Competent vampire movie a surprise
Daybreakers shows signs of life, intelligence

Steven Nalley

I can understand, at this point, why moviegoers who are weary of the undying vampire trend would be skeptical about “Daybreakers.”

Yes, everyone is cashing in, and yes, people are buying. Certainly, vampires have always been a popular subject in fiction, but I don’t think I’ve ever known so many of them to be labeled “New York Times Best-Sellers,” crowding the same shelf space as Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series.

“Daybreakers” is not another cash-in.

Granted, it’s not an instant classic either, although I think it could have been if writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierbig had put their script through a few more revisions and taken better advantage of their premise. That’s okay. It’s still a breath of fresh air, and that counts for a lot. Especially in this genre. Especially in January.

“Daybreakers” is set in a 2019 where vampirism has spread across the globe like a virus, normal humans are nearly extinct and the vampires are therefore running low on food. Ethan Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a hematologist working to create a blood substitute before his company’s supplies of the real thing run out, leaving the populace to degenerate into feral bat-people.

Edward then meets two humans, played by Claudia Karvan and Willem Dafoe, who have another plan for saving mankind. In helping the humans, however, Edward becomes the target of vampires everywhere, including the blood mogul he once worked for (Sam Neill). If you hate the “Twilight” vampires who fight their tastes for human blood and sparkle in the sunlight, then you only need to know two things about this movie: when these vampires get hit by UV rays, they burn, and when they get a wooden stake through their heart, they burn and then explode in a shower of ashes and blood. If “Twilight” infuses the vampire mythos with estrogen, playing up its romance and seduction, then “Daybreakers” infuses it with testosterone, playing up its brutality and power. Of course, that’s neither unique nor difficult — a look at the “Blade” series, the “Underworld” series and “Van Helsing” will demonstrate that much.

The job these actors do is a cut above such fare, but some actors set a pace that the rest don’t follow. Hawke and Karvan often come across flat, and Dafoe, who should by all rights steal this show, is underutilized. Instead, that honor goes to Michael Dorman and his shell-shocked, saddening portrayal of Edward’s brother.

What really separates “Daybreakers” from the cash-ins is its brain. The film’s blood shortage is one of the few allegories for America’s dependence on foreign oil that doesn’t always smash viewers over the head and does get to the heart of the problem and its attendant issues. The Spierigs address not only the military imperialism used to maintain supplies, but also the class and security issues that arise when only the rich can afford something everyone needs.

On top of the allegory, the film is packed with irony that comes in both bitter and delicious flavors. The latter includes one of the most satisfying demises a vampire villain has ever suffered, and a devastating example of the former follows on its heels.

But, the Spierigs don’t always handle shifts in tone so well. In fact, tone is the biggest problem with “Daybreakers,” and it often seems the Spierigs didn’t know what kind of horror movie they wanted to make.

In an otherwise serious take on sci-fi horror, it’s more than a little jarring when the best military propaganda the Spierigs could come up with is Uncle Sam as a vampire, or when most of the surviving humans speak with country accents and Willem Dafoe’s character goes by the nickname of “Elvis.”

Further, the Spierigs can’t quite decide how closely to adhere to vampire stereotypes. If they went as far as to make their vampire soldiers have no reflections in mirrors, then why can’t they also spy on the humans as bats, overwhelm them with super-strength, and use other superpowers that would make them frighteningly competent?

As much thought as the Spierigs put into “Daybreakers,” I kept having ideas like this that made me want to see them go even farther. A premise this good just fires the imagination that way, and it makes me want to see what the Spierigs could do with a sequel.

“Daybreakers” feels incomplete, but that can’t take away the successes the film already has with its premise. Intelligence is a rarity in today’s vampire trend, (and more broadly, today’s horror genre as a whole), and it makes the film something vampire fans everywhere should see and appreciate.

Bottom Line: “Daybreakers” is a fresh take on the vampire trend and not the cash-in that jaded moviegoers fear. The only issues holding it back from classic status are its mismanaged tone, its inconsistent acting, and several missed opportunities to capitalize on the premise’s strength.

3 out of 4

MPAA Rating: R, for strong bloody violence, language and brief nudity