as the spirit of a whole society. In the hands of progressives, vampires are a symbol of the repressed violence that has become normalized by ideology.
“Capital is dead labour which, vampire like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks,” Karl Marx wrote in his 1867 treatise Capital: Critique of a Political Economy. One hundred and twelve years later, Third World superstar Bob Marley swung his knotty dreads and sang his 1979 hit Babylon System. “Babylon system is a vampire,” he crooned, “Sucking the children day by day.” Two years ago, Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi wrote, “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is traditional progressive storytelling. It uses an axe-swinging superhero, Abe Lincoln, to retell the Left’s primary mythos – a parasitic few live off the misery of the people. It opens with lil’ Abe working on the dock when his friend Will, a black boy (later played by Anthony Mackie), is being beaten by a slave trader. Abe’s righteousness kicks in and screaming, he picks up an axe to defend his friend. Lincoln’s mother shields them both, saying, “Until everyone is free, we are all slaves.” Vampire slave trader Jack Barts (played by Marton Csokas) backs off, evilly licking his lips and later, creeps to the Lincoln home and bites the mother, killing her.
Abe matures into a revenge driven man and nearly kills Bart, but is overpowered by him and rescued at the last moment by Henry Sturges (a smooth Dominic Cooper). He trains Abe (now played by lanky Benjamin Walker) in the art of vampire hunting. Churning the silver-edged axe like a poi dancer, Lincoln learns to splinter whole trees in one mighty swing. Sturges teaches him that vampires secretly rule the South and slake their thirst on the necks of slaves.
It’s not a subtle film. Abe hacks off limbs in a shower of blood and slow motion fights as if he was trained by Morpheus from The Matrix. The film is a strange mash-up of American history, vampire lore, action genre’s John Woo dance like combat, interracial bromances like Lethal Weapon, and white savior movies such as A Time to Kill, Avatar and Glory. Finally, it adds the orphan’s revenge fantasy from Batman.
But what really pushed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter over the line is the repressed social violence it made visible and the solution for it. We live in a racially divided nation where police and economic violence is continuously focused on the black poor. Americans know even if only in a dim way that the nation was founded on slavery. Our experience of the present and the crude knowledge of the past create guilt and fear around the crisis of race. In psychoanalytic terms it is the “Return of the Repressed” defined in the classic text The Language of Psychoanalysis as “What has been repressed – though never abolished by repression – tends to reappear, and succeeds in so doing in a distorted fashion in the form of a compromise.”
This is why the American film industry returns and tries to repair the trauma of slavery by showing benevolent whites and spunky blacks taking on “the Man.” But American film makers rarely show the state of violence, the terror of KKK shooting at your house or the rape by your boss or the baking of flesh at a lynching. While watching the 2011 film The Help, MSNBC host, Prof. Melissa Harris-Perry tweeted during a scene, “First real moment. Violent arrest of black woman.”
That word, “real” is the key. The history that is repressed from our social narrative but whose effects, we still experience returns in the form of fictionalized horror or fantasy. It is the “real” not as ontological fact but as the reality that cannot be symbolized because it contradicts our ideology. In The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, cultural critic Slavoj Zizek said, “If something gets too traumatic, too violent even too filled with enjoyment it shatters the coordinates of our reality we have to fictionalize it.” And when we do, it is filtered through our fears. So the sense of being cheated by banks and corporations becomes translated into the razor teeth, gooey mouths of upper class vampires. In the film, Lincoln’s first kills are a pharmacist Confederate vampire and a vampire banker. Interesting choices.
The violence of slavery is compromised into the limb hacking fury of Lincoln, who takes collective revenge on our racism for the audience. It’s a white man freeing blacks so we don’t have to confront our fear of them freeing themselves.
In the documentary, Zizek said, “The first key to horror films is to imagine the same story but without the horror element, this gives us the background.” So if we subtract the vampire element, we are left with a portrait of Lincoln as a revenge driven, political radical assassinating the ruling class of a corrupt oligarchy. And this is where the movie crosses the second political taboo. It takes Lincoln, who we’ve been taught to revere as the redeemer of our nation and channels that into a cathartic explosion of violence. Blood splattering, Abe decapitates heads and in the back of my mind I hushed the unasked for thought, “I wish Obama would do that.” It makes political violence sexy.
It is why the film is flailing at the box office and why it will, like a vampire, come back to life as an underground cult classic. It crosses too many lines too fast but in doing so, it moves them and years from we won’t see those lines anymore. But in an odd reversal, one generation would have been able to see this film and “get it”.
Of course Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ends with the Civil War. Confederate Vampires are ravaging the Union troops, cutting men apart in a silent run. Lincoln orders that silver be used in bullets as it is the only metal that can kill them. Hauling the metal on a midnight train to Gettysburg, he defends the precious cargo against a platoon of vampires. At the climax he kills the original one, who spawned all others, named Adam (played with aristocratic arrogance by Rufus Sewell). Lincoln wraps his silver watch around his fist and punches through Adam’s chest. It is gory act of sentimental violence whose symbolic meaning is that those who profit from the systemic pain of mass enslavement can only be stopped by violence.
The generation who lived, fought and survived the Civil War would have agreed. As the last battles raged, Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address. “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,” he told the Washington audience, “And until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." Amen.