Directed by: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig (Undead)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Claudia Karvan, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Michael Dorman
The Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers probably looks a little better than it actually is, if only by virtue of its context. Any reasonably serious attempt at a vampire yarn that falls in between The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) and the threat of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010) is bound to get some slack—but even without this, Daybreakers would be a good genre entry. It’s also a pretty ambitious movie that’s occasionally capable of fulfilling those ambitions. When it doesn’t, the attempt is still noteworthy and the results are at least entertaining—assuming you’re a fan of the genre.
The story is set in 2019, when most of the world is inhabited by vampires—a change to which humanity seems to have adapted fairly well. There is, however, one rather notable downside, since the food supply has all but run out. What few humans the vampires have are traded like commodities, kept alive and systematically drained of their blood, while the giant corporation in charge of this searches for a blood substitute. Their hopes are mostly pinned on Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a scientist with moral qualms about the whole business of vampires, even though he happens to be one himself. Unfortunately, his efforts have not only been less than successful, but spectacularly splattery in their failure.
Things change when he helps some humans escape from some hunters. Realizing who he is, the humans recruit him to their cause: a cure for vampirism, which is built around Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe), a former vampire who, through a process no one quite understands, has been returned to human form. The humans want Dalton to discover what exactly happened to Cormac and figure out a way to repeat it. Not surprisingly, one thing Dalton quickly learns is that there’s less demand for a cure than one might suppose—especially where his boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), is concerned.
There’s nothing all that revolutionary in any of the plotting (which owes something to Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend), and the film ultimately backs itself into a corner from which it can only extricate itself by turning to utterly predictable dramatics. Thankfully, even when it becomes predictable, Daybreakers is still enjoyable. What’s most interesting about the film lies in its overall tone. There’s a bit of early David Cronenberg here—it’s almost what you might get if Cronenberg, in his The Brood (1979) period, had made Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) with vampires. That’s neither as flippant as it sounds, nor is it wide of the mark.
The film isn’t afraid to go for the gore, but it’s rarely jokey about it. In fact, the vampire “death march” scene—where blood-deprived vampires, who are mutating into freakish bat creatures, are dragged into the sunlight—is surprisingly grim. A lot of this feeling is the result of Christopher Gordon’s unusual—and often dirge-like—musical score, which tends to be more interested in mood than in goosing the action. The obvious parallels between a blood-addicted society and an oil-addicted one—not to mention the implication that a pharmaceutical company might be much more interested in keeping a profitable disease going rather than finding a cure and thereby stopping the money flow—gives the film more weight than most of its type.
Daybreakers is far from perfect. As I’ve already noted, it ultimately loses its footing and turns into cheesy horror, but it’s never less than high-quality cheese. That alone would be worth something. But the fact that it’s a horror film that takes itself seriously—and tries to be more than a rote genre entry and a quick cash-in—makes it worth a closer look. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and brief nudity.