Thursday, April 21, 2011

Daybreakers: The Vampire Cure

Vampires seem to be a dime a dozen, these days, appearing everywhere as neophyte apprentices, seductive neighbor boys, thirsty roommates, and assorted background rabble. So I was unusually intrigued by Daybreakers, an austere movie of the vampire ilk, which gives an interesting twist to the steadfast genre.

For what Daybreakers does well is extend vampirism to its logical conclusion: vampires have fed so ravishly on the human population – turning their victims to vampires in the process – that there are hardly any humans left, and the vampire population is starving. The world as we know it has been replaced by a population of vampires – us, really – doppelgangers who inhabit our lives and have adjusted to working at night, shielding their windows, keeping their fangs in check, and ignoring the suffering of other starving vampires around them. In all other respects (or maybe I should say, in those respects), they are just like us. Or rather, too much like us, for in all their speeding subways and frenzied greed, it’s a stinging critique of modern society.

To make matters worse, vampires cannot drink vampire blood – to do so turns them into bat-like monstrous creatures – another interesting twist on the blood/disease metaphor of vampire lore. With other options running out, however, more such deformed creatures are haunting the suburban vampire neighborhoods, breaking into homes and running amuck, before the vampire Army shock-troops can come in and “eradicate” the problem.

Amongst all this despair of a dying society is a young intrepid scientist, Edward Dalton (played with end-of-world ennui by Ethan Hawke), who thinks he might have – naturally – a cure. Or rather, not so much a cure as a palliative, a substitute for human blood that will allow the vampire population to go on. Edward works – again, natch – for a “major vampire pharmaceutical company” which produces vamp taste treats like B negative, and treats its human subjects with about as much care as we treat our lab animals.

What happens is that Edward stumbles upon what looks like might be an actual cure; nevertheless, the forces of society around him and the company he works for still conspire to track him down, eradicate the cure, and preserve their profits. It’s great social critique stuff – the kind that college notebooks are doodled full of – and even though a spaced-out Willem Dafoe and too sincere Claudia Karvan as one of the last remaining humans galumph along with a deadened Hawke through the second act with comical b-movie sincerity, the cool blues and washed out Magritte landscapes of the vampire city are really well thought out, striking just the right note of modern despair.

The movie also delivers some really good splatter and an especially pleasing closing scenario of what might happen when an army full of vampires begins turning, one by one, back into humans. Those who want their vampire flicks to deliver some great gory climax won’t be disappointed.

As someone routinely unimpressed by the genre, then, I felt this move was worth singling out. B-movie horror has been done so much it could be one of the hardest movie genres to do originally any more. Adding a gloss of sly, social critique - and a few flaming vampires flying acrobatically through the air - is one way to freshen up that tired blood.

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