Around the turn of the last century, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was hard at work turning the vampire into a staple of horror fiction. The not-so-fictional count of Transylvania was cunning, vicious, bestial, and of Slavic origin — all things that terrified and titillated the delicate sensibilities of Victorian England. Further, there’s an element of sexuality in Dracula’s interactions with Lucy and Mina (and the Count’s wives’ with Jonathan Harker) that serves as a thin veneer for some very predatory, very BDSM urges. This seems largely what Francis Ford Coppola was trying to tell us with his 1992 rendition of the original tale, which strips that veneer away to reveal a bunch of bloodsuckers who copulate whenever (and with whomever) possible.
So vampires, and specifically vampire films, are definitely about sucking of one kind or another. But they’re also definitely about blood. Lots and lots of blood. Consider, for example, the old Hammer Dracula flicks (featuring the eternally villainous Christopher Lee), in which even the slightest laceration often spurted red fountains of epic proportions. The only exception, of course, was when Dracula was biting somebody — can’t have blood spraying everywhere and staining his perfectly starched collar. In any case, motion picture tradition clearly tells us vampires are supposed to be wicked, animalistic, and horny as hell, and the hemoglobin needs to be positively dripping from the ceilings wherever they may roam.
Well, with three of those four criteria, Daybreakers squarely punctures the jugular (that’s the first and last pithy vampire pun, I promise; more on the lacking fourth criterion later). Michael and Peter Spierig waste no time showing us they can blow up heads and coat the walls with velocities and quantities that would turn Zack Snyder red with envy. Perhaps the best scene in the film features all three of four, in which the protagonist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) and his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) are at home when a burglar calls. But this prowler is looking for blood, not bling. He’s a “subsider,” this flick’s name for vampires who haven’t been drinking lately and have become hideous, bestial man-bat creatures who’ll gladly drink even another vampire’s blood for nourishment, which only worsens their condition. The scene is quite intense and quite gory, possibly the only occasion in the movie when the graphic violence feels justified. The subsider is truly disturbing, being only one of two such movie monsters in recent memory (the other being the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth).
But alas, that scene is rather early in the film’s 1:38 running time, and it can’t carry the whole burden by itself. The premise of vampires as growing majority rather than hunted minority is unique, but it doesn’t get developed much beyond that (except to hear lots of reporters and pasty-faced citizens say: “We’re running out of blood! Panic in the streets!!”). The characters are painfully two-dimensional, even with considerable talents Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill on the job. Even Ethan Hawke, who has always impressed me, seems more weary of his lines than depressed at being unable to save vamp-humanity from starvation. The film is also mostly devoid of the barely-concealed sexual overtones mentioned earlier, which I think are usually the more thought-provoking elements of vampires flicks. There’s one scene that sort of skews in that direction, but it plays out more as a brief, bizarre arranged marriage (“It’s for your own good, dear”) than anything else.
When the credits roll, we’re drowning in blood and gasping for some breath of reason behind all the bodily explosions — some thoughtful themes must surely be lurking somewhere in this shiny, gothic near-future. But the concept is wasted and the fleeting attempts at social commentary vanish as quickly as the vampires when exposed to direct sunlight. If only there had been a more complex relationship between vampires and humans (beyond predator-and-prey), we might have perceived at least some kind of elementary metaphor for exploitation of minorities by a privileged class or something. If you’re looking for a recent sci-fi that lives up to the loftier aspirations of its genre, find yourself a copy of District 9, Avatar, or Watchmen. Daybreakers turns out to be nothing more than a worthy successor to those old Hammer Dracula flicks — gallons of blood and not much meat.
2 stars of 5.