‘Daybreakers’: Feeling the bite

January 4, 2010

As overworked as the whole vampire genre is, it’s obviously not played out, though I couldn’t tell you why.

So “Daybreakers,” which opens Friday (1/8/10), comes as a welcome treat, a speculative sci-fi film disguised as a horror story, or perhaps a blend of the two. While the vampires are the heroes, they’re also the villains. But, since “Twilight” and “True Blood,” those lines have been pretty much obliterated anyway.

In fact, this didn’t even have to be vampires. As the Spierig brothers’ script has it, the plague that’s wracked the world could be anything that produces a kind of living death. It just happens that vampirism is easy to explain, quick to register with viewers and full of rules the audience already knows.

It’s a decade in the future and, as seems to happen regularly in the movies, a plague has swept the planet. As in “Zombieland,” “28 Days Later” and several other films, almost everyone has been turned into some sort of living dead – in this case, into vampires.

The twist is that, even as they’ve come to dominate the planet, the vampires have maintained their human identities. Undead life has changed business hours from day to night – but otherwise, the corporate sphere still controls the world; government and commerce function as before, except with that diurnal/nocturnal flip-flop.

But a crisis looms: The highly organized vampire community has, excuse the pun, bled the world nearly dry. The supply of humans is dwindling rapidly, even at the corporation, Bromley Marks, where hematologist Edward (Ethan Hawke) works. The comatose humans from whom the corporation siphons its blood are dying and the working stock isn’t what it once was.

The effects of the blood shortage already are being felt. Vampires who don’t get enough human blood begin to devolve, turning feral and attacking other vampires – even biting themselves to drink their own blood. But that causes the vampire equivalent of mad cow disease; in this case, it’s a mania accompanied by increasing violence.

Edward is hard at work on a synthetic blood substitute, which his boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), is pressuring him to perfect. So far, however, the formula causes test subjects to experience a spike in body temperature, shortly before they explode.

The surviving humans, who are hunted by the vampire military (which are outfitted with sun-proof suits so they can operate during the day), have a resistance movement all their own. Edward is himself a reluctant vampire, unwilling to drink human blood except in a pinch. When he has a run-in with the human resistance – which tells him they might have a cure for the vampire plague – he finds himself drawn into a plan that threatens the corporate hegemony of the vampire world.

The Spierig brothers, who wrote and directed, aren’t afraid to tweak a smart story with horror-movie tropes. Most of those involve the sudden attacks by feral vampires, who are vicious and unpredictable. But the filmmakers also understand the value of simple tension and know how to create suspense and foreboding, with something as basic as a burglar-alarm system calmly announcing, “Rear door is ajar.”

To its advantage, “Daybreakers” isn’t only a vampire movie. While it has elements of horror, it has bigger fish to fry than momentary shocks or gross-out blood baths (though it does have plenty of those).

Rather, “Daybreakers” is a business-horror story, a tale of greed and market share – even as the world collapses around the grasping company. You don’t have to look far – corporate global-warming deniers, anyone? – to find a corollary in contemporary reality.

Hawke has the right demeanor for this brainy bloodsucker, playing a vampire in spite of himself, a scientist with too pure a vision for his bottom-line-focused boss. He has nice chemistry with Australian actress Claudia Karvan, as a feisty human rebel. Willem Dafoe chews the scenery happily as he plays around with a Southern accent, as a crucial figure who calls himself Elvis. Neill brings a menacingly vulpine quality (I know – that means wolfish foxlike, though he’s playing a vampire) to the big boss with profits on the brain.

“Daybreakers” is a smarter-than-average vampire movie that casts a wider net than the world of the undead. Too smart for its own good? We’ll see.

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